By Aisha Harris
Detail from a photograph featured in White Like Me
Media Education Foundation
Do you become annoyed anytime a person of color writes, tweets, sings, or speaks about racial inequality? Have you ever wondered why it’s culturally acceptable for black people to use the n-word, while no one else is supposed to use it? Have you ever used the word postracial without a trace of irony? Do you believe that the sole purpose of affirmative action is to allow less qualified minorities to take jobs and positions from the smarter and more qualified?
If the answer to any of the above questions is yes, then you should check out White Like Me: Race, Racism, and White Privilege in America, anti-racism activist Tim Wise’s educational film about racism and white privilege. Especially if you’re white.
Wise is well known for his work discussing how race intersects with politics, policy, and culture in books like White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (the basis of the film) and Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority. (You should probably check these out as well.) In this new film, he attempts to address a few very complex questions about race and ethnicity, while featuring interviews with notable scholars including Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, and Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree. Interspersed throughout are candid comments from white students discussing their views on affirmative action and whiteness. The film poses some big questions: “What does it mean to be white?” “Isn’t racism a thing of the past?” “What about us?” “Shouldn’t we be colorblind?”
The film, which was directed by Scott Morris, begins with Wise’s personal story, revealing how he came to view the world as he does. As a child in Tennessee, his parents sent him to a preschool program at a historically black college, where he was one of only three nonblack students; by the time he reached elementary school, most of his friends were black, and he recognized quickly how differently those peers were treated by the teachers. In the late 1980s, he protested his university’s investments in companies doing business with apartheid South Africa. But for some time he ignored the advantages he himself had as a white person—until a black audience member at a rally where he was speaking asked him what he had done to address racism here in the U.S.
In 1990, he was appalled when the majority of white voters in Louisiana opted for former KKK leader David Duke for U.S. Senate. (Duke lost. He ran for governor the next year, and lost again, but still received the majority of the white vote.) “I’ve been trying to better understand for myself and to raise awareness among others about the centrality of race and racism to the history of this country,” Wise says in the film, “and how dangerous and damaging it is when white people, like me, are blind to racial inequality and our own privileges.”
What follows is an informative, convincing narrative tracing America’s fraught history with race. Wise picks apart the well-intentioned but ultimately wrongheaded thinking behind John Howard Griffin’s racial experiment, Black Like Me, and explains how Depression-era social programs for job insurance, housing assistance, and the G.I. Bill deliberately excluded non-whites from benefits, laying the foundation for disparities that exist between whites and non-whites today. The educator also discusses the issue of “reverse discrimination” and affirmative action, and the idea that a post-racial society was born after the election of Barack Obama.
For the rest of August, the movie will be streaming on Vimeo, and it is also available to schools, libraries, and nonprofits. Hopefully the film, and Wise’s other work, will reach more people—especially white people. For many minorities, the thoughts and arguments expressed in White Like Me will likely be reaffirming: We’ve already heard and read the various complaints and specious claims people make about “reverse racism” and what have you, claims that only trivialize the very real imbalances in this country. Among white audiences, though, could, I think, open some eyes (and hearts).