On March 4, 2020, Chanda spoke with Tim about how “Minnesota Nice” stands in the way of justice and how white privilege plays out in today’s systems and institutions.
Malik Rucker 00:00
Welcome to Conversations with Chanda. My name is Malik Rucker. I work in community relations for the Minnesota Twins. And I have the pleasure of introducing Tim and Chanda this morning. This conversation is an important one. The conversation is important to me because it is necessary. We all have privilege in some way but to understand the privilege that we have allows us to have a deeper impact and to be empathetic and used in a positive way. As we listen to this conversation, I encourage you all to think about how you are using your privilege. Today, we will hear about a specific type of privilege — one I am not afforded to but impacted by every day of my life. Before I introduce Chanda and Tim, I want you to know that Chanda is my mom. I usually wouldn’t get away with calling her Chanda but I’m using my privilege today. But in all seriousness, mom — I want to just say that I am proud of the work you’re doing. My siblings and I had the privilege to looking up to you each and every day. You are the best role model we can ever ask for. With that, I want to introduce my mom, Chanda. I didn’t mean to make you tear up and like that. Tim, I’m proud of you too, bro. Now to introduce Tim… Tim Wise is among the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He has spent the past 25 years speaking to audiences in all 50 states in over 1,000 college and high school campuses and hundreds of professional academic conferences. And to community groups across the country. He’s also the host of a new podcast, Speak Out with Tim Wise. He has lectured internationally at Canada and Bermuda, and has trained corporate, government, entertainment, media, law enforcement, military, and medical industry professionals in methods of dismantling racism in their institutions. Wise has provided anti-racism training to educators and administrators nationwide. Wise is the author of seven books. He’s been named one of the top 25 visionaries who are changing the world by Utne Reader. From 1999 to 2003, Wise was an advisor at Fisk University Racial Relations Institute in Nashville. In the early 90s, he was a youth coordinator and Associate Director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Racism, Nazism — the largest of the many groups organized for the purpose of defeating Neo-Nazi political candidate, David Duke. Wise appears regularly on CNN and MSNBC to discuss race issues and was featured in 2007 segment on 20/20. He graduated from Tulane University in 1990, and received anti-racism training from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans. With that, I want to introduce Tim Wise.
Chanda Smith Baker 03:22
In my normal fashion, I’m like, Tim, I’m gonna sit there. And then now I’m like, never mind, I changed my mind. So I, I am really looking forward to this conversation. And I’m really excited that you all have taken time out of your day to join us, the Minneapolis Foundation, in this conversation. A couple of years ago, I came to the Foundation, and I wasn’t necessarily sure… What does impact look like for me here? And I’m getting more and more clear every day. And a lot of that is due to the feedback that I’m getting about the conversations that we’re having. But also the feedback and the things that I’m hearing from our nonprofit leaders from our community, from other places, that really just continues to indicate the importance of us having time for reflection, for learning, for examination, and being part of a body of people that collectively are trying to have more courageous conversations and actions every single day. In our workplaces, we often talk about macro and microaggressions, and we all witnessed them. And it’s also something that is incredibly challenging to address. Because how we show up every day is so personal. And I don’t think that we understand how collectively the damage, I’ll call it damage, the trauma and the opportunity that we might be committing and the opportunity that we have not allowed ourselves to lean into. And I don’t know how many days that you might see something and you go home, and you think about it over and over and over again. So even if you’re not the one that it was geared towards, you’re still impacted by what we’re seeing and what we’re feeling every day. So you know, the Minneapolis Foundation is on a journey to talk about the gritty topics, that we don’t have all the answers, but we do have a lot of questions. We recognize our responsibility towards that end. And so I invite you to be in that conversation. My sister’s here, she’s taking a picture of me, I got all my family. I had to smile, “Hey!” Family day… Every day is family day in our house. So you know, as I was preparing for this, and actually, before I read this, because I’m gonna sit down and jump in, these conversations take a lot of support. And some days I require a lot too. And so I just want to really give a hand out to the Minneapolis Foundation team that has been behind the scenes planning, preparing, greeting you, arranging this meal for you, so please just give them an applause. I’m also very grateful and thankful to our board of trustees who have gone on this journey with us and to R.T. Rybak, our CEO, who has nudged me to be more out front on these issues. So as I was preparing, I ran across Claudia Rankin’s article in The New York Times, and we will post this. And if you know, Claudia just had a play at Penumbra, The Race Card. And I had the privilege of listening to her not long ago at the Walker. And I was reading this article, and I was having all kinds of feels. And some of them may bring my questions forward from that article. So you might see that, but in there, she talked about, I feel a certain way that is, as a black woman, there had to be something that I didn’t understand. It’s like you go through the world. And there’s something that you feel like you may have been left out of I don’t know if anybody else has felt that way. But that touched me. But because I’ve only lived as me, a person who regularly has to negotiate conscious and unconscious dismissal, erasure, disrespect, and abuse. I fell into this wondering silently. As I always, I hesitated. Is my total invisibility preferable to a targeted assault? What are their assumptions of privilege and exclusion? Those are some of the questions that she asked. And it feels really interesting for me to be in a place of privilege working in a foundation, having a conversation around erasure and dismissal. And I would say that we can… Both things can be true. And when both things are true, it creates a little bit of insanity in one’s mind. And so let’s talk about that a little bit. And I’ll go… I also recognize that there’s some new conversations that are confronting white people. And we should talk about how to confront them and how to confront them in a cross-cultural way. But also, just what does the self-examination around that mean? What does it mean to be white, right now in this time, where it may not be the thing to be? And it… But it obviously is a thing to be in the both those things can be true. So thank you, again, for being here. So I apologize to Tim, when we greeted each other this morning for this conversation coming after Super Tuesday. And I was watching him on Twitter last night. So I know we both slept very little. So welcome to our great state.
Tim Wise 08:57
Chanda Smith Baker 08:58
I have a lot of questions. But I think that I wanted to start on the personal side. And you know, there had to be a moment… I understand that you became more of an activist in college. But can you talk about your awareness, the journey of awareness for you individually as a white man, and how you came to understand privilege?
Tim Wise 09:22
So this is a… It is a long story and I’ll do the short version of it. The longer version, this will be my commercial plug because I got two kids that are going to be going to college — one really soon, like next year, so if y’all want to go buy the memoir, White Like Me, the long version is in there. And if you buy like, I don’t know, 50,000 copies I might be able to pay for one semester of college. But uh, anyway, so it is not one thing, right? And I this is true for I think any of us who come to this work, it’s never one thing. It’s a culmination of a series of events that lead you from, you know, awareness to politicization, perhaps to radicalization, even around an issue where you really become deeply, deeply committed and invested in it, and committed to real change. So for me, I grew up in Nashville. I’ve lived in the South all my life, I live again in Nashville, and lived in New Orleans, in between my times in Nashville for 10 years, but I’ve lived in the South all my life. And I think that, and we’ll probably get into this a little bit more, I think that has a lot to do with how I came to understand the world. And in particular, you know, I was born in 1968. My mom was three months pregnant with me when Dr. King was assassinated. So that kind of puts this in time and place. And I was born in Nashville. Went to preschool — three years later, four years later — at Tennessee State University, which is a historically black college in North Nashville. My mom made the very deliberate decision to enroll me in that preschool program, even though it wasn’t our neighborhood. She did it very, very intentionally. One was to socialize me in a non-dominant setting because I was going to be going to fully integrated schools that she had never had the luxury and the benefit of experiencing she wanted me to actually not always be the quote-unquote norm in the room. She also did it to piss off her folks. So let’s, let’s not, we’re not gonna romanticize it completely. She was hip, but she was also strategic, you know. And so, this, this had two effects, I think, right? Going to state for preschool, where I’m one of three kids who aren’t black, in a room full of black children who were mostly the children of professors, or the children of graduate students, or people who lived in and around TSU — the North Nashville community, Jefferson Street corridor. And so number one, it meant that being in that setting, I was being socialized with a peer group that was almost exclusively black. Now I know, I’ve been white, a long time, I’ve been white 51 years. I know, I know that white folks, we will, we will say stuff like how we have all these black friends, and we’re usually lying. But I –for a while didn’t have anything but black friends, y’all. So when I say I had black friends, I’m not just doing what we’re normally doing, which is making some stuff up, you understand, I’m actually saying like, that was my peer group. And why that was important was that when I got into first grade, second grade, third grade, I’m going to notice when those black kids are being disciplined more harshly, because they’re my friends, or they remind me of the people who I am connected to. And I’m wondering why that’s happening because we’re all breaking the rules the same way. Or I’m going to notice when the black kids are put on one side of the room, and they’re given the standard level or the remedial level instruction. And me and these white children I don’t know are over here on this side getting the advanced and the honors level instruction, right? I don’t know what’s going on. I’m six years old, right? It’s not like I came home, the first week of school and looked at my mom and said, “Mom, you will not believe that institutional white supremacy at Burton Elementary. Why have you put me there?” But I knew something was going on. And I’m filing it away in the back of my head, because I’m being separated from the people that I actually feel a connection to. So that sticks with you, you know, it’s an early imprinting. The second thing going to TSU did was it also socialized me around black authority. The women that ran that program were black women, and they were not gonna fool with me, right? So they would have put me out, sent my happy ass back to Green Hills on the other side of town iff I stepped out of line, they weren’t gonna play games. They weren’t there to coddle me. They didn’t need me, right? And so learning to respect black authority, and black women’s authority in particular, meant that when I got to New Orleans, and I start doing work in the community, and I was a community organizer in public housing for, you know, 15 to 18 months, mostly black women were the leaders in those communities. And when they’re telling me what’s up, when they’re telling me their life, when they’re telling me what’s going on in the community — I learned to listen to them. When I was three years old. I learned not to be the one that looks at them and goes, but you might be losing your mind, right? Like you might be seeing things. You might be exaggerating the problem. You might be manufacturing the racism in your head, maybe it’s something else. Maybe you misunderstood the comment. Maybe you misunderstood what the police officer intended. Maybe you misunderstood what the teacher was saying to your child. No, no, no, no. I learned when I was four, to respect black women’s authority. So if you tell me this is your life, I’m not going to be the one that tells you that I know your life better. than you. And that’s because my mother put me in a setting to learn that lesson, which was a great gift, right? A great gift. So that’s the beginning of awareness. Now, a lot of things happen in, you know, chapters two through five. So y’all need check that out. And then I get to New Orleans, and I’m immersed in a black community, but I am at a white plantation. I’m at Tulane University in a black city. And Tulane was the whitest place I had ever been. Right? I had been in schools that were 40%, 45%, black. I played on ball teams that were virtually all black. And Tulane was so different for me. If I think for most of the white folks, it was normal for them. New Orleans was what was weird. For me, New Orleans was comfortable, and Tulane was weird. And so I had to see things, I was able to see things that a lot of people maybe wouldn’t have seen. And I had people reminding me whenever I forgot, because there were times you know, the thing about it, you can be real hip, and real down for the struggle, and real progressive and open-minded when you’re white, but you still miss stuff. You still don’t see things — you still imbibe privilege. And so you know, we’re doing anti-apartheid work. This was the 80s. We’re talking about South Africa. And there were black folks in New Orleans that were like, “Yeah, this is great. I’m glad you’re doing this. By the way, if you got a little time on Wednesday, could you maybe address the apartheid that’s happening like down the block.” Right? Like we’re literally camped out in front of Tulane University on a hunger strike y’all over what’s going on? 8000 miles away. Now, I’m not saying that that’s wrong. It was a good struggle. It was an important fight. It was a valuable fight. But literally, we’re sitting out there on a hunger strike sleeping out in front of the administration building in April of 1990 and while we’re out there, the New Orleans police murder a man in cold blood named Adolph Archie — drive him around the city because they thought he killed a cop. We don’t know if he did or not because he didn’t get a trial. See? They drive him around the city, beat him, break every bone in his face, dump him at the emergency room, he dies, the coroner writes it up as homicide by police intervention. The official cause of death, homicide by police intervention. And we’re sitting out there talking about South Africa. And we’re not making the connections, like there’s a connection between what was going on in Cape Town and what was going on in downtown New Orleans. And it took black folks to remind me like, hey, remember? And I was like, oh, yeah, you know. And so then after I graduated, David Duke was running for Senate and for Governor and I was involved in the campaigns against him. And it was really after that, that when he lost, thankfully, but old enough to remember folks in this room will recall that Duke got six out of 10 white people to vote for him. And it wasn’t because they didn’t know he was a Nazi. Like there were children in utero, that knew this man was a Nazi. Like they even got the memo. Right? So everybody that voted for him knew and 675,000 White people did. And like two black folks, because there’s always a couple, you know. I mean, you know, there’s always gonna be a couple, just to be contrary, you know, but it was 675,000 white folks and two black guys, vote for this Nazi. And I remember sitting around afterward, and all of us were like, what does this mean for us? Right? Because black folks saved us. If it were up to us, we had a Nazi as a senator, or a Nazi, as a governor white folks were like, Yep, we’re gonna do that. And black folks were like, yeah, no, no, no, not today. Not today, we’re just not gonna let you vote for the Nazi. We’re gonna save you, y’all can thank us later, we never did. And I think that really was the moment that it went from awareness, and politicization, to real commitment. It really became something that you know, I had to work on white folks because it wasn’t black folks’ job to save us. They saved us in that race. But we have to say, you know, I’m convinced black and brown folks, frankly, will liberate themselves from racism, and institutional white supremacy. My concern is who’s gonna liberate white people from what we’ve done to ourselves? Because when you can get to a point where you’ll vote 675,000 deep for a Nazi, something’s going on with your soul. That much I know. And that’s where we’re at today.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:20
So in your time with the black women in New Orleans, while you may have been navigating the same issue, did you understand that you were able to navigate differently than them?
Tim Wise 19:30
Oh, god. Yeah.
Chanda Smith Baker 19:31
And then how did you use that?
Tim Wise 19:34
Well, you know, as a community organizer, you’re always… No matter who you’re working with, if it’s an organization with any kind of depth at all, they always tell you a couple of things. What they tell you is number one, don’t go until you’re asked in. Right? So you don’t go where you haven’t been invited. And a lot of times organizers will try to go in or good people trying to do good work — not even just organizers could be social workers, could be academic researchers, could be nonprofit organizations with a grant — will go in to collect information and the community’s like, we don’t know you. Who are you? We’ve never seen your face in our place, it’s gonna take the whole three years of your grant cycle to even come to trust you, let alone to open up to you and tell you the truth. And then that three-year grant cycle ends, and the funders are like, well, it didn’t work, the thing we were trying to do didn’t work. Well, it takes three years just to build trust. Maybe you need a five-year grant cycle, maybe you need a seven-year grant cycle, maybe you need to rethink the way we do business. But I was lucky to be working for a nonprofit that had thought about that. And this particular organization, which was a children’s and family advocacy organization, so it’s called Agenda for Children, they mostly worked on issues of economic need, poverty issues, unemployment issues, education issues. They also ran the federally funded childcare research resource and referral for the state. You had to be trained in this organization. In anti-racism. You had to go through the People’s Institute process. You had a framing that was anti-racist. We understood that when we went into public housing, that what we were seeing there was not the result of a culture of poverty. Right? It was the result, frankly, of the exact opposite. It was the creation of a culture of affluence that basically says poor people can be corralled into virtual holding pins, right? And kept there and denied opportunity. It wasn’t the fault of the people who live there. Contrary to what Pat Buchanan famously said, in the 90s, the ghettos, quote, unquote, are not the product of the people who live in the ghettos. They are the product of people who most certainly do not. And they have always been that the result of institutional racism, redlining, housing discrimination, FHA loans, but only for white folks for 30 years, from 1934 to 64. So when you go in there, and you have that grounding, and you understand racism produced this, it changes your attitude. So I was invited in, I was brought in by a woman who lived in the community, which was critical as a white man. Here I am — I’m 25 years old. And you know, I’m coming in fresh with my Tulane degree, thinking that I know all this stuff. And they had to just, you know, the thing about being organizers, you just listen, you just shut up, and you listen, and your job is to help the community gain a sense of their own power, not to come demonstrate yours. And so there was a very humbling thing, which I had to learn that I was privileged to be in that space. And yes, when I walked around, there was a level of authority that I didn’t deserve, that I was given. When cops would see me they would, it was funny, like police would see me coming out of the neighborhood, I’d be driving out of the neighborhood going home at the end of the day… And they would look at me like, “Oh, you must be lost.” Right? We need to help you get out of here because it’s dangerous. Or they thought I was there to buy drugs. Newsflash, white folks don’t have to go to the hood to buy our drugs. Right? We got plenty of drugs, plenty of drugs in white space. And we don’t have to go to public housing to find weed. Right? We’ll just set up a shop and sell it and make hundreds of millions of dollars because we got a storefront and an occupational license. So… But the cops would defer to me like either you’re lost, or you’re here for buying drugs. And it was crazy the way that people would do that. But what was really interesting to me was going in the very first day that I started… Yhe first week that I started, and the best lesson I ever learned in that space was I go in, and I’ve got this privileged mindset where I think I know the agenda. Right? And I know… And so I think I’m there to eradicate white supremacy. And, and poverty, right? Which are really great goals, by the way, but they’re not gonna happen by Tuesday, right? So I go in there, and I’m like, I’m ready, you know. And I talked to the guy who’s been living there and organizing for years. And I said, What are y’all working on? And he says, Well, right now, we’re trying to get a stop sign at that intersection. And I was like, okay, you know, sounds good. It’s not the revolution, but a stop sign is good. I was like, why a stop sign? And he said, Well, two reasons. Number one, four kids had been hit on their bikes. So it’d be nice to have a stop sign. Maybe cars will stop and not hit kids anymore. Second thing is because we can get the stop sign. And I said, Well, what does that mean? He said, because we’ll win it, man, it’s no big deal, right? You go to the council meeting five, six times. You raise enough hell about the stop sign, they’re going to give it to you. It’s no sweat off their back. It didn’t cost them anything. But what it does, is we get the stop sign and that gives the community a sense that they can win. That gives the community a sense that they actually have efficacy that they can make a difference. And then they sit down and they go now what’s next? We got the stop sign. What’s the next thing? And then you pick another thing and then you pick another thing, which is an important lesson that I learned about incrementalism. Right? We have this… Those of us coming out of academic programs where we know all about injustice, and we’re ready to take it on. We think that it’s just about rushing the barricades and let’s just have the revolution tomorrow. And the reality is, this is all stairstep stuff, it is always stairstep stuff. Because if you’re trying to overthrow the system tomorrow, the system is here for a reason. And they know how to protect themselves, you have to actually sneak attack some of this stuff if you really want to change the society. And that requires very small, incremental victories that build on each other. That’s a lesson I did not learn in at Tulane. It’s a lesson I learned in that community, mostly from folks who didn’t even, many of them didn’t even have high school diplomas, let alone college degrees, which just goes to show you that wisdom is usually found in the places where you don’t expect it.
Chanda Smith Baker 25:31
So you talked about how informative it was for you to be raised in the south. Can you share anything about the regional differences around race that you’ve observed?
Tim Wise 25:40
So I think this is really important. And I, you know, you have a love-hate relationship with the south when you’re from it. But the part of it that I love is that I know, I know, I know of our crimes. And y’all do, too. And the reason y’all do is because thankfully, y’all won that war. The problem is when you win the war, you don’t have to reflect on your own crimes. You get to reflect on mine. And so we in the south, you see, are miles ahead, not politically, because I know what we do politically. But we are miles ahead in understanding this issue. Because when you are from the south, if you are from the south, and you are white, and you end up remotely progressive, which is not a given… Because there’s a lot of white reactionaries in the south, right? But if you are white from the south, and you end up progressive, I know how you got there. And I guarantee you, you came through the crucible of race to get there because you know that race is the background noise of everything that happens in the south. The difference is it is also the background noise of everything that happens up here. And it’s the background noise of everything that happens in Oregon, and in Vermont, and in Colorado, and in California and in Florida and everywhere else all over the country. The difference is we know it, because we have to know it. I remember the first time I went to California. I went in ’95 to give a talk. And you know, it was interesting. I get there and it’s right in the middle of… California had passed Prop 187, which was an anti-immigrant initiative. And they were in the middle of trying to pass Prop 209, which was anti-affirmative action initiative. Right? And I remember folks saying when I got out there, like, why are you here? Why aren’t you back in the south where the problem is? I’m like, the hell you say like we’re not trying to do this. This is on y’all. Like, I’m just trying to come help. You know, like, y’all came south for Freedom Summer, I’m just paying back the favor. Thank you. You know, like, I just thought maybe y’all might need a little help. Because we’re not doing this. Y’all are doing this. And then I had a black man, we’re sitting having coffee, and he says, San Francisco was the most racist place he’d ever lived. And he’d lived in Dallas, he’d lived in Birmingham, he’d lived in Atlanta, he’d lived in Charlotte. Now, you might think that’s hyperbole. And I might even agree that there’s no way to really rank that and say what’s more or less racist, but the point he was trying to make was, this is not what some folks think it is. And ever since he got out there, he had a persistent invisibility. People looking through him. Not to mention the overt discrimination in places like the Bay Area around housing and there’s a reason the Panthers started in the bay. You know? They didn’t just start, you know, in the places where we thought the problem was. It was Oakland, right? So people have this image of San Francisco Summer of Love… hippies in the park listening to the Grateful Dead. Meanwhile, the police are literally killing folks across the bay, and black folks are having a very different experience. We don’t even learn that history. And this guy was living it in the mid-90s. And so what it goes to show you is the problem is not Southern, it’s not. It’s nationwide. It may look different. You know? Y’all have a very different and we’ll get into this, y’all have a very different version of this. You know, you know what it is. And, and it’s, and it’s, and it’s, you know, well, let’s just talk about it. So, let’s just talk about it.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:16
So yeah, let’s talk about it. And I’m glad you’re convinced that people know.
Tim Wise 29:20
I don’t know if they know, but…
Chanda Smith Baker 29:21
I don’t know what they know.
Tim Wise 29:22
Well, they will. Well, we’ll make sure they do. That’s our job today.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:26
That is a piece of our job but incremental remember?
Tim Wise 29:29
Chanda Smith Baker 29:31
So Minnesota Nice. So I told him I jack his article all the time up. And so I’ve renamed it to nice is the enemy of justice. I know that’s not the actual title. But that’s the sentiment of the title.
Tim Wise 29:45
Yeah, it’s the G-rated version of it.
Chanda Smith Baker 29:47
Yeah, it is. Its something like we don’t need nice. We need justice. Racism and the moral blindness of white America. That’s what it’s called. My shortcut is nice is the enemy of justice. And so Minnesota Nice. And just to play off of the conversation we just had, and I think I’ve mentioned this in previous conversations, I think it’s the Martin Luther King documentary, it might be in the wilderness. He’s coming to, you know, the North to talk about economic justice and, and he’s sitting… I make it up, I make stuff up, my sister knows this. But I believe he was on a stair staircase, he might have been in his office, I don’t know, but the point was, is that I pictured him in this dark place. And you could see this look on his face. And he looked completely defeated. And sometimes we hear about Martin Luther King, and we hear about progress. And we see the people and we see the accolades. But we don’t see the place where they’re in the most dark, right? When they’re questioned, and the people that are hating them and coming for them and all of the things that he for sure experienced, and so many other people have experienced. But he said I can deal with the terror of the South. But I can’t handle this up north. Right? And so when you think about the images that you’ve seen, and to have him say, I could not deal with the pervasiveness, right? Of the trauma that I cannot figure this out. Right? There was something that was very affirming to me, and also very sad, that I think, very real, it makes the point of like, I understand this, like we’re dealing with this, this is coming out in a different way versus this. So, but on to Minnesota Nice. And I think that we talk about it, we’re beginning to talk about in a different way. Yeah, it’s more than being passive-aggressive. Yeah. Why did you write that article? And then what can you say about Minnesota Nice?
Tim Wise 31:41
Well, that piece was actually written after Chris Rock, who I love, had made a statement about, you know, this is the nicest generation. The white folks that voted for Obama were like, the nicest generation of white folks ever. And I was like, alright, whatever. Like, I don’t know if I buy that. But even if I do, like, who cares? That’s not how we get justice is by being nice. So that was what I used as the jumping off point for that piece. But the problem with nice and I say this as a Nashvillian, Nashville is known for being really nice, y’all. Like we’re out picking up our neighbors stuff today, because there’s a horrible hurricane, horrible tornado that came through, right and missed us by about a mile and a half, by the way, and tore up a lot of folks’ stuff. And so everybody’s out helping. It’s a very, it’s a very community-oriented place. Very nice. I’m not saying nice is bad. Nice is better than mean. Right? Like, I mean, it beats you know, jackass, I guess. But, but I mean, but the problem is, if you’ve set the bar there, like, you know, justice is way up here, somewhere nice is down around here. And I remember when I was living in New Orleans, which is my favorite place in the world, whatever you think about New Orleans, even if you love it, though, nice is not the word y’all gonna use. It’s not nice. It’s funky. It’s great. It’s awesome. It’s fantastic. But nice? Nah. When I was living there, I remember there was a survey that came out like Business Week, or Economist or something, where they said Nashville was like, the nicest medium-sized city in America. And I’m like, oh, I don’t know if I want to move back. Right? And people were like, well, why wouldn’t you want to live somewhere nice? Because I just don’t think nice gets stuff done. Right? So then I start coming up here, I came up here for the first time in ’95. And I didn’t know anything about Minnesota Nice. I didn’t really know anything about Minnesota other than, you know, again, every time I go somewhere, that the national reputation is incredibly progressive. Right? Because Paul Wellstone was around at that time, and it was like, the reputation was and it preceded it, and then you get there and you’re like, oh, okay. Just like everywhere else I’ve been, you know? It’s like, when I went to Oregon. I thought Oregon was just like, all progressive people. And I’m like, oh, it’s like five blocks, you know? And the rest of it is like, you know… So I come up here, and I was picked up at the airport by three young men who were from a school about an hour away, and they were going to drive me to the school. And so we’re, we’re driving and they’re like, “Well, we’re super excited that you’re here for our diversity day.” And first off I was like, oh God, because when you tell me that you have a diversity day, that sort of gives me a heads up about what the other 364 days are going to be like. So I was a little nervous but I was also happy, I was excited to be on the road doing this for a living, getting to talk, run my mouth. So I’m like, okay, cool. I’m gonna play along so I said, “Well, I’m excited to I’m looking forward to it.” And I asked him if there was anything I needed to know about the campus or like the climate, you know, that I might work into my talk and so they start giving me all this like, campus demographics… how many kids live on campus versus off, who majors in what I’m like, no, that’s not what I mean. Like, like, racial climate. Like is there any kind of racial stuff going on? And they looked at me with this wounded look. Wounded y’all. Wounded. Like I said something about their mother. And they were just like, and literally one of them says, goodness, no cuz you know, y’all are earnest. So he said, “Goodness, no.” And, and, and I was like, really? Goodness, no? Like, not even hell no, just goodness, no? Goodness, no, goodness, no. And he said, “We don’t have any, any racism.” And I’m like, in my head. I’m like, that is so weird because, one, I’m an anti-racism educator. So why in the hell would you bring me to a place where there is no racism? It seemed like a waste of your money. And a waste of my time. Now I was going to take their money. And I was going to give of my time, but it seemed weird. And the second reason it seemed weird is I had been white long enough to know that when white people tell me there is no racism operating, I do not automatically assume that they know what in the hell they are talking about. It’s like, it’s like when men tell me there’s no sexism, I checked with women. That’s just me. Right? So these white folks are telling me and the other two were agreeing. They’re like, yeah, there’s nothing and I’m like, what? So I said, “Well, how do you know that?” And they said, “Well, it’s this thing we have.” And I’m like, “What?” Like this thing we have, it’s like our way of life. It’s like our culture. It’s like our, it’s like our creed. Like, what the hell y’all talking about? Because if you got a thing that kills racism, look, I’m going to Michigan like tomorrow. They don’t have it. I’m going back to New Orleans, we definitely do not have it. I need to pick up some of it at the store. And I even said that because I’m a smartass. And they missed it because they’re earnest. So the cynicism in my voice was like, No, for real. We have a thing. I’m like, All right, what is it? And the guy says, well it’s this thing we call Minnesota Nice. And I’m like, uh-huh, okay. That’s a great bumper sticker. It’s a good tourist commission slogan. I don’t think it’s the thing that kills racism, though. And I said, “What is that?” He goes, you know, sort of like the golden rule, you just treat people the way you want to be treated. I’m like, for real that works here? Because that has been around forever. And it has never killed racism, any other damn place. But you’re telling me that here in this somewhat Scandinavian place, that in February that it kills racism? And they said, yeah, cuz again… And I just decided to drop it. But over the course of the next six months, I was back and forth, to the Twin Cities quite often and all around the state actually went up north as well. And I had a chance to sit down and talk to folks of color. Because I wanted to find out folks, the colors take on Minnesota Nice. So I asked black folks, I asked LatinX folks, I asked Asian American, particularly Hmong, folks and Southeast Asian folks around the Twin Cities, and I got up north and I talked to some Indigenous folks. And every time I asked them about Minnesota Nice, they all did the same thing. They all rolled their eyes. And I don’t mean like a subtle kind of eyeroll. I mean, like the kind that you can hear the eyeballs rotating in the socket, that kind of eyroll, and they all said, oh, God, Minnesota Nice is killing us. And I said, “What do you mean?” They said well, number one, we don’t trust it. We know people that are outwardly civil, but they undermine us on the job. They talk about us behind our back the microaggression stuff you referenced in the intro, but they said the bigger problem is, if we want change, we have to raise our voice. And when we raise our voice above a whisper, we get tagged as not nice. Now we are violating the cultural norms of the state itself, and therefore we can’t get any traction. So that made me realize that when these young men who picked me up said they wanted more diversity on their campus, I think they were honest, I don’t think they were being disingenuous when they said they wanted a more diverse institution, and they want more racial equity, I believe them. The problem is, if you’ve been raised to believe that there’s a certain cultural modality of interaction and expression and communication that requires this outward, niceness defined in a very narrow way, because justice is nice, but sometimes it’s loud, right? Justice is nice, but sometimes it’s loud. But if you need this very sort of stoic kind of interaction style, and a very nice polite way of going about things, then you’re going to be labeled the problem when you try to get stuff done. And that was when I realized the cultural center has to be interrogated. We do a lot of diversity work in our companies and our schools. And it’s usually about learning how the other thinks, right? Let’s learn about how these people think and how these people put the money on the counter versus handing it to you in your hand when you’re at the store so don’t get offended. And how these people wear their clothes and celebrate their special holidays and the food they eat. It’s always about learning about the one that’s the non-norm but the norm is never ever interrogated. And the norm… It’s like what we’re saying is we’re the sun y’all. And y’all are some pretty planets orbiting but don’t ever forget who the center of the universe is. We are the center. We are the norm. As long as you’ve been to our norms, we’re good. We can have all y’all and more. But if you start to question our norms, that’s when you become an issue. And that was what I think the niceness piece sometimes perpetuates. Not saying we want to go from being nice to being horrible to when we got to be kind. There’s a difference between being kind and being nice. You can be kind while raising hell. But it’s hard to be nice while raising hell.
Chanda Smith Baker 40:37
Amen, hallelujah. Because I know that there are people in organizations in the room that are working on these issues that are maybe doing that in the way that you just defined…
Tim Wise 40:46
Chanda Smith Baker 40:47
Do you have anything more tangible for how they might make that shift?
Tim Wise 40:54
Sure. Number one is, I think when we’re doing any kind of workaround racial equity, economic justice, anytime you’re talking about equity work… The first thing, it’s the hardest thing to do, obviously, or else we would have already done it. But it’s the most important thing to do, which is you have to learn to trust the wisdom of the marginalized. So if that’s poor folks of whatever color, you have to learn to trust, poor folks know their truth, and they know their reality better than folks who are not poor. And people who are black and brown know that truth better than those of us who are white. And women know their truth, better than those who are men and LGBTQ folk know their truth better than those who are straight and cis-gendered, for example. So number one, it’s trying to make sure that we’re listening and following the insights, and the lead of those folks that are embedded in those systems of injustice, rather than assuming that our formal training and our academic training has somehow given us equal insight. It might give us valuable insight, but it’s not equal. So number one, is learning to trust and when I’ve seen effective work done in communities, by nonprofit organizations and grantee organizations that receive foundation money, for instance, it’s usually been when they have made that turn to where they are, you know, for the first year of their work, it just may be a listening tour, it just may be literally coming in and listening and showing up again and again and again, to build trust. Because there’s a very different relationship that marginalized people have, with the issue of trust. They don’t have the luxury of trusting that when I come in there with the clipboard, and when I come in there with a program, I remember there was a program that was being operated in New Orleans and some of the public housing communities that ended up working pretty well because the grantee organizations were willing to do this where it was, it was a thing about… It was a manhood Initiative, where they were dealing with what we would now call toxic masculinity, but they were talking about different ways of being responsible and non-patriarchal kind of oppressive man. They were doing a jobs initiative, they were doing an HIV-AIDS Initiative. And rather than make it about, you know, pathologizing the community, seeing the community as a tangle of pathology, they started with a systemic analysis, right? So in other words, if we’re going to talk about responsible manhood in poor black communities, don’t start with the typical thing we start with, which is there’s something wrong with these young men, that they’re broken, that they’re that they’re pathological, that they’re… No. Whatever brokenness exists in that community, again, was created brokenness, and it wasn’t created by the powerless, they don’t have the power to have created it. The brokenness was created by those who had the power to break. And once you come in with that, if you get trained on that, right? If you go through that process, and we had People’s Institute folks talking to the grant organizations, like you need to come in and actually sit through a training also, you need to learn this analysis, you need to get on board with this language. Because if you try to come into that community, and just talk about all the good you’re there to do… Lots of folks have come in saying they were there to do good, right? The folks that ran the Tuskegee experiment promised they were there to do good, right? So and if you don’t know the reference, see, that’s a failing of our schools as well. So you can Google it. But the reality is, a lot of folks don’t know what I just was talking about, because we don’t learn any of that stuff. So if we’re there to help, we have to realize… We’ve got to come in and just be transparent. And that means going in… That meant for me as an organizer going in and just admitting, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. But I’m here to learn. And I’m here to listen. And that level of honesty is where we have to start if we’re going to do good work.
Chanda Smith Baker 44:37
And so, how so… I have two questions. One is, how important is understanding the past to the work of equity? And the other one is what happens when you don’t share the truth of the history of this country? Right? When my historic knowledge is different than the person I’m talking to. Because I find in this work, we think that there are individual choices that have led people to where they are versus understanding the historical context. And so how important is it to understand the past, and then how, when your knowledge historically is different?
Tim Wise 45:19
Well, it’s critical. And if you don’t understand how we got to where we are, right now, as a country, as a state, as a city, where you live in your community and neighborhood, then you’re not going to be able to help anyone, you’re not going to be able to, to in systems of injustice, because everything has a predicate, we in this country have a horrible tendency to act as though the second law of thermodynamics is just a property of the physical universe, right? That an object in motion tends to remain in motion, right, until it’s met by a force of equal or greater power. That’s a socio-economic concept too. And it’s a political concept. So the stuff that happens in one generation affects the next and the next and the next and the next. And we know this on an individual level, this is what’s so crazy. All of us know this, like I started therapy a year and a half ago, y’all. And I was told that I can tell you that by my therapist, because apparently, it’s therapeutic to admit that so I’ve done my work for the day. So I’m feeling good. And by the way, all y’all need it — it’s just some of you don’t know it, we all need it. Because we’re all broken. I mean, we’re all seriously damaged. But the thing about it when you go to, I mean, seriously… But the difference, when you go to therapy, you learn that about yourself, right? You learn that everything you’re doing good and bad, has a place that it comes from. And that’s how you learn to forgive yourself and to love yourself and to go on and try to do better the next day. As a country, we forget all of that logic that we know are good and are bad behaviors. And the stuff that we do that hurts people comes from somewhere. Well, that’s true in society. So number one, we got to get clear on that. And we don’t have schools that believe in being clear on it. Right? Something James Baldwin said these innocent people talking about white folks, these innocent people are trapped in a history they do not understand and until they understand it they cannot be released from it. And what he meant was that white folks in particular have bought into the mythology. It was white folks who believe that lie about George Washington and that damn cherry tree, y’all. Black folks never believed that. People of color always knew that was some made-up stuff. By the way, I hope y’all know it is some made-up stuff. It’s not a real thing. But we all learn that in school that… George Washington cut down a tree and was like, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, I can’t tell a lie. But that’s a lie. Like that whole story was manufactured to give this man a patina of like, damn near, you know, holy identity. And so we’ve lied, and we’ve lied, and we’ve lied, and we’ve lied. And that’s why when the New York Times comes out with the 1619 project last summer, folks lose their minds. What’s the core argument of the 1619 project pieces? That slavery was central to the foundation and formation of America. I didn’t know that that was controversial. I knew that from the time I’m sitting in the back of a third grade in 1977, at the age of eight reading Roots, because I was bored with whatever the hell the teachers were teaching. So I’m sitting back there reading Roots and the and the teachers were like, why is he reading that? And I’m just like, because whatever. These were white teachers who didn’t understand why but the black teachers were like, yeah, you read that. You need to read that. The white teachers were nervous. The black teacher was like, that’s our guy right there. Read that book. And I understood that it was central when I was eight years old. Why is that? But people lost their minds. People… This is a blasphemy… This is unAmerican. This is just history. This is just factual. And so number one, we have to understand the trajectory of how we got here. The second thing is we need to do that for ourselves. I’m talking about an individual level, because it’s not just the nation’s history, it’s our own. And I’m not talking about the therapies now I’m talking about how we got like… Y’all are a bunch of people who have accomplished stuff in your lives. I’m somebody who’s accomplished stuff in mind, you’ve accomplished in yours. We need to be more honest about how that happened. Because we lie about that. We lie about it every time we try to go into that place. I’m not saying we all do it. But you know, some folks will be like, well I grew up, I struggled, and I made this all on my own. I pulled myself up from nothing. Nobody did that. Anybody that says that isn’t just lying to me, they’re lying to themselves. And that’s worse, right? Nobody pulled themselves up alone. Nobody is self-made. None of y’all were, you know, born on an island raised by a porpoise. Right? Like you had family, you had community… Humans are social creatures. We’ve never lived in isolation. So when we say stuff like that, we end up reinforcing… Because here’s the thing, if we allow that belief to persist, that people are self-made, or, or, you know, I know that when we talk about white privilege, like suddenly all white people are from Appalachia. You know? That’s the thing that we retreat to like, well, my mother worked in the coal mines. Well, you know, it’s all a sudden where Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter, you know, Loretta Lynn, or whatever. But I mean, and some of us do have folk from Appalachia, that still doesn’t mean that we don’t have privilege today, though, right? So the thing is, I’m no I’m getting, I’m not trying to be this funny. I’m just naturally humorous. But there’s a serious point, the serious point is, we have a problem as a country. Our society’s founding ideology — foundational, not necessarily founding, foundational ideology. Is this notion, isn’t it, of individualism, this notion of meritocracy, this notion of you can be anything in America if you just try hard. And so wherever you end up is all about you. The problem with that ideology isn’t just that it’s factually false. It’s factually false. We all know people that have worked hard and have nothing to show for it. We know people that were born on third base think they hit a triple and never had to work hard a day in their lives. So we know it isn’t that simple. But we keep rocking that ideology because we think it incentivizes effort. I’ll tell you what it incentivizes — it incentivizes bigotry, and here’s how it does it. Because if you tell me that where I end up is all about me. And I come to believe that. And then I look around and I see profound disparity. I see rich folks here and poor here, I see white, mostly here and people of color disproportionately here, I see men here, and I see women here, I come to rationalize sexism, classism, and racism, because I go back to my training, which says, well wherever you end up is all about you. So there must be something wrong with these people who live in this community who live like this. And there must be something superior about those people who live out there. And so we got to tell the truth about how we got where we are. Because if we get clear on that, and we tell that honestly, we’ve all had help. And I’m not just talking about white privilege, or male privilege, or straight privilege, or moneyed privilege. I mean, just luck. Just the people that came into your life, even if you don’t have any of those privileges I just mentioned, right? But you had a mentor in third grade. Or you had a teacher that believed in you when nobody else believed in you, or a coach, or a choreographer if you’re a dancer… My kids are dancers. So having a choreographer that believes in… Somebody that came into your life without whom you would not be sitting here the person that you are. I can tell you my story. Real quick, real simple. You heard the thing about fighting David Duke… The only reason that I was doing that work against David Duke is I was in the right place to do it. I was in New Orleans. I went to Tulane. The only reason I went to Tulane is because I was chasing a girl that went to LSU. True story. I met her… She was a high school debater, as was I. She was a debater in Louisiana. I was a debater in Tennessee. We met at a summer debate workshop camp in Washington and American university and in the manner of 16-year-olds or whatever, fell in love. Right? And I was not thinking of going to Tulane, I had another year of high school. And I was planning on going to Emory in Atlanta because they were recruiting me for debate. That was where I was gonna go. And Monica looks at me, we’ve been dating two weeks, y’all. Monica looks at me and says, Monica says, “You can’t go to Tulane. If you go to Tulane, we’ll never see each other you have to go to I mean, if you can’t go to Emory, if you go to Emory, we’ll never seem to you have to go to Tulane. You ever thought or Tulane?” I’m like, no, but yeah, I’ll go, you know. Changed my whole life, because of this woman, right? And so I mean, God love her, she got me where I needed to be. But if I don’t meet her, I don’t end up at Tulane and I don’t meet the men that gave me that job. One of whom was a history prof of mine, the other of whom was a graduate student friend of mine and an activist, and I’m not doing the anti David Duke work. And then I’m not building up a reputation as a young man for doing this work. So I’m probably not here today. And the only reason I met her was because I was at that particular debate camp. Only reason I was there because I was a debater. And you may think, listening to me that I was coming out of my mother’s womb arguing — but that is not true. Actually, when I was a kid, this is not my skill set. I was a ballplayer. I was a baseball player, and I was a really good baseball player. I had college recruits that were coming to my little league games. I thought that was my path — was baseball. And then I tried out for the high school team had an inexplicably awful tryout. Like I’d never played the game before. Like I couldn’t field groundballs == could not even lift the bat. I don’t know what was wrong, had a horrible tryout, got cut, had to find a different activity. If I make that team, which by rights I should have because I played against all those guys in summer league and I’ve been better than them for seven years, but I get cut. They don’t. If I don’t get cut, I make that team. I’m not gonna be a debater. I’m not gonna be at a debate camp during the summer. I’m gonna be playing more ball. So the reason I’m here is not because I talk. The reason I’m here because of that jackass that cut me from the baseball team.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:32
I got a question. The story… how many people got stories like that?
Tim Wise 54:39
The moral of the story? Everybody’s got a story like that.
Chanda Smith Baker 54:42
Yeah. But I mean, so there’s a lot so… You know, when you get in these conversations, because let’s just go back to white privilege, right? So you’re in this thing, and there’s a thing and it’s white privilege, and we know that it’s there and most of us know that it’s there. But then you get into these arguments or these discussions or you get a comeback that you normally, I would imagine, choose not to entertain. But this whole thing of like, I’ve worked hard my whole life. And so what this, what you’re essentially saying is that we’ve been conditioned, right? And there’s a conditioning that happens all around this conversation when you confront things. There’s a conditioning, that I have and other folks have around how you get the work done is by making compromises about what maybe you really want to say, you really want to do, how you really want to express it, there is a conditioning. Do we… Because I guess what we’re trying to do is challenge that conditioning.
Tim Wise 55:41
Yeah. Well, we’re trying, I’m trying to challenge this conceit that we all are taught, which is this idea that we are these rugged individuals. We are an incredibly interdependent species. And the idea that we can or even should try and stand on our own seems perverse to me. I mean, even if it were it possible, it seems like a horrible way to live. Right? It seems like a horrible, horrible way to live — constantly, trying to chase success in a very narrow way and beat out other people just doesn’t seem like a very rewarding life. I think that, you know, look, most people work hard. If you’re still surviving in this kind of a competitive society, you’re probably working pretty hard. It isn’t about denying the hard work of people who’ve been successful. It’s about saying some people’s hard work is met with greater access to an opportunity structure and other people’s are not. My great grandfather is a good example of this. And I’m talking about now… I’ve got some family go back 400 years, I’ve got others that came in the last 100 or so. And when my my Jewish great grandfather from Russia came in the early 1900s… You know, he faced all the stuff you’d expect. He faced the anti-semitism you would expect he faced the bias because he was a Yiddish speaking immigrant. He also faced bias because the first time he tried to come happened to be eight days after William McKinley was shot… Right around the time that President McKinley died, he was shot in 1901, assassinated, he was shot by a man named Leon Chagas, whose parents were from the same part of Russia as my great grandfather. So the day that my great grandfather’s boat came in 1901, they literally turned it back around and sent it home, because they had essentially made him illegal. See, some things don’t change. They decided he was illegal, not because of his behavior, right? But because they had the power to make this whole boatload of people illegal and send them back home. It took him six years to save enough money to come back. So he faced all of that. And it is also true that when he did finally get off the boat, he was able to get jobs in New York City that have been off-limits to black people for 35 years. That was also true. So he worked hard, he suffered. And he had access to some stuff as a person from Europe that other people didn’t. All of those things can be true at once. And it’s about holding these, these multiple ideas in our head that allows us to understand it. Talking about privilege doesn’t mean you didn’t work hard. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t yet.. You don’t deserve nice things. It means that there are millions of other people who’ve worked every bit as hard or harder. The hardest working people I’ve ever met lived in the projects, I’m just gonna be honest with you. They worked a hell of a lot harder than I did. And in fact, there was a woman I worked with at Agenda for Children that brought me in to the community. She lived in the community. Her son was murdered one weekend while we work together. It was a year that New Orleans had the highest murder rate of any city in America at that time, more than one a day. Her son’s murdered on Monday. She’s there to open the office. And I come in and I remember we’re sitting there saying Donna like you don’t you don’t have to be here, like, take a week, take as long as you need, you know? That we’re gonna pay her. The organization was going to pay her — just take some time. She’s like, no, I have a job to do. And I’m here to do it. Meanwhile, I had called out several times from work during the year that I’ve been working there just because I’ve been out partying with friends the night before and I didn’t feel like coming in. Or I just because I was tired, didn’t get enough sleep. Just wanted to stay home and relax. And this woman who America says has no work ethic, because she lives into projects. And that’s how we know she has no work ethic. America says she has no work ethic. And I do because I graduated from Tulane. And she’s there and her son just got killed. And I literally, you know, called in the week before out of work because I had a hangover or whatever, like, what does that tell you? Right? It tells you you just have to challenge some of this conditioning in these narratives that we’ve been taught.
Chanda Smith Baker 59:34
Right? Even as you tell the story of your grandfather, I can sit here and say, man, I wish I could tell those stories.
Tim Wise 59:40
Right? Even the stories is a privilege.
Chanda Smith Baker 59:42
I mean, I know how my ancestors got here. But I don’t know their names, right? I can’t tell a story about my family. And I don’t think that people understand what that feels like.
Tim Wise 59:56
Genealogy is a privilege, right? And I know that ancestry.com is doing all this stuff where black folks can trace their stuff too and all that. But let’s be honest, let’s be honest, when you get on that thing, and you start looking, I remember… I mentioned Roots earlier. Roots comes out in 77, the mini series, right? And it’s a huge phenomenon. And so we had a third-grade teacher that thought it’d be a great idea to have us all trace our family tree. And this is a school that’s 40%, black. Now, what kind of lesson is that going to teach? Because the black kids at that time… At least now, you can go back a little further, potentially, but in 1977, that was just gonna run, you smack dab into enslavement. And I’m able to go back and oh look, and… Now couldn’t go back very far on the Jewish side. Didn’t have those stories. Those stories have been lost. And boy on that Anglo side, on that Gentile side, oh, my gosh, look, I’m connected to some royalty. Oh, and you get on Ancestry and you get on Ancestry and be honest, if you’ve been on ancestry, you have been, you have been, somebody’s making money on Ancestry. So we’ve all been on there. And when you get on there and you intercept… And that little leaf starts spinning, that little leaf starts spinning, you know, you’re like, oh, I hope it’s not a peasant. You’re not looking for a peasant. You’re looking for some nobleman, you’re looking for king or queen, something or other. Some Founding Fathers, some revolutionary hero. And I don’t mean like a revolution like now. I mean, like the American Revolution, you’re looking for Thomas Paine, you’re looking for somebody… You’re not looking for, like a labor organizer. I might be, but most of y’all would not probably be looking for that. We’re looking for these great people in history. That’s a huge privilege to actually be able to trace your history and connect it to the history.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:01:36
It is a privilege and the schools haven’t stopped asking for that assignment.
Tim Wise 1:01:39
Chanda Smith Baker 1:01:41
They haven’t stopped. And they don’t know what they’re doing when their kids bring those assignments home.
Tim Wise 1:01:47
Yeah. Right. It’s not empowering. It’s the opposite.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:01:50
It’s the opposite of it. And it makes you worry about them teaching your kids.
Tim Wise 1:01:56
Yeah. Well, I mean, then you also see these stories, these horror stories, right? Where these teachers who I assume are well-meaning, I don’t know, seems weird, but they have these lessons about slavery, where they’ve got kids, you know, acting out the Middle Passage, and they’re putting kids in the closet, pretending it’s the hold of a slave ship. And thinking that, and I’m gonna tell you right now, and I say this to someone who is Jewish, they would never do that. As if we were acting out outfits, they would never in their wildest imagination, would any teacher think that it was okay to pretend that that closet in the room was an oven that you were being pushed into and Birkenau? They would never do it. But they will do it with black pain. Because at some level, we have said in this country, black plain is not equal. Black pain is not real. Black and brown pain, Indigenous pain is not real. See my people’s pain. We all know, it’s a horror, so great that no one except the Nazi will try to deny it.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:02:51
So what happens when you confront this? Right? I’ve been in the place of like, yo, what you just did isn’t okay, right? And I’ve watched other people do that. And then they say, well, you know, like, we don’t need your race card.
Tim Wise 1:03:04
Right. Right. Well…
Chanda Smith Baker 1:03:09
Explain your people.
Tim Wise 1:03:15
Right. Well, first of all, the idea that race is a card is always I’ve always found fascinating. It says if white people who say that think that it is like, and this is a pained reference now, the trump card. No, no pun intended. That it is like the card that wins every hand. Like it’s like somehow white folks think that, like, we’ll be having a conversation with a person of color and then like, we’re winning the argument and then the black person’s like, oh, watch this. And then they’re like, and then we’re like, oh, damn, the race card. Okay, we give up. That’s not a thing. Right? If race is a card, it’s like the two of clubs, y’all. It doesn’t win anything. It’s not like a really winning card. I mean, it’s just like, it’s sort of weak ass, you know? So people of color don’t just bring… This is also the great myth that people of color will bring up racism at the drop of a hat as some kind of ploy. The research says it’s actually the opposite. That for everything a person of color tells you about, 10 things happen that they didn’t say anything about, because they didn’t think you could handle it. Right? James Baldwin also said that.f James Baldwin said that black folks will not tell white folks the truth, because white folks are not ready to hear it. Now, granted, he said that in the 1960s, but that’s still very much true in a lot of ways. So when you hear about something, trust that there were all kinds of things happening before and the same is true… Women stuff nine out of every 10 things that happened to them when it comes to misogyny and sexism and mistreatment in the workplace. So it’s the opposite. People hold stuff in. Not let things out. Precisely because they know that when they say they’re going to get accused of making it up, they’re going to get accused of being insane. They’re going to get accused of exaggerating, they’re going to maybe get retaliated against. The research on that is crystal clear that actually people of color don’t bring things up for that reason. And then the research is interesting, white folks don’t bring things up because we’re afraid we’re going to be perceived as racist. That’s our fear. Oh, my God, I’m going to say the wrong thing. I’m going to say the wrong thing. These people of color are going to think I’m racist, okay, like protip — here’s the thing. Don’t need to fear that. White folks. Because if you’re worried that people of color think you might be a little racist. All right, they already do. So don’t worry about it. Don’t worry about it. People of color know you were raised here, right? People of color, know where you’re from. They know what you were taught. It’s not that they’re being mean to you. It’s just like, come on. So if you’re holding back and not engaging, because you’re afraid of that, like the horses have already left the barn y’all. Like just engage, you’d be better off to just be honest, because here’s the thing, a third body of research has found that when white folks won’t be honest, and talk about race, around people of color, that’s the very moment when people of color are like, yeah, I think I know why you’re not talking probably because you’re a racist, right? So we’d be better off to just be honest, and maybe make a mistake. Maybe you say the wrong thing. Maybe you do the wrong thing. And then you do what big people do, which is you pick yourself up and you try again. Right?
Chanda Smith Baker 1:06:25
Amen. So I read somewhere about something that you said around existing institutions continue to foster and perpetuate white privilege, that the subtle impersonal and even race-neutral policies contribute to racism and racial inequality today. Can you talk about race-neutral policy?
Tim Wise 1:06:45
Sure. So let’s think about a couple. Let’s talk about the workplace first, and we’ll talk about schools secondly. So there was a report in The New York Times several years ago, found right as we were coming out of the recession, couple years after the recession had technically ended, where they noted that about 47%… So right around half of all the new jobs in the post-recession economy were being filled, not from open competitions, you know, where you can, theoretically compare objective qualifications… I say theoretically, because I don’t think it’s nearly that easy, right? But wasn’t that. And it wasn’t even just the technical, you know, sort of traditional old boys networks, which we’ve all heard about, and that we know operate, it was one particular mechanism… 47% of the jobs being filled by way of letters of recommendation written for aspiring employees by existing employees of the same company, or institution or department or organization, right. So if I know Jim, over in accounting, Jim’s gonna write me a letter, and they’re going to maybe hire me more so than they would somewhere else. Now, in theory, that doesn’t have to be racist. And in theory, it doesn’t have to be sexist. And in theory, it doesn’t have to be classist or reinforcing of class privilege. But in practice, what the research found, right, was who are the people that are more likely to know Jim over in accounting, right? Who are the people that are in the know who have the people to write them those letters — they’re disproportionately white, they’re disproportionately male, and they’re disproportionately affluent went to the quote, unquote, right schools, etc. So you might be a person of color. You might be a woman of any color, you might be a working-class white dude, for that matter, and you might be the most qualified person for the gig. But if you don’t know, Jim, you’re out of luck for half the jobs. That’s a race-neutral mechanism. But the outcome is no different than if half of the HR directors and hiring agents in this country were overt bigots. The outcome is the same. So you don’t have to have a bigot in the board room, you don’t have to have a bigot in the academic department, if that’s the way that jobs are being in some way filled. Schools. Standardized testing, obviously, given to unstandardized students from unstandardized backgrounds taught unstandardized material with unstandardized funding unstandardized teacher preparation, and then we call that justice. That is a race-neutral thing with a race-specific impact. You can probably think of, you know, any a lot of other examples of that. You could think of them in housing and criminal justice. But the point is, that’s what we mean we talk about institutional racism. It’s often that stuff. It’s not the blatant, you know, we think of institutional racism as segregation as enslavement. Yes, that’s like hardcore, formal institutional racism. But there are also these subtle things that we do as normative. Even the process of just sizing up a resume. Everybody, we ask people about hiring, they say, well, I just want to hire the most qualified person, of course, I get that. But the process of determining who that is, think about it. If I’m looking at a bunch of resumes, if there are certain people who have had more time to build up their credentials, because they’ve had more access, because they knew more people, because they had… They got in the pipeline early. Their resume should look better, right? They should have more experience. That doesn’t mean they’re better. If I start three laps behind you in a five lap race and at the end of the race, I’m only down by one lap. Guess what? I’m faster than your ass, right? But if you cross the tape first and you still get the trophy and everybody goes well, you’re the fastest runner no did you watch the race? Or did you just look at the outcome. Because the resume is the outcome, the test score is the outcome. It tells you nothing about the process that people went through to obtain that outcome. And if you’re not looking at that you will perpetuate injustice. Even if you’re a really good person, as I think most of us are, right? I think most of us are good people. But if you’re a good person caught up in a bad system, guess what? The system wins. Right? Your intentionality will not be sufficient. Right.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:10:27
We had a question submitted that asked, what is the difference between white supremacy and a white supremacist?
Tim Wise 1:10:38
Well, white supremacists are the product of white supremacy. And so… And you know, there’s a cyclical relationship to white supremacy then reinforcing and reinscribe white supremacy. To me, white supremacy is an ideology and a system, as is racism, but whites… First, let me delineate between racism and white supremacy first. Racism is a very generic thing. It’s sort of like the generic soda that you get at the store that just says soda, right? Like, that’s racism. White supremacy is the Coca-Cola of soda. It has the far and away greatest market share, right? Like far and away, it’s the Charmin of toilet paper, right? I mean, it’s like, it’s, it’s so in other words, in other parts of the world, you might have other forms of racism, you might have, for instance, in Japan, the oppression of ethnic Koreans, in Japan has a racialized component to it. But that’s not white supremacy, that’s a different kind of racism and might have terms for it. That’s a generic thing. In this country, the only operationalized form of racism is this market brand… Is this, you know, brand name called white supremacy. White supremacy is an ideology that says that whiteness, and those deemed white are in certain ways more deserving, more capable, more intelligent, have better values, and should be the ones properly running things. And anyone who’s deemed not white should somehow be subordinate or below that. And that can be at a very subtle level, or at a very conscious level that people feel that way. White supremacy as a system is just a system of white over nonwhite, it’s just a system whereby white folks are dominant in these institutions in ways that perpetuate injustice and inequity. And if you have that system in place where every institution is dominated by certain types of people, you send the message that only those types of people should really be in those positions of authority. And so so it reinforces white supremacy thinking. I’m not talking about Nazis, like that’s an extreme version of it, right? I’m talking about just the very subtle belief that like, and I and I’ve told this story before I got on an airplane back in 2003. And I’ve been doing this work professionally for 13 years. So I’m no amateur, like I’m a, I’m a pro at this work. And I get on an airplane 13 years in, and I’ve got two black pilots at the controls of the plane very rare. Less than 3% of the pilots in the country are African American. So to have even one is rare, to have two is extraordinary. And what’s the first thought that comes into my head? It is not I beg to remind you free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we have reached the moment of aviation equality. That was not the thought. The first thought that came into my head was some bullshit about oh my god, can these guys fly the plane? And then I caught myself and I was like, what just happened? And then I realized what happened, right? I’ve been conditioned to expect certain people to be in that cockpit. And yeah, I caught myself. Good for me. I’m doing my work. Okay, great, right. But the fact is, even I had the thought come into my head, which means we’ve all been conditioned. And when I told that story, many years ago, I told it to a friend of mine who’s a Chicano activist and educator, proud Mexican American man in Washington State. You know what he told me? He said, Listen, man, let me tell you how deep it is. A couple years ago, I took my mom in for open heart surgery in Seattle, and through the doors to meet us to prep my mom for surgery was a doctor and his name was Martinez. And when Dr. Martinez came through the room, also a Latino man, right? My internal thought he said was oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, I don’t want this Latino man. I need a white male with white hair. Because that is the sign of excellence, because he had grown up like some of us on Marcus Welby, right? And he’s like, that’s the guy. I need that guy. Even he, right? Even folks of color have been conditioned. That’s white supremacy. You don’t have to be white to imbibe white supremacy. And if you are white, you don’t have to accept white supremacy. You can reject that. You may be conditioned to be that but you can be counted conditioned to challenge it. You may not be able to be non-racist, but you can be anti-racist. You may not be able to be non white supremacist, but you can be anti-white supremacy. That’s the goal for all of us. Because we’re all being conditioned and advertising works, y’all. Whether you’re trying to sell people toilet paper, toothpaste, or racial stereotypes and biases.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:15:26
So as we get ready to close, that was a good next step for people to think about. Do you have any other recommendations, as all of us in this room are trying to challenge the conditioning that we have been raised in, that we’ve inherited, as we are exploring our institutional responsibility of perhaps doing no harm moving forward, doing better? It’s hard to recognize what’s wrong when you haven’t been conditioned to see it as wrong. And so what you know, any other sort of as closing comments, things that you wanted to say, offerings to our audience listening, and that are here in the room today, that might be useful?
Tim Wise 1:16:16
Well, I think we have to start it and think of it very much as that therapy metaphor that I used before, which isn’t really metaphor, it’s quite literal, for me, right? But, but I mean it in the sense that you have to… Whether you’re talking about therapy, and family therapy, and marital counseling, or any kind of therapy, where you’re trying to get at the root of some of your behavior, you have to be prepared to forgive yourself and you have to be prepared to locate your damage in a place in time. And so what I think we all have to do is really be willing to sit with our own narrative and our own stories, and get really clear on them. And that doesn’t mean you have to write a book or a memoir, right? But you might want to journal. You might want to sit and do some retrospective journaling on how you came to understand your identities. I say that with a plural intended because we have multiple identities, right? We have identities that are racial, and gendered and class, and sexual and age and religious and all of these things, ability or disability, right? We got all these things that make us who we are,. How did you come to understand the importance of those things? You know, I often I do workshops, where I ask people… I will spend an hour on it, I’ll say, you know, tell me, what did you learn about the racial other and the racial self? You yourself? And who were your teachers? Right? And I just want you to reflect on that. Were your teachers your family? Were they your actual classroom teachers? Were they your peers? Was it media influenced? And if so how? And the clearer that we get on that right? The more we begin to see the picture of how we’ve been manipulated. And the beauty of getting clear on that, like, I remember when I was told about the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, which trained me. One of the things they said is you just need to sit down and take some inventory, right? Because they would ask me questions like, why do you want to do this work? And I thought I had to come up with some real hip activist-y answer, right? So my hip activist-y the answer was, well, because an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And they were like, they were like, Yeah, that’s taken. So what else you got? And I was like, well I don’t know. And so they said, why don’t you sit down and give that some thought and take inventory? And so I got out a pad and legal pad and a pen, this is the early ’90s and mid-’90s. And I’m writing down everything I could remember about race in my life — good, bad, and nd otherwise. The things that I had seen, the things that I had objected to, the things I had stayed silent about, the times that I had received unearned privilege, but also the times that I had challenged, unfair treatment of others, right? You want to remember the good and the bad and the ugly. And so I’m writing all of it down. And I had like 10, 12, 15 pages of stuff, going all the way back to my childhood. And I realized in that moment, like, oh my God, like I am not, I am not in charge of my own script. Like, I’m not a control freak but the one thing I’d like to be in control of is my story. And this is showing me that these things that are outside of my control have been moving me around the chessboard all of my life. And once I understood it, it liberated me, because what it said to me was my work had to be about getting free from that. It wasn’t about freeing others. It wasn’t about liberating them. It’s not charity work, right? This is not about white. And this is really important. That mentality does matter. If the mindset that we go into is helping “those” people, we’re doomed. And they will not be liberated by our good intentions and our charitable mindset. We have to see ourselves as deeply damaged by the system of inequality so that fighting it is about self help. So that fighting it is about saving ourselves physically and spiritually wherever you want to take it. We have to figure out how we’re going to get free because we have put chains on our minds and chains on our hearts and chains around our souls to keep up a system that deep down I think we all know isn’t working for anyone. It’s not working for anyone. And once I could see how much it was damaging me like it damaged those friendships. You think I’m still tight with any of those people I went to Tennessee State with? You think I’m still tight with any of those folks that I was in elementary school with? I mean, we talk like on Facebook and stuff. And I get to see and get together with people like every now and then. But we’re not tight the same way. Why? Because even by sixth grade, we had had such different experiences that we no longer even had stuff that we could really relate on. This is damaging people’s connections to other human beings. This is keeping us from being the people that we were meant to be. Once you understand that, this is not about helping somebody else. It’s about helping yourself. All that stuff we preach to people on the bottom, but we never do. Those of us who’ve had little success, right? Self help is for us as well. And we just have to be clear on that. And I think when you start to tell your own story, even even if it’s just to yourself, even if it’s just to yourself or a circle of friends, it will liberate you because you’ll see yourself in this work. And you can’t get burned out when you know it’s about you, see? If you think it’s about helping somebody else, you can easily get burned out or distracted or be like, this is too hard, you know, and it’s not changing. But if you understand that you got like a very short time on this planet to get it right, you’ll just try the hardest you can and pass it on to whoever’s coming after you and you’ll let go of that obsession with helping somebody else even though we want to work together to help each other, you’ll realize that it’s about you. And then at that point, you become truly dangerous in a good way. You become dangerous in the way that Derek Bell talked about in his work when he said that all the progress we’ve made in this country was in those moments of interest convergence. It was never because white Americans woke up and said, oh my gosh, we’ve been doing the wrong thing all this time, we should change our whole worldview. No, no, it was always because white folks understood the cost to themselves and to the larger country. It’s never altruism. It’d be nice if it was it’d be nice and people were saintly. But here’s the thing, black and brown folks, y’all don’t fight racism out of the goodness of your hearts, you fight racism to stay alive. I don’t think we need more high-minded motives. We can use the same motives, the same mentality, it’s about us saving our lives, once we have that same mentality, then we can work together and we can get something done.
Chanda Smith Baker 1:22:28
So here we sit in Minnesota, Minnesota Nice, the land of all the disparities. That is so sad that skin color has that predictive power here. That there’s an opportunity for us in this moment, to think differently about ourselves, to think differently about how we enter these conversations around race and class and privilege. That there has to be some grace extended to ourselves and to others as we work through this. But there also has to be some really hard conversations when things are just simply unacceptable. That it is our goal and collectively, I hope, that we can begin to think about… When you think about incremental change, which is very useful in this conversation and if you can just think about one thing that you’ve been silent about, that has been sitting in your spirit, if you can just think about one thing and if you don’t have the courage yet to address it but you know, if you just reached out and had a conversation with someone to float through how you might want to do that… I encourage you to go out and do that. Take it. Make it. You know, this is not simple. But I think that as we practice courage around these issues, it will become easier and easier. And we will find ourselves becoming more free. Thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much to our guests.
Souphak Kienitz 1:24:07
You can follow Chanda on Twitter at @ChandaSBaker. To listen to more episodes and learn about upcoming events, please visit ConversationsWithChanda.orgClose Transcript -
Tim Wise has spent decades committed to anti-racism activism and education.
Tim Wise is among the most prominent anti-racist writers and educators in the United States. He has spent the past 25 years speaking to audiences in all 50 states, on more than 1,000 college and high school campuses, at hundreds of professional and academic conferences, and to community groups across the country. He is a writer of seven books and also the host of the new podcast, Speak Out with Tim Wise.
You can see photos from this event on the Minneapolis Foundation’s Facebook page.