Tim Wise: A White Man Speaking Black Truths

Tim Wise, thank you for first, pulling your head out of your ass, and then assisting others in doing so.

The e-mail and internet culture is amazing. Although I often receive the same tired joke on different days or the latest urban legend a few times in a week, rarely if ever do I receive the same post from several different sources on the same day. That all changed on Friday, March 16 when I received the same article from five different friends. And it continues to circulate among my African-American friends and other communities of color; over the weekend my 60-year-old stepmother from Pfleugerville, Texas (someone who has only used the internet and e-mail for one year) sent it to me again.

The article, written by Tim Wise and called "School Shootings and White Denial," was originally published on AlterNet.org. In the wake of Santee High's recent shooting, it argued that white Americans should not ignore the dysfunction and violence in their own communities. What those who sent it to me didn't realize is that I had read the article even before receiving the internet buzz, since my employer, the SPIN Project, shares an office and a parent organization with AlterNet.

Though Tim Wise is a white man, the piece was redistributed largely by people of color. Our reactions to it were universal: we couldn't believe that a white man was writing something that most of us had been quietly thinking and surreptitiously discussing for years. We questioned if Mr. Wise was in fact white or even a real person. Perhaps this was some sort of internet hoax, or maybe a person of color had written it anonymously, pretending to be white? After all, in this digital age anyone with access to an email address or a chat room can pretend to be someone they are not.

We were also shocked that the article was published. We believed that if someone of color said what Wise said he would be soundly criticized and accused of playing the race card in some fashion.

Of course what Mr. Wise did was in fact startling, for in my and the collective experiences of my friends, white people don't talk about race -- and when they do, they certainly don't self-critique.

Wise has received more than 5,300 e-mails in response to his article. Half of those responding self-identified as people of color. Of those, 95 percent were overwhelming positive, thanking Wise for telling the truth, even if some questioned the authenticity of his whiteness (so many, in fact, that Wise has an automated email response with a link to his photo). About one quarter of the email correspondence came from folks who self-identified as white. And 25 percent of the folks failed to self-identify racially, although from the tone and tenor, Wise believes most in this group to be white. Overall, most of the email was positive.

This flood of responses somewhat perplexed Wise, since he has written numerous articles on the same subject in the past. However, none of the previous articles had such an immediate news hook, and certainly none generated the buzz that this piece received. The LA Times wrote an article about the buzz, and numerous radio stations, the BBC, and television's Nightline have all been in contact with Wise about the article. It has brought more traffic than any previous article to AlterNet.org, has been posted on more than 300 listserves, and some folks report that they have received up to fifty copies of the piece.

Wise is also saddened that so many folks find his article refreshing. Despite the response from editors who rejected the piece, either because they disagreed with his premise or felt that it had been said before, the folks writing to him -- myself included -- had not seen this analysis in the mass media before.

The range of folk responding to the article was extraordinary, Wise says: "From nine-year-old children of color thanking me for removing the stigma of violence that has for so long been solely associated with them; from teachers, parents, folk from Santee, people in the suburbs even, thanking me for telling the truth about their community and possibly saving their kids lives; from 15-year-old black kids thanking me for taking the stigma off of them for once, and letting them know they aren't crazy; from ministers who say they are going to read the piece in the pulpit; even from a guy on the Columbine SWAT team who said the reason they were slow off the mark there was precisely because the commanding officers had no clue how to deal with a situation like this (with white kids whose parents had money)...the implication being that had this been a poor community of color, they would have moved more quickly."

Many of the correspondents are very personal and Wise is moved by the degree to which it has opened up dialogue around race and violence.

What this all shows me is that we do need to talk about race, all of us. And we people of color should not necessarily bear the burden of initiating that discussion. It seems that with all of the access to mass media and the internet, folks feel falsely comfortable with race relations. Even if we don't personally interact with people from other races, or don't have them integrally involved in our lives, TV, films and the internet give us a false notion of knowing one another. We can be virtual culture vultures through the media without any true understanding of the culture we are imitating.

Wise is right: "white people do live in an utter state of self-delusion." For example, most white folks know not to say n***er in mixed company, and they seem to understand the political ramifications of that. But in the last few weeks I have heard several white people say "nappy" when describing the texture of my hair and the hair of my 8-week-old daughter. Just because one has heard that word -- a word that in some contexts is an insult -- doesn't mean that it's appropriate to utter it to someone of African descent. White people don't understand the cultural context of the word and the nuances of the meaning.

Not only should we question the role of violence in our societies and how race does or does not get discussed around that, but we should also be discussing why most of us live largely segregated lives, and why when white people do interact with people of color, although they may not use a racial epithet, they frequently say something inappropriate about race. For if we could realize that differences are acceptable and despite what we may have learned about each other from mass media, we do not truly know each other and couple that with a real examination of ourselves, our societies would surely prosper. It is not the dialogue and critique that we should fear, but rather the dysfunctional silence.

Akilah Monifa is a freelance writer and a media trainer/public relations strategist with the San Francisco-based SPIN Project. She can be reached at amonifa@aol.com.

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