Sunday, January 23, 2005

Review: White Like Me

[White Like Me by Tim Wise. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005.]

Our reading operates the text; in our reading, it becomes active. The artifice of the text detaches it from the local historicity of living and activity, or seems to do so. But its making was work done in actual settings by one or more people and as part of a course of action, whether of an individual, a group, an organization of some kind, or of an extended social relation concerting the activities of many. And its reading also is in time and in an actual place, and enters again into someone's course of action and has, in that course of action, a speaking part; it becomes active in that course of action. -- Dorothy Smith, "Exploring the Social Relations of Discourse", Writing the Social

When I first read the essay from which the above quote was taken, it was a lightbulb moment to see her talk about how reading a text is a very embedded, material, historically and life-historically specific act -- you do it in a specific place, in a specific mood, at a specific time, and all of that actually matters in shaping what the reading of that text means to you. It has everything to do with how the words in the text in question become "active" (to use Smith's word) in your life. Though it is true for any kind of consumption (reading, watching, listening) of a text, I find it especially relevant to reading nonfiction books that are not primarily about facts but are rather mostly about ideas, especially ideas about personal/political aspects of various oppressions.

In reading White Like Me I felt quite aware, as I was living it, of the fact that this reading was occuring in a specific context, in specific ways, with specific impacts.

White Like Me is a short, personal memoir by Tim Wise, a white anti-racist educator and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee. He first became active in anti-racist struggle in the campaigns to defeat David Duke's bids for electoral office in Louisiana, and he has gone to develop a national profile and to write many articles and books.

This book, rather than statistics or high falutin academic jargon, is a straightforward look at what there is to learn about racism through looking at experiences of whiteness, specifically his experiences and his whiteness. He felt this was important to do, even though (to paraphrase him) there are lots of anti-racist activists and writers of colour out there who have forgotten more about racism since breakfast than he'll ever know, because so often even when white folk are willing to admit that racism exists, we see it only as something structuring the experiences of people of colour and not something that structures our experience as well, via privilege.

The basic ideas conveyed in the book are simple -- in a way, the basic concepts necessary for understanding racism and white privilege are always simple, wherever you come across them, at least in and of themselves and speaking purely in intellectual terms. But when you weave the threads of those ideas into the larger tapestry of life (which you have to do in order for them to have any actual meaning) they can twist and turn in constantly surprising (for white folks) ways. This book is about him following these twists and turns, and relating experiences and stories from which he has learned and which he has used to teach about racism and whiteness.

I expeience the specific moments of reading a book like this as a dialogue between the text and my own life, my own experiences, and the lives and experiences that others have shared with me. It is an exercise in taking flat words on a page and doing empathic modelling -- building self-contained, imaginative and empathic constructs in my head from the words on the page, and then relating those constructs to other constructs built from my experiences and from experiences shared by others, and seeing how they relate. What new perspectives can I gain from comparing them, constrasting them, letting them interact, speculating, reliving moments of my own complicity or support-of-resistance, allowing the new constructs to cast new light on the ones already in my head? It is dealing not with one-dimensional "facts" but with complex, three-dimensional concepts, things like the construct in my head of a specific person, or of my realtime experience of noticing (or not noticing) race and racism in daily life, or of interactions between a specific childhood experience and present-day gut responses to things.

It is the fact that the experience of reading a book is not so much characterized by the ingestion of a linear series of letters, numbers, and punctuation, but rather by this breathing of life into the ingested ink, and its interaction and partial integration with the universe already spinning inside one's head that makes specific time and point-in-life and even mood-in-the-moment matter, that make Smith's observation above more than just philosophical trivia. These imaginative and empathic models of life, people, concepts, the world, that spin around in our heads are constantly being updated and revised based on all the inputs of our senses. Each revision changes how the next input (including the next experience of reading) will further change it.

In other words, each experience of learning about racism (or other oppressions) is a disturbing of, an intervention into, that living system inside my head, whether that experience of learning is reading a book like this or hearing a friend's story or a critically analyzed experience of my own. A year from now I will have another year's worth of experiences -- observations, readings, interventions or non-interventions into the world of my own to ponder -- that will change the experience of reading it again. Learning from such texts is iterative: returning to it later, perhaps reading only a chapter or a fragment, or doing it all again from start to finish, is not simple repetition but rather an invitation to new learnings, to things unseen previously, or (and this is common for us white folks in learning about white privilege and racism) things previously seen many times but then forgotten or pushed to the side.

This is a much more honest way of understanding how we learn about such things than pretending it is a matter of standing outside of everything, seeing arrows and diagrams neatly drawn, and gaining instant understanding. It is a constant process of refining one's understanding of one's own experience, one's own local site; then of building these imaginative and empathic models of experiences at other local sites; and struggling to refine one's vision of the way these different local sites, often with very different local experiences, are coordinated. And, of course, it has to lead to wrestling with ideas for how to act in one's local, specific, material, historical site in order to change things -- from intervening in a family dinner conversation to parenting to functioning in white-dominated activist spaces to connecting to anti-racism work led by activists of colour.

It seems anti-climactic to end this review with an admonition to white readers of this blog to read White Like Me, but I think that's what I'm going to do. I'd be interested in seeing reactions and reviews by experienced anti-racist activists of colour -- I poked around on the web a little to find some, and didn't have much luck -- but as far as I can see, this is worth adding to the shelf of books with which you are in ongoing dialogue about race and racism and about how, as a white person, to participate in resistance to the structures of white supremacy.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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