Hundreds filled Kane Hall on Friday night to hear anti-racist activist, speaker, and writer Tim Wise at an event that was planned by UW Public Lectures months in advance, well before President Donald Trump became a reality.
As a result, much of what Wise discussed couldn’t be disentangled from current events, and in fact was directly correlated to them. At times, Wise’s cadences and motions matched that of a televangelist, and at other points he was a great comedic relief, but his words reflected those of an educated activist throughout the night.
“What I want to talk about is how we can understand white privilege as an operative thing that gives advantage to those so called,” he said.
Wise contended that white privilege tends to perpetuate American exceptionalism to sustain itself. American exceptionalism, to put it simply, is believing irrevocably in the concept that everyone can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” and that it’s all anyone needs to do to achieve middle class status or higher.
Wise’s discussion then pivoted this concept to conclude that using the system of privilege and American exceptionalism creates an unsustainable one that isn’t healthy for the vast majority of people who believe in it.
“If I’m white and I’ve been told that all I’ve got to do is work hard, and I’ll always have a job and pay for my kid’s college,” Wise said, “and always have money for health care, and money for retirement … And had the luxury of believing it … then I’m in trouble when the economy shifts under my feet.”
To drive this point home, Wise pointed out that the media’s conclusion that white voters went to Trump out of economic anxiety is false, because if it were true, Trump would have had the backing of the most disproportionately poor groups in America: people of color.
“When the double-digit unemployment hit the rust belt, that was not new for [people of color],” Wise said. “That was called Monday. White working class America had the luxury of thinking it wouldn’t get that bad … [they] had never known that level of collective insecurity.”
His argument was that Trump came to power not because white people are feeling forgotten, but because they were privileged enough to believe in American exceptionalism. He contended that the economic anxiety is real, but it’s privilege and the idea of American exceptionalism that set people up to fail.
Wise then expanded this concept into systemic issues: How politicians and people in power use the poor and working class to do their dirty work, but then tell that class it’s these fellow poor people who look different that caused the turmoil.
“The history of this country is the history of rich white men telling people that not-rich people’s problems are black and brown people,” Wise said.
His example here was labor unions. Back in the day, unions were segregated because the leaders didn’t allow people of color to be striking alongside them. That led to the bosses hiring people who would take less pay, the very people that white laborers excluded from the union. So people of color got the jobs, at lower pay, that white people weren’t occupying when on strike. But who got the blame? Narrative typically shows, Wise argued, that it was not the money-hungry boss who was wronging his workers.
“But what is more hateful: To believe this country can do better than a 15:1 wealth gap or to assume that’s the best we can do?” Wise asked rhetorically, alluding to the Trump campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “You cannot get more cynical than somebody who believes America’s best days are behind … It is a defeatist vision for everyone in this room, including those who are not marginalized by these systems of oppression.”
At the end of the event, audience members were able to ask questions.
Mariama Suwaneh asked how Wise got engaged in his work, and how he engaged with people of color to be sure the narrative that’s being shared is the one they want shared.
Wise answered that his work began with a community. He has since grown from that community but stays in communication with a cadre of people, mostly people of color, who try to keep him on point, honest, and reflective of his own privilege. Wise also makes sure that he promotes the work of people of color who do the same work as him, and admitted much of what he’s doing has already been said by marginalized people.
“The basis of that wisdom is black and brown and it’s important to make that point,” he said. “It’s an ongoing conversation.”
Listening in the audience was UW alumnus Kathy Hsieh. She felt very aligned with Wise’s discussion, but pointed out his ability to have these forums.
“A lot of times people feel like they don’t have the agency,” she said. “Any woman of color might not come across in the same way [compared to a white male], no matter how bright, vibrant, or intelligent they might be.”
Hsieh is an Asian-American woman who works in theater. She said that Asian-American women often view each other as competitors in the business, when in reality it’s directors who restrict the number of Asian-American roles to one woman.
And although many things she experiences in her life paralleled Wise’s talk, Hsieh felt he missed discussing white guilt and white fragility. She had attended the Seattle’s Womxn’s March just a week prior, which had a turnout of 130,000 people, but women of color questioned if the march was intersectional enough. In their questioning, Hsieh explained, white women felt defensive and began feeling like they shouldn’t try anymore. White fragility, in these moments, is very real in self-proclaimed progressive Seattle. While white women’s feelings and reactions are valid, it also tends to turn the focus back on them rather than acknowledging the exclusion and concerns of others.
“But the issue isn’t between women,” Hsieh said. “There’s this expectation that we [women of color] have to care for and validate you. But who validates us?”