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Anti-racist Writer and Activist Tim Wise Speaks at Mount Union about Obama’s Victory

November 7, 2008

timwiseTim Wise, anti-racist activist and writer, presented a lecture on Thursday, November 6 in the Mount Union Theatre. 

Since this was Wise’s first speech since president-elect Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday, Wise centered his lecture around this historical event.

Wise began by acknowledging the misconceptions many people have about, “Why are we listening to a talk on race?  After seeing the outcome of the election, isn’t racism obviously over?”

Emphasizing that while it cannot be ignored that Obama’s victory means something racism is still very widespread in our society.  He supported this point by stating, “Most job interviews do not last a year and a half.”  Political campaigns are different because the public has a chance to get to know the person.

Wise presented a statistic regarding whites who were asked if racism is still a problem.  Only 11% agreed that it is.  However, he also found data on a study in which 12% of white people believe Elvis is still alive.  He explained that there is a huge divide of perception since more people are willing to believe that Elvis is still alive than to confront the issue of racism in our society.   

“If people in the dominant group don’t really know what others experience, nothing is going to happen to them.  This doesn’t mean that they don’t care or are stupid, it just means they don’t have to think about it,” he said.  The norm does not ever have to be examined, so society’s systematic and institutional mistreatment of people of color is not given the attention Wise feels it deserves. 

Wise explained that if we ever want to understand oppression of any kind, such as racism, classism or sexism, we need to acknowledge that the targets are in a better position to know when and how it is happening.

According to Wise, there is an irony in Obama’s victory.  While old-fashioned racism, which Wise called “racism 1.0,” may seem to have been erased, it is still capable of shape-shifting.  Wise has two concerns about this.  First, he believes that some people who voted for Obama may have given an exception to him because they liked him.  However, their views about the larger black community may still be different.  Second, Wise asked, “What if you are a person of color who doesn’t bring it like Obama?”  He explained that he does not mean Obama isn’t authentically black, but he has a different style than others might.

Expressing a final concern, Wise said that he has heard many African American parents saying they can finally look their children in the eye and tell them they can be anything they want to be.  While this statement is very moving to him, he warned that we still need to make our children aware of the risks.  “My little girls, even though they are white, still have to know about sexism.  Just as children of color need to know about racism and how it operates,” he said.

Wise ended by saying, “We should do what we need to do to challenge injustice when we see it on the other 364 days of the year, not just Election Day.”    

Wise has spoken in 48 states and on more than 400 college campuses.  He is the 2008 Oliver L. Brown Distinguished Visiting Scholar for Diversity Issues at Washburn University, an award named in honor of the lead plaintiff in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision. 

The author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, Wise will release his fourth book, Between Barack and a Hard Place: Race and Whiteness in the Age of Obama, in Spring 2009. 

This lecture was sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs.

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