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Published:January 30th, 2008 12:54 EST
U of M-Dearborn explores race relations, 'White Privilege' and perspective

U of M-Dearborn explores race relations, 'White Privilege' and perspective

By Garrett Godwin

DEARBORN, MI--  Tim Wise asks these questions:

Is poverty a problem?  Ask rich people.

Is homosexuality a problem?  Ask straight people.

But is racism a problem? Ask black and white people.

Staff, students and faculty of the University of Michigan-Dearborn had a “Conversation of Race” with Wise at the Kochoff Hall inside the University Center last Friday from 1-4 PM asking the question: “What are your thoughts on White Privilege?”

Wise stated that America was “a former white supremacist state.”  He was born Jewish (not really; practiced it until youth; his parents were Jewish), had black friends while growing up.  However, Wise described his whiteness as a social recognization, and that being Jewish doesn’t exempt one from whiteness.

“Jewish folks sometimes try to ‘get out’ of our whiteness,” he continued, “by claiming that since we’re Jewish, we’re not really white.  And that Nazis believe that, too, but both are wrong since race and whiteness aren’t about biology or ancestry so much as whether one is recognized as a person of European descent.  Being white is WHAT white people say it is.”  According to Wise, whiteness is both defined and often changed by the white power structure in order to secure power and privilege. 

In his conversation with the audience, he explained a double standard when it comes to people of color, especially between black and white people.  “There have been stereotypes of people of color– especially blacks," Wise said, “but not to white people due to privilege.”

For instance, when there is terrorism, point at the Muslims or Arabs.  Another is the area of competency and word pronunciation, using President George W. Bush as an example when he said “childrens” not “children” in one speech.  However, if someone like potential Presidential candidate Barack Obama can speak properly, it is another story.  “White people don’t have to prove that they belong,” Wise commented, "if you’re a person of color and you speak the language, it is pointing out that people treat it as a miracle.” 

The audience’s thoughts on white privilege before was that everyone of all races should be treated the same.  Wise, who wrote a book on affirmative action in 2005, said that living in a bubble of privilege and advantage, where you aren’t forced to think about your racial identity every day makes you oblivious.  When it comes to privilege, he said, it gives us a sense of grand delusion.  “Privilege said we’re better, we’re great,” he goes on.  “Living in a privileged bubble makes you surprised when others hate you, and unprepared for those occasions when they lash out, like 9/11, and therefore, makes you more likely to over-react by going to war.”

Wise told the audience that people of all races are part of American history such as racism, slavery and killing Indians-- whether they’re directly responsible for it or not.  “We have to be prepare to not fall into the innocence trap,” he said.  “We inherit the legacy.  Wealth and opportunities are acclimated and past down.  No one is innocent.  To be a person of color here, you must have a love-hate relationship with this country.”

Though there had been more response before the speech than after, both the audience and Tim Wise agreed on one thing: racism and prejudice still exits, but so does white privilege now.

“Like the glass ceiling,” from one audience member, “most people don’t see it.  White privilege oppresses non-whites and forces them into social roles and categories.”  Wise’s speech praised as “effective and powerful” and “that things are not as good/pretty” as others like it to be.

“It is real and damaging to interpersonal relations of the races,” said another audience member, "it hinders any real progress to heal this country from the ravages of slavery and Jim Crow.”

Contact Tim Wise at