Tim Wise & The Failure of Privilege Discourse
by R.L. Stephens II on October 1, 2013
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 its “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. Furthermore, White people aren’t the only ones 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.