Wise, 44, born to a Jewish father and Anglo-Celtic mother, grew up in Nashville, Tennessee. I have to say that I was jealous to learn that he had a childhood that placed him in an even more diverse school setting than mine–but, seriously, was glad to learn that his mother purposely enrolled her son in a pre-school where the majority of the students were black because she believed strongly in integration. Wise continued to enjoy being part of a diverse elementary school, but that diversity waned when he arrived in high school and found that many of his black friends were placed in remedial classes, while the majority of white students were placed in advanced or honors classes. Here, Wise tells of how he finally had to learn how to “act white” by suddenly claiming to love bands like AC/DC and Kiss, when before he listened to rap and funk music.
I have to admit that when I first heard the term “white privilege,” I thought it meant white people who come from privileged backgrounds; from money. Wise lets us know that by the very virtue of being born white, we are privileged. He also shows us how white Americans benefit from institutionalized racism, whose construction began centuries ago.
Through personal stories of his growing up in the South, joining his high school debate team as a way to avoid trouble at home with his alcoholic father, his college years at Tulane University where he became an enthusiastic activist in the fight against apartheid in South Africa, to organizing in black communities, and becoming a nationally known speaker/educator on anti-racism, Wise skillfully, and with much humility, examines how white privilege exists in the lives of white Americans. He also shows us how we can stand up and work to try and break down the institutionalized racism that has become such an ingrained part of our everyday lives without us consciously noticing how we benefit from it.
Wise is clearly well educated on matters of race, and racism, and how whites benefit from the impact of racism against black Americans. Yet, it is his personal life experiences he shares with the reader throughout his memoir that moved me the most. Wise was never afraid, and in fact almost relished, the opportunity to come clean and show when he fell short of being the ideal activist.
At a school rally Wise organized in protest of Tulane’s investments in companies doing business in South Africa during apartheid, Wise, the debater who cannot be beaten, gets beaten down, when a female African American student from a nearby college, asks in the midst of the crowd of hundreds, how come Wise is spending all his energy on trying to fix problems in South Africa, and not doing anything to help the “apartheid” happening right in front of his face in New Orleans. Her bold, truthful question left Wise speechless.
Wise completes his book with a section on how things have changed, or not, with our first black President, Barack Obama, and one on parenting, and how we as parents, can help teach our children how institutionalized racism has been constructed, in an effort to begin to break down and reduce the notion of privilege, and thereby reduce racism, too.
I see that Wise has just published a new book, Dear White America, Letter To A New Minority, which is about whites’ insecurities about a future in which we will no longer be the majority. I think I’ll have to add that to my reading list.