I just saw the Fred Wilson exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem! It was
very powerful -- as all his work is.
I just thought I'd forward this for all of us white folks to contemplate. I
love Tim Wise's articles. This is the time of year when I reflect on just how
multicultural my curriculum was this year. I generally teach more artists of
color because that's what I'm mostly interested in -- and I need to see if my
curriculum was balanced -- every year I know that there is so much more that
I can improve on.
Anyway, I hope some of you see the Fred Wilson exhibit if you can and I'd
love to know what you think of this article.
It's really important for us as art teachers, when we take our students to
major museums, to reflect on whose culture is seen and whose isn't.
Best to you all -- hope your end-of-year projects are fun and that you are
all starting to relax into summer.
To truly understand a nation, a culture, or its people,
it helps to know what they take for granted.
After all, sometimes the things that go unspoken are
more powerful than the spoken word, if for no other
reason than the tendency of unspoken assumptions to
reinforce core ways of thinking, feeling and acting,
without ever having to be verbalized (and thus
subjected to challenge) at all.
What's more, when people take certain things for
granted, anything that goes against the grain of what
they perceive as "normal" will tend to stand out like a
sore thumb, and invite a hostility that seems
reasonable, at least to those dispensing it, precisely
because their unspoken assumptions have gone
uninterrogated for so long.
Thus, every February I encounter people who are
apoplectic at the thought of Black History Month, and
who insist with no sense of irony or misgiving that
there should be no such thing, since, after all, there
is no White History Month--a position to which they can
only adhere because they have taken for granted that
"American history" as told to them previously was
comprehensive and accurate, as opposed to being largely
the particular history of the dominant group.
In other words, the normalcy of the white narrative,
which has rendered every month since they popped out of
their momma's wombs White History Month, escapes them,
and makes the efforts of multiculturalists seem to be
the unique break with an otherwise neutral color-
Sorta' like those who e-mail me on a semi-regular basis
to insist, as if they have just stumbled upon a truth
of unparalleled profundity, that there should be an
Ivory Magazine to balance out Ebony, or that we need a
White Entertainment Television network to balance out
BET, or a NAAWP to balance out the NAACP.
Again, these dear souls ignore what is obvious to
virtually all persons of color but which remains unseen
by those whose reality gets to be viewed as the norm:
namely, that there are already two Ivory Magazines--
Vogue and Cosmopolitan; that there are several WETs,
which just so happen to go by the names of CBS, NBC and
ABC; and that the Fortune 500, U.S. Congress and
Fraternal Orders of Police are all doing a pretty good
job holding it down for us white folks on the
organizational front. Just because the norm is not
racially-named, doesn't mean it isn't racialized.
Likewise the ongoing backlash against affirmative
action, by those who seem to believe that opportunity
would truly be equal in the absence of these presumably
unjust efforts to ensure access to jobs and higher
education for persons of color.
We are to believe that before affirmative action things
were fine, and that were such efforts abolished now,
things would return to this utopic state of affairs: to
hell with the persistent evidence that people of color
continue to face discrimination in employment, housing,
education and all other institutional settings in the
So if the University of Michigan gives applicants of
color twenty points on a 150-point admission scale, so
as to promote racial diversity and balance out the
disadvantages to which such students are often
subjected in their K-12 schooling experience, that is
seen as unfair racial preference.
But when the same school gives out 16 points to kids
from the lily-white Upper Peninsula, or four points for
children of overwhelmingly white alumni, or ten points
for students who went to the state's "top" schools (who
will be disproportionately white), or 8 points for
those who took a full slate of Advanced Placement
classes in high schools (which classes are far less
available in schools serving students of color), this
is seen as perfectly fair, and not at all racially
What's more, the whites who received all those bonus
points due to their racial and class position will not
be thought of by anyone as having received unearned
advantages, in spite of the almost entirely ascriptive
nature of the categories into which they fell that
qualified them for such bonuses. No matter their
"qualifications," it will be taken for granted that any
white student at a college or University belongs there.
This is why Jennifer Gratz, the lead plaintiff in the
successful "reverse discrimination" suit against
Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action policy,
found it a supreme injustice that a few dozen black,
Latino and American Indian students were admitted ahead
of her, despite having lower SATs and grades; but she
thought nothing of the fact that more than 1400 other
white students also were admitted ahead of her and her
co-plaintiffs, despite having lower scores and grades.
"Lesser qualified" whites are acceptable, you see,
while "lesser qualified" people of color must be
eliminated from their unearned perches of opportunity.
This is the kind of racist logic that people like
Gratz, who now heads up the state's anti-affirmative
action initiative with the financial backing of Ward
Connerly, find acceptable.
This kind of logic also explains the effort of whites
at Roger Williams University to start a "white
scholarship fund," on the pretense that scholarships
for students of color are unfair and place whites at a
This, despite the unmentioned fact that about 93
percent of all college scholarship money goes to
whites; despite the fact that students of color at
elite and expensive colleges come from families with
about half the average income of whites; despite the
fact that there are scholarships for pretty much every
kind of student under the sun, including children of
Tupperware dealers, kids whose parents raise horses,
kids who are left-handed, kids whose families descend
from the founding fathers: you name it, and there's
money available for it.
While there are plenty of whites unable to afford
college, the fault for this unhappy reality lies not
with minority scholarships, but rather with the
decisions of almost exclusively white University elites
to raise the price of higher education into the
stratosphere, to the detriment of most everyone.
But to place blame where it really belongs, on rich
white people, would be illogical. After all, we take it
for granted that one day we too might be wealthy, and
we wouldn't want others to question our decisions and
prerogatives come that day either.
Better to blame the dark-skinned for our hardship,
since we can take it for granted that they're powerless
to do anything about it.
Whites, as it turns out, take most everything for
granted in this country; which makes perfect sense,
because dominant groups usually have that privilege.
We take for granted that we won't be racially profiled
even when members of our group engage in criminality at
a disproportionate rate, whether the crime is corporate
fraud, serial killing, child molestation, abortion
clinic bombings or drunk driving. And indeed we won't
We take it for granted that our terrorism won't result
in whites as a group being viewed with generalized
suspicion. So Tim McVeigh represents only Tim McVeigh,
while Mohammed Atta gets to serve as a proxy for every
other person who either has his name or follows a
prophet of that name.
We take it for granted that our dishonesty will be
viewed in purely individualistic terms, while the
dishonesty of others will result in aspersions being
cast upon the entire group from which they come.
Thus, Jayson Blair's deceptions at the New York Times
provoke howls of indignation at any effort to provide
opportunity to journalists of color--because after all,
diversity and quality are proven by this one man's
exploits to be incompatible--but Jack Kelley's equally
egregious fabrications and fraud at USA Today fails to
prompt calls for an end to hiring white guys as
reporters, or for scrutinizing them more carefully, or
for closing down whatever avenues of opportunity have
helped keep the profession so white for so long.
We take it for granted that we will never be viewed as
one of those dreaded "special interest" groups,
precisely because whatever serves our interests is
So, for example, while politicians who pursue the
support of black, Latino, gay or other "minority"
voters are said to be pandering to special interests,
those who bend over backwards to secure the backing of
NASCAR dads and soccer moms, whose racial composition
is as self-evident as it is unmentioned, are said to be
politically savvy and merely trying to connect with
We take it for granted that "classical music" is a
perfectly legitimate term for what really amounts to
one particular classical form (mostly European
orchestral and piano concerto music), ignoring that
there are, indeed, classical forms of all musical
styles, as well as their more contemporary versions.
We take it for granted that the only controversy
regarding Jesus is whether or not he was killed by Jews
or Romans; or whether the depiction of his execution by
Mel Gibson is too violent for children, all the while
ignoring a much larger issue, which is why does Gibson
(and for that matter every other white filmmaker or
artist in the history of the faith) feel the need to
make Jesus white: something he surely could not have
been and was not, with all due apology to Michelangelo,
Constantine, Pat Robertson, and the producers of "Jesus
That the only physical descriptions of Jesus in the
Bible indicate that he had feet the color of burnt
brass, and hair like wool, poses a slight problem for
Gibson and other followers of the white Jesus hanging
in their churches, adorning their crucifixes (if
Catholic), and gracing the Christmas cards they send
It is the same problem posed by the anthropological
evidence concerning the physical appearance of first
century Jews from that part of Northern Africa we
prefer to call the "Middle East" (and why is that I
wonder?). Namely, Jesus did not look like a long-haired
version of my Ashkenazi Jewish, Eastern European great-
grandfather in his prime.
But to even bring this up is to send most white
Christians (and sadly, even many of color) into fits,
replete with assurances that "it doesn't matter what
Jesus looked like, it only matters what he did."
Which is all fine and good, until you realize that
indeed it must matter to them what Jesus looked like;
otherwise, they wouldn't be so averse to presenting him
as the man of color he most assuredly was: a man dark
enough to guarantee that were he to come back tomorrow,
and find himself on the wrong side of New York City at
the wrong time of night, reaching for his keys or his
wallet in the presence of the Street Crimes Unit, he'd
be dispatched far more expeditiously than was done at
Golgotha 2000 years ago.
But never fear: we needn't grapple with that because we
can merely take it for granted that Jesus had to look
like us, as did Adam and Eve, and as does God himself.
And indeed, most whites believe this to be true, as
proven by every single picture Bible for kids made by a
white person, all of which present these figures in
such a way.
Consider the classic and widely distributed Robert
Maxwell Bible Series for children, popularly known as
the "blue books," which are found in virtually every
pediatrician and OBGYN's office in the U.S. In Volume
I, readers learn (at least visually speaking) that the
Garden of Eden was in Oslo: a little-known fact that
will stun Biblical scholars to be sure.
It would all be quite funny were it not so
incontestably insane, so pathological in terms of the
scope of our nuttiness. What else, after all, can
explain the fact that when a New Jersey theatre company
put on a passion play a few years ago with a black
actor in the lead role, they received hundreds of
hateful phone calls and even death threats for daring
to portray Jesus as anyone darker than, say, Shaun
What else but a tenuous (at best) grip on reality can
explain the quickness with which many white Americans
ran around after 9/11 saying truly stupid shit like
"now we know what it means to be attacked for who we
Now we know? Hell, some folks always knew what that was
like, though their pain and suffering never counted for
much in the eyes of the majority.
What else but delusion on a scale necessitating
medication could lead one to say--as two whites did on
CNN in the wake of the first O.J. Simpson verdict--that
they now realized everything they had been told about
the American justice system being fair was a lie? Now
they realized it! See the theme here?
That's what privilege is, for all those who constantly
ask me what I mean when I speak of white privilege.
It's the ability to presume that your reality is the
reality; that your experiences, if white, are
universal, and not particular to your racial identity.
It's the ability to assume that you belong and that
others will presume that too; the ability to define
reality for others, and expect that definition to stick
(because you have the power to ensure that it becomes
the dominant narrative).
And it's the ability to ignore all evidence to the
contrary, claim that you yourself are the victim, and
get everyone from the President to the Supreme Court to
the average white guy on the street to believe it.
It is Times New Roman font, one inch margins, left hand
justified. In other words, it is the default position
on the computer of American life. And it has rendered
vast numbers of its recipients utterly incapable of
Only by rebelling against it, and insisting on our own
freedom from the mental straightjacket into which we
have been placed as whites by this system, can we hope
to regain our full humanity, and be of any use as
allies to people of color in their struggle against
Tim Wise is an antiracist activist, essayist and
father. He can be reached at email@example.com. Death
threats, while neither appreciated nor desired, will be
graded for form, content and originality.
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