Tim Wise’s Definitions
1. How do you define racism?
As with other “isms” (like capitalism, communism, etc.), racism is both an ideology and a system. As such, I define it in two ways.
As an ideology, racism is the belief that population groups, defined as distinct “races,” generally possess traits, characteristics or abilities, which distinguish them as either superior or inferior to other groups in certain ways. In short, racism is the belief that a particular race is (or certain races are) superior or inferior to another race or races.
As a system, racism is an institutional arrangement, maintained by policies, practices and procedures — both formal and informal — in which some persons typically have more or less opportunity than others, and in which such persons receive better or worse treatment than others, because of their respective racial identities. Additionally, institutional racism involves denying persons opportunities, rewards, or various benefits on the basis of race, to which those individuals are otherwise entitled. In short, racism is a system of inequality, based on race.
2. How is racism different from white supremacy?
White supremacy is the operationalized form of racism in the United States and throughout the Western world. Racism is like the generic product name, while white supremacy is the leading brand, with far and away the greatest market share. While other forms of racism could exist at various times and in various places, none have ever been as effective and widespread in their impact as white supremacy, nor is it likely that any such systems might develop in the foreseeable future.
3. Do you think all whites are racist?
It’s a simplistic question, with a complicated answer. I believe that all people (white or of color) raised in a society where racism has been (and still is) so prevalent, will have internalized elements of racist thinking: certain beliefs, stereotypes, assumptions, and judgments about others and themselves. So in countries where beliefs in European/white superiority and domination have been historically embedded, it is likely that everyone in such places will have ingested some of that conditioning. I think all whites — as the dominant group in the U.S. — have been conditioned to accept white predominance (or what some call hegemony) in the social, political and economic system, and to believe that white predominance is a preferable arrangement for the society in which they live, the neighborhoods in which they live, the places where they work, etc.
However, this doesn’t mean that all whites, having been conditioned in that way, are committed to the maintenance of white supremacy. One can challenge one’s conditioning. One can be counter-conditioned and taught to believe in equality, and to commit oneself to its achievement. These things take work — and they can never completely eradicate all of the conditioning to which one has been subjected — but they are possible.
In other words, we can be racist by conditioning, antiracist by choice. That racism is part of who we are, does not mean that it’s all of who we are, or that it must be the controlling or dominant part of who we are. By the same token, just because we choose to be antiracist, does not mean that we no longer carry around some of the racism with which we were raised, or to which we were and are exposed.
4. Do you think people of color can be racist against whites?
At the ideological level, anyone can be racist because anyone can endorse the kinds of thinking that qualify as racism, as defined above. At the systemic level, people of color can be racist in theory, but typically not in practice, and certainly not very effectively. Although a person of color in an authority position can discriminate against a white person, this kind of thing rarely happens because, a) such persons are still statistically rare relative to whites in authority, b) in virtually all cases, there are authorities above those people of color who are white, and who would not stand for such actions, and c) even in cases where a person of color sits atop a power structure (as with President Obama), he is not truly free to do anything to oppress or marginalize white people (even were he so inclined), given his own need to attract white support in order to win election or pass any of his policy agenda. Ultimately, there are no institutional structures in the U.S. in which people of color exercise final and controlling authority: not in the school systems, labor market, justice system, housing markets, financial markets, or media. As such, the ability of black and brown folks to oppress white people simply does not exist.
Having said that, it is certainly true that in other countries, people of color could have power sufficient to discriminate against others, including whites. Although even anti-white bias in those places is somewhat limited by the reality of global economics and the desire for good relations with the West, it is possible for persons of color in those places to mistreat whites individually and, occasionally, collectively (for instance, the treatment of white farmers in Zimbabwe by the Mugabe government). But it is absurd to believe that anti-white racism, practiced by people of color, remotely equates as a social problem to white racism against people of color. While all racism is equally objectionable morally and ethically, they are not practically equivalent by a long shot.
5. What do you mean by white privilege?
White privilege refers to any advantage, opportunity, benefit, head start, or general protection from negative societal mistreatment, which persons deemed white will typically enjoy, but which others will generally not enjoy. These benefits can be material (such as greater opportunity in the labor market, or greater net worth, due to a history in which whites had the ability to accumulate wealth to a greater extent than persons of color), social (such as presumptions of competence, creditworthiness, law-abidingness, intelligence, etc.) or psychological (such as not having to worry about triggering negative stereotypes, rarely having to feel out of place, not having to worry about racial profiling, etc.).
Operationally, white privilege is simply the flipside of discrimination against people of color. The concept is rooted in the common-sense observation that there can be no down without an up, so that if people of color are the targets of discrimination, in housing, employment, the justice system, or elsewhere, then whites, by definition, are being elevated above those persons of color. Whites are receiving a benefit, vis-a-vis those persons of color: more opportunity because those persons of color are receiving less. Although I believe all persons are harmed in the long run by racism and racial inequity — and thus, white privilege comes at an immense social cost — it still exists as a daily reality throughout the social, political and economic structure of the United States.
The fact that white privilege exists and that all whites have access to various aspects of it, does not, however, mean that all whites are wealthy, or that in competitions for jobs and other opportunities, whites will always win. The fact of general advantage doesn’t require unanimity of outcomes favoring whites. In certain situations, other factors will effect the distribution of opportunities: among these, socioeconomic status, sex, gender, sexual orientation, religious identity, age, or physical disability. There are, after all, also such things as class privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, Christian privilege, and able-bodied privilege. And these other forms of privilege exist — and generally provide greater opportunity to their respective group members — even though there are rich people who lead miserable lives despite their money, and there are men, heterosexuals, Christians, and able-bodied folks who are poor. On balance, it pays to be a member of any of those dominant groups. And the same is true with whiteness.
6. What is the connection between racism and the class system/capitalism?
The connections are substantial. To begin with, the development of modern white supremacy was very much connected to the way in which the class system developed, especially in the West. In the U.S., for instance, planter elites during the colonial period used the notion of whiteness (link is external) as a way to split class-based coalitions that often developed between enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans (who were only slightly above slaves themselves). Afraid of rebellions that would threaten their power and their material domination of the poor, elites carved out special legal protections for all Europeans, which placed them above persons of color, and gave them a stake in the system. The landowners and political elites also utilized poor whites on slave patrols, to give them a sense that they were a vital bulwark against black uprisings, and regularly stressed the superiority of Europeans. By convincing white working people that their interests were rooted in skin color, rather than economic need, wealthy Europeans helped link the development of the class system to the development of white supremacy.
As capitalism developed, nationally, internationally, and then globally, elites often used racism and notions of white supremacy to maintain and extend their power. In rallying the masses to support militarism and imperialism for the benefit of the wealthy — as with the war with Mexico, the conquest of Hawaii, the invasion of the Philippines, or several military adventures throughout the twentieth century — notions of racial superiority were regularly deployed to justify those actions undertaken for the benefit of international investment and the growth of capital.
7. Well if racism and capitalism are linked in this way, isn’t the real issue economics? Doesn’t this mean that racism is just an extension of class oppression, and that only by ending class oppression or capitalism can we really hope to address racism?
The issue is race and class. Even people of color who are not poor or working class face racism in housing, schools, the justice system, and the labor market.
More importantly, although modern racism’s roots may be located largely in the development of the class structure, this doesn’t mean that capitalism is the only source of racism, nor that ending class inequity is the only way to effectively conquer white supremacy. To begin, the class system is not the only source of white supremacy. Such notions have also been inculcated by the Christian tradition in the West, and the racialized way in which Christianity developed as a force in Europe, for instance. And today, with hundreds of years of racist conditioning behind us, notions of white superiority have become ingrained in millions of people, with or without active manipulation by elites, and even when those whites are not in direct competition with people of color for “stuff” (as they are often not, within a racially bifurcated class system).
As W.E.B. DuBois noted, over time, white supremacy invested white folks with a “psychological wage,” which allows them to feel superior to people of color, even if they ultimately pay a price for their indulgence of white privilege and advantage. In other words, white racism can now take on an auto-pilot effect, even if elites do not, as they once did, actively manipulate working-class emotions. That is not to say that such manipulation no longer occurs, merely that it is no longer a necessary condition to keep white working-class folks in line.
For those who come out of a Marxist tradition, and who insist that the working class has false consciousness, which leads them to ignore or misunderstand their true interests — and that this consciousness has been instilled in them largely by capitalists — what is often ignored is the way that white privilege, relative to people of color, has served as the transmission belt of false consciousness. By investing white workers with a sense of their whiteness as property — albeit an inadequate form of property, relative to real material well-being — white privilege and racism provide to whites an alternative sense of their own self-interest. As such, the ability of working people to form effective cross-racial coalitions (which would be needed in order to fundamentally challenge or alter the current class arrangements in the U.S.) is itself made less likely precisely because of white racism and institutional racial inequity and privilege. To the extent whiteness confers certain relative advantages to whites, it makes it less likely that those whites will join with people of color to alter the class system or even push for reforms that would benefit all working people (universal health care, more equitable distribution of wealth, greater investment in education, job creation, etc). So if anything, the equation put forward by those who say “the real issue is class, and we need to end capitalism before we can end racism,” may be exactly the inverse of reality. It may be, instead, that before any substantial alteration in the class system can become possible, we will have to attack white racism and substantially diminish it.
8. Why don’t you discuss other forms of oppression, like sexism, heterosexism, etc?
I do. Several of my essays address these critical matters, and I often discuss them in my speeches as well: especially the way in which these systems of oppression interact and interrelate. That said, I do focus mostly on racism and white supremacy. Likewise, others focus mostly on sexism/patriarchy, straight supremacy, ableism, etc. And all of this work is important in order to replace systems of oppression with systems of justice.
9. I read somewhere that you had admitted to being a white supremacist. What did you mean?
My “admission” of white supremacy is far less interesting than some have made it seem. A year or so ago I was asked during a radio show whether I was a racist/white supremacist, and I answered yes, because — as I note above — all of us have internalized aspects of racist thinking thanks to years of conditioning in that regard. I felt it would be dishonest to deny this conditioning, which is something liberal and left whites often do, by denying that we have “a racist bone in our bodies.” So I told the truth. Unfortunately, because of the way we sometimes hear and interpret the terms, “racism” and “white supremacy,” some who learn of this “confession” assume I am admitting to being a closet skinhead, or that I don’t really oppose the system of white supremacy, as I claim. This assumption is false.
I admit that AS IS TRUE WITH ANY WHITE PERSON raised in a racist/white supremacist society, I have internalized certain racist and white supremacist thoughts/beliefs/norms, etc. But the fact that I have been conditioned to do thing x, or believe thing y, doesn’t mean that I can’t challenge that conditioning and choose to do thing z, or believe thing q. I also insist, for myself and others, that although we have internalized white supremacy, this does not mean that all we are capable of is white supremacy. People are not one-dimensional. Just as we are all conditioned in this society to be consumers, and tend to engage in consumerism to one degree or another, it is also the case that we can choose to fight consumerism and materialism, and minimize the extent to which we practice it. Or as men, we’re conditioned to be sexist towards women under a patriarchal system, but we can choose to fight for gender equity and to challenge male domination. People have moral agency and are not mere robots, unable to turn against that which we are taught.
10: Why do you talk about white privilege in society, but not own up to your own involvement and implication in that system? And since you benefit from white privilege, as a white person, isn’t it hypocritical for you to also speak against it?
Of course I benefit from white privilege, and male privilege, and straight privilege, and able-bodied privilege. Though I grew up without class privilege, I now also enjoy economic privilege relative to most persons. There is no doubt about any of this, and I have long discussed it — especially the white privilege part — in my writings and speeches. Indeed, that was essentially the whole focus of my first book, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. I didn’t call the book, White Like You: Reflections on How the Rest of Y’all are Privileged. It was a personal “outing” if you will, not only about my privileges, but about my own occasional collaboration with the system of white supremacy.
But it makes no sense to think that if I receive privilege, I must therefore be a hypocrite for also criticizing the privileges and the system that bestows them. By that logic, members of dominant groups should never speak out on behalf of equity. They should just passively accept — or maybe even actively pursue — their advantages, and the maintenance of the system that bestows those advantages, so as to seem “consistent.” Or perhaps we should silently oppose the system from which we benefit, but do nothing openly to oppose it, for fear that doing so might draw attention to ourselves. But to do either of those things — passively accept or just silently oppose white supremacy — would seem like an abdication of all moral agency, not to mention strategic wisdom.
Although there may be an inherent tension between fighting white privilege and receiving it — as I do, for instance, by often being taken more seriously than people of color when they offer the same types of arguments — the alternative (to not speak out) would only further the deafening white silence on these issues, and allow other whites to believe that the only people who oppose racism and white supremacy are people of color. This belief, directly or indirectly, contributes to white ambivalence and white racism, by seeming to vest whites with a personal stake in the maintenance of the system, rather than getting them to think how we would all be better off were that system to fall. Furthermore, to remain silent so as to defer to the voices of people of color, perpetuates the imbalance whereby people of color are responsible for doing all the heavy lifting against white supremacy. How is that an example of solidarity or allyship? Certainly it cannot help the antiracist struggle to say, in effect, “No really, you do all the work, and I’ll just watch, thanks. Because, ya know, I wouldn’t want to draw attention to myself!”
Although whites who challenge racism need to be as accountable as possible to people of color in the way we do the work (see the newly published Code of Ethics for Anti-Racist White Allies, which I helped develop, for additional information), the argument that somehow white folks shouldn’t engage in that work in any real way (or at least not publicly) makes very little sense ethically, and is absurd from a strategic perspective.