MLK keynote speaker challenges conventional thoughts on racism

By Victoria Joshua

January 30, 2013

Having conversations about racism are never easy, but when the dialogue is led by a white anti-racism activist, you can be assured that it will draw your attention.

Listed as one of the “25 Visionaries Who are Changing Your World” by Utne Reader independent politics magazine, notable anti-racism activist and writer Tim Wise came to Dominican on Jan. 22 eager to discuss issues regarding white privilege in America.

In honor of Black History Month as well as the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., hundreds from both the Dominican community and the public assembled in the Lund Auditorium to attend Wise’s presentation. Many students arrived with notebooks and laptops in hand, seeming to be present for no more than extra-credit attendance for class.

However, junior Megan Graves was one of the attendees who did not come merely because it was a class requirement, but because she was genuinely interested in what Wise had to say. Graves thought the lecture extended beyond the realm of the classroom and proved to be direct action that all should be willing to commit to.

“I think it’s time for people to sit and listen to the resistance [of the unheard minority] and to get uncomfortable,” Graves said. “It’s necessary for people when they hear the truth to sit, listen and dialogue.”

Wise’s lecture forced those in attendance to do exactly that. He made it a point to address the idea that commercially, Black History Month is all but a typical celebration and not very dedicated to educational awareness of historical African-American people and events. Wise described what he considered the universal and underlying meanings behind Dr. King’s quotes, including “we shall overcome” and phrases from his “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the beginning of the lecture, Wise argued that American society today so hastily commemorates many false versions of the Dr. King that was, to a Dr. King that is rather submissive or more appropriate to the likings of the white majority.

Rhetorically questioning his audience, Wise asked those in attendance if they were “…here to commemorate the safe Dr. King? Or the sanitized and whitewashed Dr. King, who is sold to us every year by marketers who have done focus groups to figure out how to take this man’s words and sell them back to us like a product?”

Such questions would pave the way to Wise’s ultimate message; white Americans must be willing to profess that the current condition of blacks in America is a result of white supremacy. Furthermore, until the white majority is willing to ask the questions that Dr. King would have asked by adhering to the knowledge about social injustice, “We will not survive as a country with the ignorance and mentality of the slave-owner any longer,” Wise said. “We’ve danced around the topic and talk about it in an individualistic way, instead of discussing it as a country.”

However, not everyone in attendance agreed with everything Wise had to say. Junior Anthony Pisano felt that Wise was simply selling himself under a particular image to gain support.

“I felt it was more of a rant than a lecture,” Pisano said. “His speech felt very rehearsed, like he’d done it before at other universities.”

With the majority of attendees, Wise’s words appeared to quickly resonate beyond ears and into hearts, as the rounds of applause heightened when he argued that racial inequity in the homes of minorities and in institutions was not a coincidence. Wise pointed out what he considered long-term injustices, such as millions of people in America still without affordable housing, and white families in America being more likely to find financial stability than black and Latino families. As Wise concluded these arguments, several audience members shouted phrases such as, “That’s right!” and “ My God!” seeming to be said in agreement with what he was declaring.

“The typical white family in America has 22 times the net worth of the typical African-American family and 15 times the net worth of the typical Latino family,” Wise said. “That’s not because white folks work and pray harder. God knows that folks of color have worked and prayed harder than just about anybody in the history of working.”

Dominican University visitor Bill Miller of Kenosha, Wis., believed that Wise’s lecture projected imperative solutions to the problems surrounding white supremacy.

“For me, the most important thing was his discussion of white privilege,” Miller said. “It’s the key to getting the people to talk and to understand one another, and to break out of barriers.”

Perhaps Wise’s most compelling moment occurred during the topic of institutional racism.

“Schools serving black and Latino children are twice as likely to be staffed by the least experienced teachers, while the classes that are serving the white students have the most experienced,” Wise argued. “Dr. King would want to talk about that.”

Furthermore, Wise discussed how he believes blacks who earn college degrees are twice as likely to be unemployed than their white counterparts. With such heart-wrenching statistics in the air, many in the audience dropped their heads and clapped in agreement with Wise, showing their disappointment with this civilization’s inability to look beyond skin color.

During the question and answer session following the lecture, Dominican student Clinee Hedspeth asked Wise why white anti-racists seem to be interested in hearing about racial inequality amongst only themselves, whereas when black anti-racists speak out against the same issues, they are viewed as inferior.

“I’m glad that people appreciate my work, but there are going to be other speakers across the Chicago area and most of them will probably be people of color,” Wise answered. “If you’re going to come to mine, go to theirs and listen to what they have to say. Without them, I would not be here to do this work.”

An example of such recent inferiority was demonstrated during last March’s Blackout Protest on campus, in which nine black students stood arm-in-arm in front of the Rebecca Crown Library to protest alleged racist incidents that occurred across campus. As the protest took place, several students, both black and white, expressed no interest and quickly went about their everyday tasks. Many students believed that if racism was really the issue, it should have been handled better. Students claimed the protest was defensive and did not speak for the Dominican community as a whole. However, a large number of Dominican students arrived to Wise’s lecture open-minded, excited and ready to support the same issues.