Transcript: Into an American Uprising: White Accountability

The full episode transcript for Into an American Uprising: White Accountability.
Image: Clasp hands, Atlanta Protest Held In Response To Police Custody Death Of Minneapolis Man George Floyd
People hold hands during a protest in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Atlanta on May 29, 2020.Elijah Nouvelage / Getty Images

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Into America

Into an American Uprising: White Accountability

Protesters: Don't shoot. (UNINTEL) Keep the knees. Keep the knees.

Trymaine Lee: If you've been watching the protest over the course of the past week, there is one thing that is decidedly different from other protests we've seen in recent years following the killings of unarmed black men: the complexion of some of the crowds.

Lee: In some parts of the country, white Americans are showing up. They're linking arms with black Americans in the protest lines. They're taking a knee on street corners. They're even using social media as an act of solidarity. But is a hashtag and a day of marching enough? Racism is every American's problem. So what should white people do to dismantle a racist system erected for them? I'm Trymaine Lee. This is Into America. And today, we're diving into this idea of white accountability, with Tim Wise.

Tim Wise: The thing that's creating so much of the stress and the anxiety that white folks ironically have about even sitting down and talking to black and brown folks about racism is racism.

Lee: Tim is an anti-racist essayist, educator, and the author of numerous books like White Lies Matter and Dear White America. Now, you're a white man from Tennessee. How did you get to this level of-- of race consciousness? I mean, you've been actually challenging systems of white supremacy, this is what you do.

Wise: Well, I mean, I think growing up in the South in the '70s and as a teenager in the '80s, I've come from a family that was very intentional about some things, including making sure that I had a commitment to racial equity. I went to, you know, to preschool at the age of three or four, you know, in an educational environment where I wasn't just, you know, the minority.

I was one of, you know, three white kids or three non-black kids, really, in a class of pretty much all African American students. And the teachers and the administrators were black women. And so it socialized me I think a little differently than the vast majority of white Americans. That's an understatement.

You know, it socialized me to be able to perhaps see some things that other white folks wouldn't have seen, you know? If you're really connected to black people as friends and not just, like, associates, but actually, you know, people that you have a connection to, and then you see them in first grade, second grade, third grade, fourth grade, being treated differently.

You know, being disciplined more harshly, being tracked into lower tracked academic classes, even though they're just as capable, and even though you're both breaking the rules, but you're being disciplined differently. You know, it has an effect on you, even if you don't know what it is.

You know, I didn't know, I didn't have a language for it. But I knew that there was this thing happening, and it was dividing me from the people I cared about and the people I identified with. And so I just tucked it away, I guess, you know, in the back of my mind until I had some language for it many years later.

And also, having those black women as the leaders and the, you know, people running that early childhood ed program, I learned how to trust black authority, and how to follow black authority at a very early age, particularly black women. And I think that's a lesson very few white people ever learned. I, you know, I think all of that has a lot to do with how I came to the place I am now.

Lee: Now, as we know, black folks and white folks are segregated in most aspects of life still to this day in 2020. It's almost as if we operate in different worlds. You had the privilege of being socialized a certain kinda way, and I think it is a privilege that many of us don't get the opportunity to experience. But when you talk to white folks the way you're talkin' to me right now, and talkin' about privilege and black authority, do they receive it as if you're speakin' a different language?

Wise: So a couple things will happen when I talk about that socialization and those experiences. Number one is I will actually meet white folks who had some, very rarely, but I will meet some, you know, who had some similar experiences. Maybe they grew up in a mostly brown or black neighborhood.

Maybe they went to school at a school where most of the kids were kids of color. But even the white folks who don't have that experience, they don't doubt it. They actually are fascinated by it oftentimes, and I've even had white folks, you know, who I think quite sincerely will wish that they had some of that.

Now, white folks are always very quick to say, "Oh, I've got a black friend." And, you know, usually we really don't. Usually they're lying. Usually they're exaggerating the level of friendship, right? What they really have is maybe a colleague or someone who's an associate of some sort. They're not really tight though.

Like, I think there are white folks who actually would like to have those kinds of cross-racial, cross-cultural, cross-ethnic connections with people, but they don't. And they don't understand why. And it's not because they're bad people, and it's not because the people they wanna be friends with don't wanna be friends with them. It's that we have a society that has divided us to such an extent that it's incredibly hard.

If I have a fundamentally different set of realities than you, how am I supposed to be able to sit down and talk with you about anything meaningful? And if I can't do that, how can I really have connection and friendship? There's a deep irony, but it's also sorta heartbreaking.

Lee: What is it about whiteness that cleaves that wedge between us where you can't even speak to someone, let alone get deep with them?

Wise: I mean, to be black in this society, to be anything but white, is to have to know how to operate in multiple universes. It is to be multilingual as a matter of survival, you know? Not as a matter of, "Oh, wouldn't it be nice to learn a different language and (LAUGH) a different culture," but, "I sorta have to if I don't want to go under."

On the other hand, to be white is to have the insularity and the privilege of being oblivious to other people's reality, because you don't have to know anything about it. You don't have to learn. You don't have to interact. It is very easy to be white and avoid people of color more or less entirely, if that's what you choose to do.

On the other hand, if you're black and brown and you want to avoid white people entirely, A) it is almost impossible, because white folks are like Visa. We're everywhere you wanna be (LAUGH) in a society of profound inequality. And secondly, in order to be black and to avoid, to just be in a black world is incredibly hard, even if that's what you choose to do, because the opportunity structure is so incredibly skewed.

Lee: Let's talk white privilege. Now, I grew up in South Jersey in a black community with a minority of white people. And all the white people I ever knew growin' up were all working class people, either poor or working class. And those folks, I know for a fact, many of them would say, "Privilege? What privilege do we have?" (LAUGH) I'm sure you get that. But can you explain for folks who don't understand how white privilege works and what it actually is, can you just lay it bare for us?

Wise: Well, look, I mean, there have always been poor white people. There were poor white people, and lots of 'em, while black people were still owned as property. But would anyone say that white privilege wasn't a thing, even when black people were owned as enslaved persons? Come on. One does not cancel the other, right?

So we just have to accept that we can be marginalized in one area and we can be privileged in the other. And here's the thing, if I want people to be sympathetic to me in that area where I got hurt, if I want people to act in solidarity with me around the place where I got injured, then I have to be willing to extend solidarity in that place where I was advantaged towards those who were not.

It's like me growing up in Nashville in the South. I'm Jewish, and in this town there's like, you know, three churches on every four-way stop corner, right? And all throughout my childhood, I had teachers and school administrators and public schools that would, you know, try to make me pray in school, who would remind me that I was going to hell, you know, just in case I'd forgotten since last week when they told met first time, right? (LAUGH)

Lee: Right.

Wise: On the one hand, that's really oppressive behavior. But if I want them to stand up for me as the target of anti-Jewish bias, then I've got to be willing to stand up for them when they're the target of white supremacy and racism and when I'm the beneficiary of white privilege. There's a reciprocity there that white folks don't recognize. We have to be willing to acknowledge those areas where we have had certain benefits as well.

Lee: And white privilege sounds soft. But it still leads to the oppression of black folks, right? I mean, is there any real difference in the way it operates from white supremacy and white privilege? Is there any difference? Or is one simply a soft sounding extension of the other?

Wise: Yeah, I think that white privilege is really a symptom of white supremacy, right? In other words, if you have a system of domination and subordination, that makes one group, whatever that group is, supreme in terms of power and access and opportunity, then by definition, that group is gonna experience certain relative advantages and privileges over all other groups.

But it's important that we think of it almost like, you know, a taxonomy and a hierarchy, where white supremacy is the overarching concept, and within that umbrella of white supremacy, you have a symptom like white privilege, right? You have a system like discrimination.

Like, discrimination is also a symptom of white supremacy. It's not the problem in and of itself, but it's a symptom. And you have other symptoms like implicit bias. You know, you have other symptoms that we can think of, you know, that operate within that larger structure. But yeah, I do think it's important that we don't stick with the white privilege language at the expense of white supremacy. And so when we think of racism, we need to, particularly in this country, we need to be thinking of white supremacy, because it is the only functional form of racism, certainly in this society.

Lee: And speaking of symptoms, and you think about what we're seeing right now with the death of George Floyd, and the spasm, the uprising after, you think about COVID-19 and the disparate lethality of the disease and how it's impacting black folks. In this moment when we can have this conversation and connect all the dots, and see that they're all symptoms of a core of what America is, how do you think many white Americans are viewing this moment? Are they seeing it differently?

Wise: I don't know. I mean, I think there will always be, and there are, obviously, a lot of white folks who even in these moments that ought to be quite obvious, are going to fall back on old patterns of hitting the snooze button, you know, as they did even when they were alarmed for a minute about, I don't know, Katrina, or they were alarmed for a minute about, you know, other police killings, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, et cetera.

And so you have that moment where you wake up. But then we know too often, you know, you just hit that snooze button and you go back to bed. Now, my guess is a lotta folks are gonna hit that snooze button again, even after this blatant killing of George Floyd. I'm hoping, however, that others, and I think it will be the case, especially because all of this is happening against the backdrop of the disparate racial impact of COVID-19, which we all realize, there will be other people who, rather than hitting the snooze button for the 11th or 12th time, are finally gonna get out of bed.

But I want to be really clear and realistic about this. I don't believe that this moment or any similar moment is likely to bring about a situation where the majority of white Americans foundationally turn against white supremacy. Just like I don't think we're ever gonna get a clear majority of men to just say, "Ah, yeah, patriarchy, that was a fun run but we're done with it," right?

Like, I think most white folks are probably gonna cling to their privileges to the bitter end, the same way that so many whites in South Africa clung to apartheid to the bitter end, and so many slave owners in this country, you know, were clinging to enslavement till the bitter end, even to the point of having to go to war to try to maintain it, and thankfully lost that war.

But I do think we're in a moment of inflection, where perhaps maybe enough white folks will begin to realize that this can't go on this way any longer, that we have to make the turn, not just for the sake of black folks, not just for the sake of brown folks, but for the sake of the country that we claim to love.

I mean, that's the thing is, you got all these folks that are starting to realize that this country is coming apart at the seams. And when the country's coming apart at the seams, it's not just black folks that are going down. You're going down. And we're seeing that with COVID right now.

So perhaps this is a moment when we can reach what the late, great legal scholar Derrick Bell called interest convergence, between the needs of black America and the needs of the larger American population, including white folks, to actually make a turn for the better for everyone.

Lee: Very been hearing this term, white accountability, more and more over the last several days. This idea of white people lookin' at each other, lookin' at themselves in the mirror and holding themselves accountable for the state of things, because as we know, a lotta people turn to black folks and say, "Well, what should happen right now? How do we move forward?" And the answer is always, "Well, why don't you ask some white people?" Right? We're in this situation because of white supremacy. What does white accountability look like? Is it join a protest? What is it?

Wise: Well, I think it can be. And I certainly think that joining a protest is a fine idea. But look, you can join a protest in a very unaccountable way, and I think a lotta white folks have. My concern is if you are gonna say, "I'm gonna go to a protest," you have an obligation. If you're really interested in accountability, and if you're really interested in justice, you have to subordinate your own ego and your own anger and your rage to what black folks need in that moment.

You need to follow their lead. Accountability means taking your cue from the community that has the most to lose. Accountability means following the lead of people of color, and what people of color need from us right now is for us to nothing in these protests that's gonna hurt them, that's gonna blow back on them. So that's number one.

The second thing for accountability is we have to operate outside the realm of the individual act. It's fine to post on social media. It's good to talk to our friends via Facebook and other places about what's on our heart and what's on our minds. But there's gonna come a point when we're gonna need to get back in community and meeting with people, and really talking with people, and sharing ideas in a collective sense.

Because the thing about activism and fighting and justice, it can be very, very isolating, and it can be very exhausting. And god knows, for people who have had privilege, any level of discomfort, right, folks will throw in the towel. Black folks don't have the luxury of gettin', I mean, they do get tired, right? People of color get tired.

But you can't throw in the towel 'cause your life is at stake. But white folks, man, if we're doin' this and we feel isolated and it gets too hard, I know what we're gonna do. We're gonna just say, "Wow, it's just so difficult. I've just gotta go do something else." So we've gotta create support structures for us as white folks to stay in this work and to hold each other accountable. And I think that that is the kind of accountability that we need.

Lee: Tim, we're gonna take a quick break. Stick with us. So are there concrete steps, concrete ways that white people can be-- better allies to black folks right now?

Wise: Well, there are, and I will give you a few. I also wanna warn again, though, the idea that there is a one, two, three, or a one through five, or a one through ten. I think sometimes white folks want that because privilege tells us that we need that, and that we deserve the one through five, or the one through ten.

But if it were that easy, don't you figure black folks would've already done that by now? Like, if there were three things that white folks could do, black folks woulda said, "Do these three things." And black folks don't have those three things either. So it's complicated, and it's messy.

But I will say there are at least a few things that will help. One is I think we need to be seeking out those organizations in our communities, and not everybody's gonna live in a community that has them, but many of us will. Groups like SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice, and others that worked in connection with people of color like black-led organizations, and talk about white accountability and white responsibility.

And you can contribute financial resources to those organizations. You can contribute time and effort volunteering with those organizations or spreading the word about those organizations. And then we need to sit down and really take stock of our own racial autobiography.

A lotta times, you know, we might be able to accept that racism is affecting people of color, but we're not thinking about and excavating the way that it's affected us, and the way that white privilege and white supremacy have affected us. And so I mean sitting down and thinking deeply, journaling about, you know, how whiteness has affected who we are in the world, where we are in the world, what we have and don't have in the world.

Because if all we do is think this is about helping other people or it's about their issue, then it's like charity work. But if I realize that it's my story too, then I feel a connection to it that keeps me in it even when it gets difficult and hard, as it's going to do the longer that we work at it.

Lee: And it sounds like that kind of allyship might shake people from their foundations, everything they know to be true. Does allyship, white allyship with black movements and justice for America, but justice for black people, does allyship require sacrifice? Is it without question, you have to sacrifice in order to be a good ally?

Wise: Well, you have to sacrifice at the very least your obliviousness, which is the biggest white privilege of all, is the privilege of being oblivious to other people's reality. The reason I say it's the biggest one of all is it's the one that undergirds all the others.

The reason that we don't get busy trying to create greater equity in terms of material resources, in terms of educational resources, in terms of treatment in the justice system and all these other areas, is because we don't even have to know about the inequities in those places.

And I think if we did know about them, if we were really clear on them, there would be a far larger number of white folks who would want to do something about that. But we're kept in the dark about these things quite on purpose. We can't know what we're not taught, and we don't talk about these things, or we talk about them in this abstract way that, you know, places each historical moment in its own isolated, hermetically sealed vault, and we don't think the past affects the present, even though it obviously does.

And so number one, we have to sacrifice our obliviousness. And we also have to sacrifice our need for comfort. This is about saying that you want to give up the unearned edge moving forward, from this point, that you continue to bank, and you want to create policies and push for policies that would begin to not just redistribute that which has already been maldistributed, but that we created a fundamentally different distribution of resources going forwards.

It's not about taking away anything that has been earned, anything that is justly deserved. It is about taking away only the excess that is not earned and is not deserved, so that we can all actually stand on our own two fee. All the mythology that we talk about, "Oh, well, I just, we should all stand on our own two feet and make it on our own," that's a great idea. I think it's an idea white folks ought to try.

Lee: When you see, or when folks see white privilege in action, or ignorance in action, or racism in action, should white people confront other white people about what's happening? Should they have to be intentional about confronting racism wherever it lies?

Wise: Oh, I certainly think we should confront racism when we see it. But I think the problem is that a lotta times, the racism that is confrontable, in that terminology, is only the most obvious and blatant kind. Now, certainly we ought to do it. I mean, it's very important that if you have friends or colleagues or family that are making racist comments, telling racist jokes, engaged in obviously discriminatory behavior, you should try to interrupt that.

And you should practice in your own head ahead of time how you might do it. But I think the bigger problem is so much of the racism that exists, and stuff that really perpetuates inequality in this country, is the kinda stuff that is oftentimes much more subtle and institutional. And there are ways to do it. There are ways to challenge those procedures. But it's a lot different and a lot more systemic and a lot more sustained than simply interrupting a racist comment that you overhear, you know, in a coffee shop or something.

Lee: There are a lotta people, journalists included, who ask and have been askin' black folks about the talk they had with their children. You know, capital letter, The Talk, about police and how to respond, and more broadly, just how to engage with white society and white people period.

But my question, as always, do white people have a talk with their children about race and race relations and how to move and engage with other people? Should white parents be talking to their kids about race and white privilege, and what should that sound like?

Wise: Well, the first part of the question, the answer sadly is no, most white folks don't have that talk with their children. I know that for me, of course, that was never gonna be an option for my children. I didn't wanna hit them over the head with it all the time, because I do think one of the things that helped me was not just a parent that talked, but a parent that acted.

And sometimes the actions are more important than the words. Well, with our kids, you know, they're dancers. And the first company that they were in, and they were in it for many years, their formative years as dancers, and really as human beings, one of the lead choreographers that they learned from and gained so much from was an African American male.

How many white kids have black men in their lives as mentors and role models, shaping them at the age of eight and nine and ten years old? Not that many. But that was indispensable. And even when they moved from that company and left that company, they're still close and connected to that individual, and they've learned so much from that individual because that was at an early age.

Now, I coulda told them at eight, nine, and ten how important that kinda thing was. But putting them in that situation was even more important. So the talks are important, and we should certainly have them, and there are resources out there for white folks who wanna figure out how to talk to their kids.

There's a great book called Raising White Kids that talks about how to have this conversation with white children in a way that's really meaningful. But we must do it. And in our home, I remember those talks. I started having those talks with my children when they were really young.

You know, now here they are, my kids are 18 and 16. And before they post things on social media, they're wanting to make sure that there's accountability in their words, and they're wanting to make sure that they're not just, you know, performative in what they're posting, and that they're not just posting something 'cause they're supposed to post it.

And so we're having these deep conversations about what it means to stand up. And the reason we can do that is 'cause we started early. And it's never too late to start. I'm not saying that if you didn't do it early, you know, on well. Too late. But the earlier that you begin those conversations with white children, certainly the better.

Lee: In this moment we're in right now, do you think, George Floyd protests included or not, that white America wants the change that black folks are calling for?

Wise: Oh, I don't think that white America writ large does, because I think the change that black America's calling for would create a reduction in the net advantage that we have. I mean, that's just true. Look, if you have equity, it's simply true that white folks are not gonna be able to keep banking that unearned part of our advantages, and continue to bank our skin in a way that benefits us.

Having said that, it isn't about whether white America is ready for what black America is calling for. It's are enough white folks prepared? And again, I don't know what enough is, but I know it's somewhere north of where we are right now, and probably south of 50% plus one. Are there enough white folks that are prepared to join in solidarity with peoples of color, particularly with black folks, to push for a different way of living?

And are there enough white folks that are prepared to find a different way of living in the skin that we are in, and fighting for pluralism and multiracial democracy? I happen to believe that that's possible, but I have to also remain agnostic about it because I haven't ever seen it.

That doesn't mean that I'm giving up on the potential of it. I have to maintain a certain degree of belief in the prospects of people to do the right thing, even if they're doing it for maybe not the moral and ethical reason, but the practical, self survival reason.

I don't care why you do it. I don't care if you, look, if you wanna fight to end white supremacy because you think white supremacy is gonna eventually result in you dying of a disease that didn't get taken care of because we figured it was just black folks dying, fine. Fight it for that.

I don't care. Whatever it'll take to get you to turn against that system. But I just think that we've got to realize it's not about getting most white folks, it's about getting enough. And that's more than what we got right now. So let's just work as hard as we can to build that base of internal resistance within the white community. Enough that when you combine that with black and brown folks calling for justice, it can create a workable governing coalition and governing power force in this country.

Lee: Tim, thank you very much for all of your time and insight. We really appreciate it. And I hope to see you on the other side someday.

Wise: That sounds great. And thank you for having me.

Lee: Tim Wise is an anti-racist essayist and educator. He's the author of numerous books, including White Lies Matter and Dear White America. His forthcoming book, Dispatches from the Race War, will be released this December. For a list of books by other authors Tim thinks people should be reading right now, check out this episode's description wherever you get your podcast.

Or visit NBCNews.com/IntoAmerica. You can find his recommended reading list there. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back tomorrow.