Tim Wise condemns ‘white obliviousness’

8489937722_3fe1ae59ef_bThe thirteenth annual All College Day began on Monday with an all-campus lecture titled “Beyond Diversity: Challenging Racism In An Age Of Backlash” by anti-racist author Tim Wise. Earlier in the day, Wise held a smaller workshop on issues of racism, sexism, and class discrimination, and their effect on the college campus experience. The renowned activist, who has written books such as White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, lectured on issues of white privilege and the daily implications of race in America. The lecture, which occurred in a packed Villard Room, proved to be the best attended All College Day event.

The lecture, which was a collaboration between the the Vassar Student Association (VSA), the ALANA Center, and Africana Studies Program, marks the culmination of months of planning. According to an emailed statement by Associate Dean of the College Ed Pittman, “[Campus Life and Diversity Office] made the decision in late November…after connecting with VSA.” This was Wise’s second visit to Vassar, his first being in 2005 to speak about affirmative action.

Among the motivating factors for inviting Wise to speak was his experience of contextualizing issues of race and inequality within a collegiate setting. According to the All College Day website, “Wise has also lectured on diversity and racial incidents on college campuses and how students and others can respond.” The gorup felt this familiarity with college settings would prove valuable in addressing the rising tension between the VSA and identity-based organizations. According to VSA President Jason Rubin ’13, the VSA originally planned on inviting a speaker on racism and to campus following last semester’s notorious fund application issue involving MEChA, and then discovered All College Day planners were considering a similar topic.

Another key reason for hosting Wise as part of the All College Day programming rather than as a separate lecture arose out of arguments of visibility and participation. Rubin noted that this year’s All College Day featured changes like the addition of a keynote speaker to rally attention. Pittman noted, “I believe that connecting such a powerful speaker to a larger and institutionalized program such as All College Day—and with VSA—was able to yield positive outcomes.”

All College Day planners hoped that Wise’s popularity would inspire increased attendance for the rest of All College Day. “The lecture was intentionally centered as a catalyst for the discussions on Tuesday afternoon,” Pittman explained. “Ideally, those discussions will continue in ways that seek resolution of the problems that exist.”

Wise’s Monday workshop engaged students, particularly student leaders, with issues of racism and white privilege. Pittman noted, “We were very excited about the afternoon discussion with student leaders, many of who were involved in tense conversations around VSA allocations and issues of race and privilege. Some of the most vocal and central players in those discussions participated in the dialogue with Tim Wise.” Among the organizations included in this dialogue were the VSA Executive Board, Council of Black Seniors, Feminist Alliance, Act Out!, Vassar Prison Initiative, MEChA, Asian Students Alliance, Vassar Young Democratic Socialists, Grassroots Alliance for Alternative Politics, and Multiracial-Biracial Student Association.

Aside from granting students a more personal opportunity to interrogate Wise’s theories and their applications, the workshop allowed student leaders to articulate their personal struggles with racism and white privilege at Vassar and throughout America. Wise used the space to talk about his commitment to anti-racism, and why all people should work to destroy white supremacy. The final push of the workshop dealt with means of combating these issues at Vassar.

One of the initial discussion topics dealt with the recent talks of a social consciousness requirement. Students voiced opinions that requiring freshman or underclassmen to take a social consciousness course would bring these issues to the forefront. Wise challenged students to look at the concept in another light. He said, “The place to start rather than [saying] ‘We are going to create this thing; we’re going to create this requirement,’ I think the administration hears that, and a lot of students hear that, and alums hear that, and faculty hear that, [and say] ‘Oh my god we have all this other stuff we have to do and now we have to do that?’ They view it as secondary or tertiary.” Instead, Wise told students to use their mission statement as a place to begin building discussions of social consciousness and more programming. “[Point to it and say] we are actually just trying to further the purpose that the school said they were about,” Wise noted. “We want you to be who you say you are.”
At the lecture, Wise tackled issues of racism and white privilege in the larger American community, and also within the frame of personal experience. Wise brought the impacts of racism to a physical level and discussed the physical dangers experienced by people of color. Wise cited infamous incidents of race-based violence, such as Trayvon Martin’s death, as threats to people of color.

The lecturer noted overprivilege and oppression are part of a double-sided coin: one cannot exist without the other. Wise echoed a statement on his website, “Acknowledging unfairness then calls decent people forth to correct those injustices. And since most persons are at their core, decent folks, the need to ignore evidence of injustice is powerful: To do otherwise would force whites to either push for change (which they would perceive as against their interests) or live consciously as hypocrites who speak of freedom and opportunity but perpetuate a system of inequality” (timwise.org, The Oprah Effect: Black Success, White Denial and the Reality of Racism, 7.28.08).

He implored students to see the universal, though varied, often insidious and negative impacts of racism. While Wise clearly stated that racism negatively impacts people of color directly and presently, he asserts that white privilege also hurts our entire community through white supremacy. He argued that white allies need to recognize that sacrificing their current biased-enfranchisement will produce an American culture more in line with its stated goals.

Wise closed his lecture by re-emphasizing the value of programming around racism. After being questioned on how to attract a similar sized audience, Wise advised faculty in the audience to go to and encourage their students to attend identity-based organizations’ events. He assured students that quality of conversation, rather than quantity of attendees, is important. Wise argued, “Whether or not people show up in numbers like this at those events, those events need to happen regardless…Making sure that people who are the targets of oppression…making sure that they have the space to speak their truth to speak that reality into the universe into the presence of whoever comes, has a positive effect of the mental and emotional state of the people who get to tell that truth.”

Following the lecture, Pittman praised the speech as illuminating information for many students. “His lecture brought an honesty and pointed perspective that challenges readily accepted norms, particularly those around race, whiteness and privilege… His lecture also seemed to hit home with many students who have been confronted with questions and conceptions of race and privilege,” Pittman noted. Rubin added, “It was incredible to see so many people there…I hope it spurs more conversations on a lot of what was brought up.”

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