White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise 2005 Soft Skull Press
Book Review by Steve Clemens. June 2006
Have you ever read a book on racism and not felt guilty as a white person? I just have and I’m extremely glad that Tim Wise has shared his own stories with us.
Maybe it is the context in which I’ve read his book: the federal prison system of the USA. Interestingly enough, the only exception allowed in the 13th Amendment to the abolition of slavery is the penal system. In this “slave state” where I’m presently incarcerated, there also exists the proverbial “house nigger” and “field nigger” dichotomy. Even though we are all slaves (they pay us 12 cents/hour for our jobs here) there still is clearly a continuing of white privilege over the people of color within this American gulag.
By using his own personal stories, this 36 year old antiracist activist describes racism as a “dangerous pathogen” or a “pestilence ravaging my people.” Most books I’ve read have described how racism affects people of color in our society; Wise lets the reader understand how white privilege and racism negatively impacts the white community.
This is written by a white male for his own “race.” Even though he has much more exposure and participation in his upbringing with communities of color, even though some of his relatives were extremely progressive, Wise discloses new blind spots and subconscious areas where society’s racism has infected him. The confessional style of his writing doesn’t engender guilt which can paralyze us-rather I felt a sadness and anger at what this society has done to me-along with a challenge to seek our own redemption by joining the struggle.
By revealing his own blind spot while working to end apartheid in South Africa, Wise shares his criticism of white, middle class liberals and progressives who “treat social justice as if it were some kind of salad bar or cafeteria line, when in fact it is life-or-death serious.” We can’t ignore racism claiming we are just focusing our activism on a specific peace or justice concern. The story of his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s and how it revealed the scurrilous depth of racism within a woman who modeled anti-racism for Wise is incredibly moving.
Pax Christi USA has decided to take seriously working to end the scourge of racism in America. This book is must reading for whites in the peace community. I’m planning on buying a copy for each of my sons for Father’s Day-as a gift to myself to make this a better world.