The NCORE 2013 conference brought a lot of heavy weights to town who are doing social justice work around racism. It also brought a lot of people with boots on the ground whose every day work and consciousness is helping to fan the flames of tolerance and change. As this is coming on the heels of the Dalai Lama’s visit here recently, all I can say is New Orleans and I are very lucky indeed (read: because we need a whole lot of healing and change in our tolerance level).
I had the distinct pleasure to interview Tim Wise whose talk I will miss as I head out of town this weekend. Mr. Wise was kind enough to grant me a last minute interview. I first heard of Tim Wise when I was speaking with another parent at my son’s school and I said I wanted to do work in the area of racism and social justice but didn’t know how to enter this field being a white person. My friend said you have to look for Wise on Google and watch him speak and he also loaned me some of Mr. Wise’s books – White Like Me and Color Blind.
Since I had already heard a lot of what Tim Wise has to say about the matter of racism and white privilege, I was interested in speaking to him as a parent – specifically a white parent of white children. So I began my interview asking him to tell me what tools he has used in his parenting to raise his children.
I have two daughters, 12 and 10 years old this July and needless to say I was well into my work by the time I met my wife and had kids, but like anyone else you never quite know what you’re in for when you are raising children. I had spoken to children before about this topic and not just college age kids but younger children, but it is a whole different ballgame when it is your children. It’s a lot easier to speak to other people’s children than your own. But then again I have 18 years to get it right with my own and only a moment in time to screw up other people’s kids. So I’m more deliberate with my children, I pace myself, and take my time. My model was my mother who is responsible for many aspects of who I came to be but it was never through dogmatic or direct communication about how to be, it was just clear what her values were and what were her expectations of me. From early on she modeled behavior that shaped me. She enrolled me in a preschool that had mostly Black kids and had Black female teachers. This was back in ’71 or ’72 and my mom recognized the value of my being in a group where I was not the norm and where authority figures were people of color.
I’ve been more didactic and deliberate with my children than my mother was. The key component though is modeling what you believe and being in integrated spaces. It is preferable to do it like my mom did and that is place your children with authority figures who they have to be accountable to who are people of color. My daughters are both dancers and we have sought out coaches, mentors and authority figures who are people of color. So as they develop as young white persons they will see people in authority other than white leaders and white authority. Some white parents say having a [biracial] President takes away the need to be deliberate. But young kids don’t respond to abstract symbols, so the fact that there are people of color in leadership roles has no effect at all on children. Kids only respond when they directly know someone. If my daughters knew Barack Obama it might matter, but instead they know their teacher and their hip hop dance choreographer and are in integrated settings with authority figures and in effect are subordinate to people of color.
What do you do as a parent to explain white privilege and therefore the burden of white guilt to your daughters? Obviously no parent wants to burden their children with this pain.
No parent wants to hand over the burden of white guilt, but because I have daughters I am lucky (if you want to call it that) to have a dual conversation with them – one about sexism where we speak about boys and men and how they might oppress women, and how they have to seek boys and men who will be in solidarity with them. And, at the same time, the flipside, as white people in society where people of color will be the target of their oppression and they will have to have solidarity with people of color just like they want boys and men to have it with them.
So we don’t emphasize guilt so much as solidarity the same way you would frame a conversation about the LGBT community. There are two things about guilt: 1) the extent that every day they see their father doing what he does is a bit of an advantage I have because it is not the norm for most white fathers; and 2) I encourage other parents and teachers when they are speaking about oppression, whether historical or present day, to start first with stories of resistance.
When you start with a narrative of resistance then it is not about victimization. So rather than start with the genocide and oppression of the Native Americans or African Americans, you should start instead with the slave rebellion not the middle passage. Often people want to start at the beginning because it is chronological but if you follow Civil Rights with the sit ins and bus boycotts instead of starting with Jim Crow it grants the target group a sense of agency.
For white kids, heterosexuals and men, you make sure you speak about ally-ship. There are good children’s books, not enough of them, about civil rights and ally-ship. There is a book about John Lewis and his beating in New Orleans that my daughter just picked up at the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum and read. So with Civil Rights and Abolition there were white folks who stood up, as they did against the conquest of the Philippines, and who stood up for Native Americans and for African Americans.
So in teaching your children about their heritage you say there are an awful lot of people who have done awful things to people but there are also people who have stood up against oppression and you have a choice just as these people did. You are not trapped in your skin. There was a time when I was in that phase of my life when I was young and felt tremendous guilt – it was like a weigh station on the path – it awakens you to the problem but it is a temporary destination and not a permanent residence. The end goal of guilt is expiation – to relieve it. So you either become militantly committed to fighting injustice (which you will find is not going to make it go away) or you lash out against those who provide injustice (which doesn’t work).
What advice would you give white parents in how to speak to their white children, how to prepare them for being conscious adults?
I would say to be as honest and transparent as possible. It is a mistake that all white parents make – especially the most liberal ones – that their children won’t think of race until they talk about it. There is scientific research that shows that as early as six months old children notice difference and begin making judgments and assumptions around that difference. If they are starting to figure this out for themselves without parental guidance they are going to be filling in a lot of gaps all by themselves. By five years old they are capable of looking out the window and knowing that some communities don’t look like others – the roads aren’t as nice, the houses aren’t as nice, the schools and stores aren’t as nice – and if parents are not having a conversation about what those children just saw they will jump to their own conclusions. They won’t know that these communities have fewer resources because of a history of institutionalized racism. They will just think these people are bad because they have less. All children are mostly ego – my house is better than yours, my dog is better than yours, my dad is better than yours.
Most white people live in all white communities and so white children end up concluding that “these people” don’t live near us, don’t go to my school, are not friends with my parents and so they are not as good. Fifteen years of internalizing that before they get to college and it is easy to see how they are ignorant. So it is important to raise mindful kids.
What are your thoughts about NOLA where young mostly black males are dying at absurd levels daily. You can’t go back to childhood and make it right for them. So what could you do?
There is a problem in New Orleans with young men, overwhelmingly Black, dying and it has to do with the theory of violence. Whether in the streets of New Orleans or Chicago or Newton, Connecticut or in war or with rape that locates the violence in the offender and only the offender. The odds are pretty good that you are not going to stop victimization or stop the offender if violence is looked at as arising out of a pathology of people. There is an epidemic of rape that has always existed and now they have Tumblr and Instagram photos denigrated young women at parties. Just look at the Steubenville, Ohio rape case. You could say that it is awful what these boys did – these football players, jocks – and part of me went to that place as a father of girls but the other part of me kicked in – the only way for our daughters – is to not view these boys as despicable human beings who believe women are worthy of this mistreatment but that something has gone horribly wrong with them.
The young men, disproportionately of color, and low income, have been targeted a million different ways in their community to say they are unworthy of decent homes, decent schools, decent jobs. White folks intrinsically feel like we are entitled to the American dream and the government contract, but Brown and Black folks are getting a different message. Now the reality is that most Black young men are not violent and that is because this message is being countered in their community by their parents, relatives, adults, teachers, ministers who tell them contrary to what you are hearing, you are worthy. But even there the outside message from media is telling a powerfully different story.
The philosophical underpinning of all violence whether here in New Orleans or in Iraq or to our planet is very much related – in Black culture it’s the pathology of violence and in white culture its the criminal pathology of what we do to our planet because of consumption – the disposability of people and resources. If people at the top were not in line with disposability, I can assure you people at the bottom wouldn’t come up with this idea. If a white kid has a drug problem, his family throws resources at him to help him. If a Black kid has the same drug problem and maybe not even as frequent a drug problem, his resources are more limited to fight against something that will destroy him.
With everything you have been lecturing, writing and thinking about for the last fifteen years, where are your thoughts now, what did you wake up thinking about this morning?
I’m thinking about my kids and how to raise them in this incredibly toxic culture to be effective adults, to be healthy physically, emotionally and psychologically so that they can help make this a better place.
I’m thinking about ways to be effective with my work. All of us who do this kind of work are always revisiting the effectiveness of the pedagogical tools we use to see what is most effective. We are consistently revisiting and revising the approaches we are taking.
What are your thoughts about social media and its effectiveness?
I’ve never really been satisfied with it. It serves a great purpose but it’s so easy to misuse it. Sometimes I have misused it as a strategic tool. I don’t feel good about blasting somebody on Twitter and when it happens I feel bad and say I won’t do it again and then time goes by and I react. The problem is that it is so easy to react without filtering. There is an opportunity for constructive ridicule on social media but there is no ethical code in its use. As a parent I’ve come to believe I don’t want to tweet or post what I would be embarrassed to have my child read. It’s the same thing I tell them – if you post it is for the world to see so think about any photo or message you put up there.