Uprooting White Privilege

Uprooting White Privilege

Noted activist Tim Wise speaks to the RISD community as part of the 2015–16 Martin Luther King, Jr. series. | photo by David O’Connor

On October 19 noted anti-racism author and activist Tim Wise kicked off a yearlong series of events at RISD focused on justice and equality, and honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After leading two daytime workshops for faculty and staff, he spoke to the larger campus community in the evening – the first speaker in the newly envisioned MLK Series, which now presents a special guest each semester. During Wintersession former Ambassador Andrew Young will visit RISD and speak, followed by Faith Ringgold in the spring.

As he spoke about Uprooting Privilege: Leadership Responsibility in a World of Institutional Inequality, Wise first addressed an obvious paradox: that he is a white man speaking out about white privilege. Identifying himself as an ally in the struggle against racial inequality, he encouraged the audience to follow the lead of people of color – and not only respected scholars of color – and listen carefully to their take on white supremacy and strategies for combatting it.

“White people have always denied the existence of racism,” Wise pointed out. “And yet they still insist that they know more about racism and, for example, police brutality than black people who are dealing with it every day.”

Wise rattled off a head-spinning litany of stats – Gallup poll numbers, jobless rates, exponentially rising costs for higher education, the incredibly inequitable distribution of wealth in the US – all in support of his primary point: that the very privileged few at the top of the economic ladder are using racism to deflect anger away from true problems.

“These fictional narratives about illegal immigrants taking our jobs and lazy black people cheating the welfare system allow other working class people to see ‘them’ as different from ‘us,’” Wise maintains. “They allow us to stay oblivious to the real problems: Wall Street looters and powerful decision makers sending the jobs overseas.

“Our ancestors came to this country for the same reason that people are coming today: for opportunities,” Wise added. “Do you think the colonists on the boats that came over in the 1600s were the king’s buddies? They were the losers of European society!”

The current system in the US limits opportunities and access to a privileged few, Wise says. “We need to build entirely new systems based on multicultural democracy. Yes, we inherited this problem from the generations that came before us, but it’s still our responsibility to demand justice and equity. And we can’t have a productive conversation about how to do that until we face the truth.”

Wise went on to praise the “intersectionality” of the Black Lives Matter movement, noting its acknowledgment of the ways that race, gender and class intersect in the struggle against oppression. In response to a question posed by a student in the audience, he also pointed out the role that artists can play in combatting racism. “Artists are in a unique position to change popular perception,” he said. “Activism is not just about meetings and marches. Your art is your activism. Make work that is socially relevant and speaks to our current condition.”

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