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The truth is rarely pleasant: racism, white denial, and some thoughts on being

By Tim Wise - posted Wednesday, 31 January 2001

Having been a white man for 32 years, I have learned there are some things white folks aren't supposed to say.

For example, we aren't supposed to acknowledge that we have received, and continue to receive substantial privileges, simply because of skin color: better job opportunities, greater access to housing, better educational offerings and partial treatment in the justice system.

And we aren't supposed to acknowledge the massive prejudice in our communities, which leads at least a third of us to admit--and no doubt many more to feel this way but not confess it--that we believe blacks are less intelligent than we are, less hardworking, and more prone to criminality.


And we aren't supposed to challenge other whites about their racism, or the myriad institutional injustices that most of us accept passively, if not actively support. To do this, and to demand that whites deal honestly with the nation's legacy of racial oppression is to invite indignant charges that one is being "divisive."

This was made clear to me after my recent keynote address to the St. Louis Mayor's Conference on Racial Justice and Harmony, this past October.

Though my speech was generally well received, with a standing ovation from at least 800 of the 1200 persons in the audience, there were apparently some in attendance who were not so pleased. And these few--all of them white--have been complaining loudly about my "divisive" rhetoric, which, according to these folks, makes racial harmony more difficult than ever.

What had I said, exactly, to upset these dear souls? Who knows? Bitter memos sent around city hall didn't specify, and the gossip columnist for the city's daily, The Post-Dispatch, who ran a blip on the "controversy" didn't elaborate either. But I would assume they were upset because I said among other things the following, backed up, of course, with statistical support:

--It is whites who are in denial about the ongoing problem of racism, and this denial is itself a form of racism: a kind of white supremacy that says, "I know your reality better than you do;"

--The biggest barriers to racial harmony and racial justice are institutional racism and the existence of systemic white privilege in all walks of life;


--"Diversity" and "tolerance" are not worth fighting for, unless accompanied by equity and justice: the first two are easy and meaningless, the latter two take work;

To most people of color these positions are not that radical. But apparently there are still some of my people who get mightily offended by being reminded that we have some work to do--both individually and collectively--and until we do it, there will be no kumbaya chorus.

It's interesting to note what upsets white folks, compared to that which doesn't. On the one hand, my words calling for an end to white privilege are seen as divisive, but the privileges themselves are not; demanding an end to racism in education, criminal justice, housing and employment is seen as divisive, but the existence of said racism is not. Frankly, if the good folks in St. Louis, who found my speech so troubling, are upset about "divisiveness," then surely they could manage to focus their attention on the following facts, all of which must be more divisive than anything I said, by a magnitude of thousands:

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About the Author

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, lecturer and antiracism activist.

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