Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse

By RobtheIdealist

Tim Wise, the White anti-racist lecturer, found himself mired in controversy over confrontational remarks he made on his Facebook page.  While Wise’ recent response to what he perceived to be personal attacks over his Facebook was the culminating point, the controversy started as far back as July when Wise received criticism for speaking at a Teach for America conference and he responded in an aggressive manner.

Here is Wise summarizing the conflict on W. Kamau Bell’s show, Totally Biased.  I disagree with some of his rhetoric; for example, Whiteness is not like being tall.  However, I think that the interview humanizes a person that is clearly in a place of pain.

Personally, I’ve always thought that Tim Wise’ work was designed for White people.  I think it’s important for White people to work with White people on confronting systemic White supremacy and its influence on them as white people.  Tim Wise can have that struggle, and other White people should join him.

I’m not interested in talking to White people about race and racism for the rest of my life.  Besides, Tim Wise has access to White spaces that I don’t and White people are more likely to believe him than me, that’s how a White supremacist power structure works. Instead of fighting for Tim Wise’ access, I would much rather work to destroy systemic White supremacy.

I don’t find it meaningful to criticize Tim Wise the person and judge whether he’s living up to some anti-racist bona fides. Instead, I choose to focus on the paradigm of “White privilege” upon which his work is based, and its conceptual and practical limitations. Although the personal is political, not all politics is personal; we have to attack systems.  To paraphrase the urban poet and philosopher Meek Mill: there are levels to this shit.

How I Define Privilege

There are power structures that shape individuals’ lived experiences.  Those structures provide and withhold resources to people based on factors like class, disability status, gender, and race.  It’s not a “benefit” to receive resources from an unjust order because ultimately, injustice is cannibalistic.  Slavery binds the slave, but destroys the master. So, the point then becomes not to assimilate the “underprivileged”, but to instead eradicate the power structures that create the privileges in the first place.

The conventional wisdom on privilege often says that it’s “benefits” are “unearned”. However, this belief ignores the reality and history that privilege is earned and maintained through violence. Systemic advantages are allocated and secured as a class, and simply because an individual hasn’t personally committed the acts, it does not render their class dominance unearned.

The history and modern reality of violence is why Tim Wise’ comparison between whiteness and tallness fails. White supremacy is not some natural evolution, nor did it occur by happenstance. White folks *murdered* people for this thing that we often call “White privilege”; it was bought and paid for by blood and terror. White supremacy is not some benign invisible knapsack. The same interplay between violence and advantage is true of any systemic hierarchy (class, gender, disability, etc). Being tall, irrespective of its advantages, does not follow that pattern of violence.

Privilege is Failing Us

Unfortunately, I think our use of the term “privilege” is no longer a productive way for us to gain a thorough understanding of systemic injustice, nor is it helping us to develop collective strategies to dismantle those systems. Basically, I never want to hear the word “privilege” again because the term is so thoroughly misused at this point that it does more harm than good.

Andrea Smith, in the essay “The Problem with Privilege”, outlines the pitfalls of misapplied privilege theory.

Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege.  Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed.  Inevitably, those with more privilege would develop new heretofore unknown forms of oppression from which they suffered… Consequently, the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible.  These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.

Andrea Smith, The Problem with Privilege

Dr. Tommy Curry says it more bluntly, “It’s not genius to say that in an oppressive society there are benefits to being in the superior class instead of the inferior one.  That’s true in any hierarchy, that’s not an ‘aha’ moment.”

Conceptually, privilege is best used when narrowly focused on explaining how structures generally shape experiences. However, when we overly personalize the problem, then privilege becomes a tit-for-tat exercise in blame, shame, and guilt.  In its worst manifestations, this dynamic becomes “oppression Olympics” and people tally perceived life advantages and identities in order to invalidate one another.  At best, we treat structural injustice as a personal problem, and moralizing exercises like “privilege confessions” inadequately address the nexus between systemic power and individual behavior.

The undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.  The activist genealogies that produced this response to racism and settler colonialism were not initially focused on racism as a problem of individual prejudice.  Rather, the purpose was for individuals to recognize how they were shaped by structural forms of oppression.

Andrea Smith, The Problem with Privilege

Bigger than Tim Wise

However, the problem with White privilege isn’t simply that Tim Wise, a white man, can build a career off of Black struggles.  As I’ve already said, White people need to talk to White people about the historical and social construction of their racial identities and power, and the foundation for that conversation often comes from past Black theory and political projects. The problem for me is that privilege work has become a cottage industry of self-help moralizing that in no way attacks the systemic ills that create the personal injustices in the first place.

A substantive critique of privilege requires us to get beyond identity politics.  It’s not about good people and bad people; it’s a bad system.  It’s not just White people that participate in the White privilege industry, although not everyone equally benefits/profits (see: Tim Wise). Dr. Tommy Curry takes elite Black academics to task for their role in profiting from the White privilege industry while offering no challenge to White supremacy.

These conversations about White privilege are not conversations about race, and certainly not about racism; it’s a business where Blacks market themselves as racial therapists for White people…

The White privilege discourse became a bourgeois distraction.  It’s a tool that we use to morally condemn whites for not supporting the political goals of elite black academics that take the vantages of white notions of virtue and reformism and persuade departments, journals, and presses into making concessions for the benefit of a select species of Black intellectuals in the Ivory Tower, without seeing that the white racial vantages that these Black intellectuals claim they’re really interested in need to be dissolved, need to be attacked all the way to the very bottom of American society.

Dr. Tommy Curry, Radio Interview

The truth is that a lot of people, marginalized groups included, simply want more access to existing systems of power.  They don’t want to challenge and push beyond these systems; they just want to participate.  So if we continue to play identity politics and persist with a personal privilege view of power, then we will lose the struggle.  Barack Obama is president, yet White supremacy marches on, and often with his help (record deportations, expanded a drone war based on profiling, fought on behalf of US corporations to repeal a Haitian law that raised the minimum wage).

Adolph Reed, writing in 1996, predicted the quagmire of identity politics in the Age of Obama.

In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics.

Adolph Reed Jr., Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene

Although it has always been the case, Obama’s election and subsequent presidency has made it starkly clear that it’s not just White people that can perpetuate White supremacy.  Systems of oppression condition all members of society to accept systemic injustice, and there are (unequal) incentives for both marginalized and dominant groups to perpetuate these structures.  Our approaches to injustice must reflect this reality.

This isn’t a naïve plea for “unity”, nor am I saying that talking about identities/experiences is inherently “divisive”.  Many of these privilege discussions use empathy to build personal and collective character, and there certainly should be space for us to work together to improve/heal ourselves and one another. People will always make mistakes and our spaces have to be flexible enough to allow for reconciliation. Though we don’t have to work with persistently abusive people who refuse to redirect their behavior, there’s a difference between establishing boundaries and embracing puritanism. Privilege has become an exercise in personal puritanism.

Fighting systemic marginalization and exploitation requires more than good character, and we cannot fetishize personal morals over collective action. Privilege is not the answer and we must do better.

33 Responses to “Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse”

  1. Brannu says:

    “Systems of oppression condition all members of society to accept systemic injustice, and there are (unequal) incentives for both marginalized and dominant groups to perpetuate these structures. Our approaches to injustice must reflect this reality.”

    I’m interested in what transformative approach you feel would be able to reflect the reality of this conditioning process in order to effectively alter the course of systematized privilege.

    • robtheidealist says:

      I think the Andrea Smith article offers some examples. Here is one:

      “An example would be the factory movement in Argentina where workers have
      appropriated factories and seized the means of production themselves.
      They have also developed cooperative relationships with other
      appropriated factories. In addition, in many factories all of the work
      is collectivized. For instance, a participant from a group I work with
      who recently had a child and was breastfeeding went to visit a factory.
      She tried to sign up for one of the collectively-organized tasks of the
      factory, and was told that breastfeeding was her task. The factory
      recognized breastfeeding as work on par with all the other work going on
      in the factory.” http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/

  2. robtheidealist says:

    Also, I really hope that people don’t think that I’m a fan of the rapper Meek Mill lol. The number of people that have clicked on the link make me believe that they expected that he was some sort of profound poet. sorry lol

  3. I really enjoyed this essay, so much privilege talk seems to be about making a systemic issue perpetuated largely by institutions into a personal accounting of biases. I touched on some similar points from an anarchist point of view in this essay, where I argued that formal institutions use policy as a way of papering over privilege, preserving the institution’s legitimacy at the cost of a real, human, spontaneous, sincere human to human connection that causes us to see beyond social fables. I’m pleased to see better writers than I share at least some parts of this point of view.

    • robtheidealist says:

      Thank you, I think your article attacks the issue from a different point of view, and I appreciate your perspective. It gave me some things to think about. Thanks

  4. Tara says:

    I think privilege if used as a noun to describe and qualify another noun (as in “white privilege” and “gender privilege”) is just lazy rhetoric. In our efforts to seek more transformative ways of articulating inequality, we don’t have to shun the word “privilege”, we just need to work better at describing the very real degrading and marginalizing circumstances individuals and communities confront. For instance saying that “x is a privilege of upper income earners” is more illustrative and poignant than pointing to an abstract rich person shouting “class privilege!”. When explaining phenomenon and social organization, we need to challenge ourselves to articulare and name, with nuance, the inequalities associated with access to resources, information, and leisure, and then perhaps we can get down to the dirty work of transformative politics. Great article, by the way.

    • robtheidealist says:

      yes, i agree that specificity matters. my position has always been that I dislike the way that the concept is being discussed, and that discourse has devolved from the original framework.

      however, i don’t think that the effort has to be in reclaiming the word, we need to develop practices that reflect a deeper understanding of systemic oppression (as you’ve said) and perhaps new words will emerge as we engage in that work

      thank you for your comment

  5. Guest says:

    having
    some experience with anti-oppression work, it has often come up that
    anti-oppression feels like guilt-tripping and shaming. i have had the
    oppression olympics brought up as well. i find these are results of
    misinformation and misuse of anti-oppression
    principles. i agree that anti-oppression may not mobilize peoples, but i
    believe that they are the required foundational work of all the steps
    we take towards liberation.

    recognizing
    our privileges may bring up a sense of guilt because we are having to
    face how much power we have in certain aspects of our lives. this can
    often paralyze us, until we realize that it is not so much about being
    guilty (for a violent legacy we have not asked for) as it is about being
    *responsible* (about what we do with our privilege, how it affects the
    people we interact with, and where it can take us.)

    a
    word i want to introduce into this discourse is *KYRIARCHY* –
    structures of domination working together as a network–not just one
    group dominating another. its branches include, but are not limited to,
    ableism, racism, sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, ageism, and classism.
    in a kyriarchy, different forms of supremacy on different axes are
    independent and interdependent. the word considers all parts of the
    oppressive structure we live in evenly–no one oppression is worse or
    better or more important than another. we are all subject to kyriarchy,
    and we all benefit from it; we all share the burden and the blame in
    different measures and proportions.

    anti-oppression
    principles do not exist to shame, blame, or guilt others… nor do they
    exist to pole-vault over each other to get to the top of turd mountain
    (aka the globalized patriarchy-tripping world and its structures.) they
    exist to acknowledge oppression in its many forms and how they affect
    our lives. it’s about bringing attention to the elephant in the room.

    i’ll give you an example:
    environmentalist
    groups often get called out for not addressing sexism, ableism, racism,
    classism, intersectionality, etc. someone i’ve spoken with once said,”i
    don’t see what they have to do with environmentalism.” i have also
    heard, “but we don’t have time to talk about those things. once we save
    the planet then we can deal with those things after.”

    i
    think it’s important to have single-focus groups. after all, there is a
    lot of work that needs to be done. but what many single-focus groups
    fail to recognize is that by not talking about sexism, ableism, racism,
    classism, etc… they are isolating and excluding the very people that
    organize with them! what a disservice to the people, what a disservice
    to the cause.

    i
    have had someone say to me that anti-oppression divides people. that
    talking about power and privilege holds movements back because instead
    of talking about the “real issues” we become caught up making each other
    feel bad about our privileges.

    the
    fact is, these divisions ALREADY EXIST and not talking about them does
    not make them go away. as much as i would like to believe that gender,
    ability, sexual orientation, cultural heritage, class and so on
    shouldn’t get in the way of my organizing, they only do when people
    choose to pretend these dynamics aren’t there when they are actually
    affecting every thought, every decision, every action, and every
    nonaction in the room.

    we can’t suddenly stop being oppressive by the mere desire to no longer be oppressive. we begin by talking about it!

    so thanks for opening this discussion. thanks for that first step. signing off with this quote:

    “having
    privilege isn’t something you can usually change, but that’s okay,
    because it’s not something you should be ashamed of, or feel bad about.
    being told you have privilege, or that you’re privileged, isn’t an
    insult. it’s a reminder! the key to privilege isn’t worrying about
    having it, or trying to deny it, or apologize for it, or get rid of it.
    it’s just paying attention to it, and knowing what it means for you and
    the people around you. having privilege is like having big feet. no one
    hates you for having big feet! they just want you to remember to be
    careful where you walk.” – sindeloke, on privilege

  6. d says:

    just fyi, Kamau was the one who likens white privilege to being tall.

  7. robtheidealist says:

    People are correct to point out that Bell, not Wise, is the one that initiated the comparison between Whiteness and tallness. In my first reading of the interview, I felt that Wise offered no correction to this point of view and he let it slide. So, to me, he cosigned it. Thanks for pointing that out in the comment section.

  8. robtheidealist says:

    I feel like Wise cosigned the analogy, but I of course could be wrong. A TV appearance is not the best space for thinking, it’s about reactions.

    I can’t offer a thorough critique of Grameen bank, nor the Peace Corps. I will say that these initiatives are fundamentally reformist and I don’t have much faith in them. I am particularly hard on the Peace Corps, which has a mission to spread Americanism around the world and has historically been a breeding ground for imperialism.

    Thank You for your comment.

  9. robtheidealist says:

    I’m struggling with that very same issue as I apply for teaching jobs. Most of the opportunities are in charter schools, which I believe do much more to harm than help.

    I don’t have the answers, but I am aware of the problem and I’m looking for spaces where it is a little easier to do transformative work. Sometimes that isn’t possible, so you work to open up space where ever you are currently working, but that can have negative consequences with very little immediate reward. I will look into exploring this very issue going forward. However, I will say, there is no such thing as a pure space, it’s always contested and the struggle to attack systemic conditioning and injustice is a constant one.

    Thank you for your comment

  10. robtheidealist says:

    Part of my motivation for writing this article was to explore some of the very questions that you bring up.

    I think Tim Wise has a place to deal with the effects of White supremacy on White people,and I am not really interested in evaluating whether he succeeds or fails in doing so. I used his example to launch into a critique of the discourse that he uses, so-called “privilege”.

    As you pointed out, it was Bell who mentioned the Whiteness and tallness analogy, but Tim Wise let him slide and IMO cosigned the statement. Regardless of whether that’s how Wise truly feels, the “privilege” discourse lends itself to Bell’s very common misperception that Whiteness is just a “characteristic” with “benefits”, like being tall.

    I already said that I’m not interested in talking to White people about race for the rest of my life. I’m tired of being the Black person trying to help White folks to “get it”. If Tim Wise sees that as his work, then that’s great. It’s hard enough for me to work with other Black people who don’t “get it”. I can be triggered by the denials and histrionics of ignorant White people, so I really don’t get much joy from those interactions and I am more than happy to let Tim Wise have that struggle.

    I encourage you to read the Andrea Smith article, it has some great examples of how to make this all “exist together”.

    http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/

    “To give one smaller example, when Incite! Women of Color Against
    Violence, organized, we questioned the assumption that “women of color”
    space is a safe space. In fact, participants began to articulate that
    women of color space may in fact be a very dangerous space. We realized
    that we could not assume alliances with each other, but we would
    actually have to create these alliances. One strategy that was helpful
    was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built
    a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures
    of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc. We then
    structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where
    we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis
    were particularly problematic. The issues we have covered include:
    disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and
    anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others. However, in this space,
    while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we
    developed action plans for how we would collectively try to
    transform our politics and praxis. Thus, this space did not create the
    dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession. Instead, we
    presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and
    that we would need to work together to undo them. Consequently, in my
    experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate
    personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry
    about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue
    privilege who would need to publicly confess. The space became one
    that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive
    accountability.”

    Thank you for your comment.

  11. robtheidealist says:

    Yes. I think Smith gives another good example:

    “To give one smaller example, when Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, organized, we questioned the assumption that “women of color” space is a safe space. In fact, participants began to articulate that women of color space may in fact be a very dangerous space. We realized that we could not assume alliances with each other, but we would actually have to create these alliances. One strategy that was helpful was rather than presume that we were acting “non-oppressively,” we built a structure that would presume that we were complicit in the structures of white supremacy/settler colonialism/heteropatriarchy etc. We then structured this presumption into our organizing by creating spaces where we would educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic. The issues we have covered include: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others. However, in this space,while we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis. Thus, this space did not create the dynamic of the confessor and the hearer of the confession. Instead, we presumed we are all implicated in these structures of oppression and that we would need to work together to undo them. Consequently, in my experience, this kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess. The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability.

  12. robtheidealist says:

    thank you, i had a lot of help. we are all working in concert to try to heal and overcome these issues. keep up the good fight

  13. […] Tim Wise and the Failure of Privilege Discourse by Robtheidealist […]

  14. robtheidealist says:

    Thank you for your comment, that’s a lot to digest. I will take some time and get back to you in the future.

    • vee says:

      yea.. i should have just written another article or something lol. there is so much to talk about when it comes to anti-oppression.

      in short: your article does bring up a point (and so does tim wise.. kind of) – that the discourse on privilege is counterproductive and that it often seems to be used as leverage for marginalized groups of people to take the status and positions of power held by their oppressors for themselves.

      i cannot disagree. it totally happens.

      but i believe that having conversations about personal privilege and power and systemic privilege and power have a purpose and play important roles in how we shift our behaviours as people, as a community, and as a society. the issue with the discourse on privilege is HOW we have those conversations and WHY.

      leaving it at that.

      again, thanks for opening up this conversation.

      vee

  15. ASY says:

    I had a friend post on this same matter, earlier this year. We agree entirely that “privilege” has come to stress the personal instead of the social. Yet, I do wonder about the notion that white people are responsible for teaching each other about racism. I understand it as an effective strategy (as white people are more likely to listen to each other) but I fear that may be insufficient in a country where black testimony used to be inadmissible in court (and remains so in fact if not in law).

    • robtheidealist says:

      thanks. you bring up a good point about testimony.

      White on White character-building exercises/discussions should be about understanding their racial identity and its historical and social construction.

      More White people should become knowledgeable on the historical and social construction of race and racism, and that knowledge is acquired by learning from a variety of sources from Black and non-Black writers and creators.

      I didn’t come out the womb understanding race and racism, I’m constantly expanding my knowledge and confronting new ideas and challenges.

      Sure, talking to me can sometimes be helpful, but it’s not because I’m Black, it’s because I’m relatively knowledgeable on the subject. My racial experience is a useful lens through which I observe historical and social phenomena, and it informs my approach to the subject. What positive insight can come from White people using their racial experiences as a lens to approach the subject of race and racism?

      However, as I’ve outlined elsewhere in the comment section and throughout the article, this kind of character-building is nice, but if it’s not tied to collective action then it’s just moralizing.

  16. Wendyxqm says:

    White people when left to our own devices, are opportunists-we have been programmed to think we are superior and we can only overcome this by taking a principled stance of solidarity by working under African leadership, in our own white communities. The Uhuru Movement has created the exact role for white people in the African liberation movement: working under the direct leadership of the African People’s Socialist Party, educating whites about why it IS in our best interest to support the self determination of African people and to pay reparations (whites within the Uhuru Solidarity Movement pay reparations on a monthly basis), as well as working in the belly of the beast to turn back the stolen resources to African and oppressed people. White people can join us in this stance, because this is colonialism, not racism, this is parasitic capitalism that can only survive by exploiting and oppressing http://www.uhurusolidarity.org. If Tim Wise truly was invested in the liberation of African people HE would be paying reparations, and wouldn’t be whining on facebook because people are telling him about how HE exploits oppression for his own gain.

  17. […] Tim Wise and the Failure of Privilege Discourse […]

  18. Judith Mowry says:

    Thank you for this. I had reread it twice and sent to everyone I know. There is so much that is so beautiful and powerful in this. Thank you again.

  19. Bob says:

    Great piece, definitely sums up feelings towards this. I see irony in the fact that you shared a Meek Mill song which has a hook talking about hos.. Male privilege much? (what a massive over utilisation of the N word, the word bitch and the word ho)

  20. leelooparks says:

    RobtheIdealist, you miss

    something crucial that Wise asserts repeatedly:
    working to end privilege in any form isn’t just for people of color, women, differently able bodied, qurre, etc.; he
    believes systematic privilege is bad for all life on earth. That gets WAY beyond identity
    politics. Supremacy is killing the EARTH. Oh, I guess that’s identifying as human…

    • robtheidealist says:

      As I said in the article, this post isn’t really about evaluating Tim Wise’ message so much as it is about attacking the way we all talk about White privilege.

      I’m actually not really criticizing Tim Wise, I’m critiquing all of us.

  21. Melanee says:

    Thanks for that comment on batman! Ah. hope someone starts a discussion on X-Men which appropriates the Malcolm Martin paradigm so that white males can feel “cool” and “revolutionary” without giving up their centrality in our nations narrative and all the money and power that comes with it.