Book Review Number 41

White Like Me – Tim Wise

The author is a prominent anti-racist activist, writers, and educators. He has spent the past 25 years lecturing to audiences in all 50 states, on over 1000 college and high school campuses. He has trained teachers, corporate employees, non-profit organizations and law enforcement officers in methods for addressing and dismantling racism in their institutions. He probably has the strongest credentials of any antiracist activist in the United States.

White Like Me is a unique book in that much of it reads like a personal memoir; other parts are like a series of essays on institutional racism in American society. The author discusses his own personal life growing up in Tennessee in a working class white family. He traces his family roots back through several generations, including ancestors who were wealthy land owners and slave holders. He discusses how his personal whiteness gave him advantages in school and college that were denied or just not available to black and brown people.

Mr. Wise examines the ways in which racial privilege shapes the daily lives of white Americans in every realm: employment, education, housing, criminal justice, and elsewhere. Using stories from his own life and professional experience, the author demonstrates how racism not only burdens people of color, but also benefits, in relative terms, those who are “white like him.” He discusses how racial privilege can even harm whites in the long run and make progressive social change less likely.

He explores and refutes the various denial mechanisms white people use to justify their inaction and/or the preservation of the status quo on racial relations: slavery and racial abuse happened a long time ago and we need to move on; white people today shouldn’t be held responsible for what was done generations ago; anyone can “make it” if they just work hard; black people are just looking for handouts so they don’t have to work. Perhaps one of the more juvenile denial arguments is to point to successful black celebrities or professionals like Oprah or Colin Powell as proof that racism does not exist.

Mr. Wise also dedicates a chapter to strategies for white people to use in recognizing and confronting racism. He discusses at some length the subtleties of some racist behavior and how to deal with it. He even shows how well-meaning antiracists can frequently unknowingly collaborate in racist behavior.

This book is well worth the read if you are an antiracist, or even if you don’t necessarily recognize that racism is still an integral part of our American society today. The single criticism I have is that the author did not include a notes section. Though he specifically declared his intent not to be “statistical”  he could have, and in my opinion should have, listed studies that he broadly referenced but without naming them. I was actually familiar with studies that illustrated his points in some cases. But I think a specific list of the ones he was referencing would have been helpful in re-enforcing his credibility and the points he was making.

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