the smell of my desperation has become a stench

“Much as water can be taken for granted by a fish”

Back in June when I talked about how uncomfortable I am with approaching the topic of race on this website (or anywhere, for that matter) a few readers left comments and sent emails urging me to check out various reading materials. The one book that appeared most in those suggestions was White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son by Tim Wise, an anti-racism activist and writer from Nashville, Tennessee.


I am only halfway through the book but have highlighted so many passages already that I knew I had to stop, especially right now, and share some of his insights here. What I’m experiencing while reading this text is a lot like what I experienced when I read that transforming essay my junior year in college: a burning in my face and stomach, a laying out in very specific terms my lingering and embarrassing ignorance and laziness.

I read some of the criticism of the book that says Tim comes across as a very angry and “tedious” white person, and there were a few times when I wanted to agree with that sentiment except this excerpt explains why I could not bring myself to:

“Hardly any aspect of my life, from where I had lived to my education to my employment history to my friendships, had been free from the taint of racial inequity, from racism, from whiteness. My racial identity had shaped me from the womb forward. I had not been in control of my own narrative. It wasn’t just race that was a social construct. So was I.

He wrote this book not to make white people feel guilty for being white. Guilt is a pretty useless, ineffectual emotion, and he knows this. Guilt is not what I feel when coming to these realizations. In fact, I feel duty.

He wrote this to help white people understand and accept that everything we experience from the moment we take our first breath is influenced by the institution of racism that has shaped this country from its inception. He’s wildly angry, and rightfully so, that so many of us do not realize this, and because we don’t recognize the privilege that has branched out into every single aspect of our lives we are ourselves ineffectual at destroying that institution. In fact, he posits and makes one hell of an argument for it, that we are responsible because of our privilege for dismantling it. Until we do there will continue to be yet another Michael Brown, yet another Trayvon Martin, yet another Eric Garner, yet another Renisha McBride, yet another, yet another and yet another.

My god, this is a powerful read and I would urge even the most conservative among you to take a look at a few pages and examine where you were born, where you live, your own education, your employment history, even your ability to walk down the street without being questioned whether or not you belong there.

Every single conservative Southerner I know on Facebook is going to foam at the mouth if they get two sentences into this, but I hope they take the time to read at least those two sentences.

If there are so many excerpts here that it would upset the publisher, I understand and will whittle them down. But this just touches the surface of what he surgically cuts open and peels back in this book. And there is still so much more. Buy it and read it.


“Only by coming to realize how thoroughly racialized our white lives are can we begin to see the problem as ours, and begin to take action to help solve it. By remaining oblivious to out racialization we remain oblivious to the injustice that stems from it, and we remain paralyzed when it comes to responding to it in a constructive manner.”


“Although we white Americans often think we’ve had few first-hand experiences with race, because most of us are so isolated from people of color in our day-to-day lives, the reality is that this isolation is our experience with race. We are all experiencing race, because from the beginning of out lives we have been living in a racialized society, in which the color of our skin means something socially, even while it remains largely a matter of biological and genetic irrelevance.”


“As for concept of privilege, here, too, clarification is in order. I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that all whites are wealthy and powerful. We live not only in a racialized society, but also in a class system, a patriarchal system, and one of straight supremacy, able-bodied supremacy, and Christian hegemony…. But despite the fact that white privilege plays out differently for different people, depending on these other identities, the fact remains that whiteness matters and carries great advantage.”


“When we first draw breath outside of the womb, we inhale tiny particles of all that came before, both literally and figuratively. We are never merely individuals; we are never alone; we are always in the company of others, of the past, of history. We become part of that history just as surely as it becomes part of us. There is no escaping it; there are merely different levels of coping. It is how we bear the past that matters, and in many was it is all that differentiates us.”


“What does it mean to be white in a nation created for the benefit of of people like you?… Being a member of the majority, the dominant group, allows one to ignore how race shapes one’s life. For those of us called white, whiteness simply is. Whiteness becomes, for us, the unspoken, uninterrogated norm, taken for granted, much as water can be taken for granted by a fish.”


“We are, unlike people of color, born to belonging, and have rarely had to prove ourselves deserving of our presence here. At the very least, our right to be here hasn’t really been questioned for a long time.”



“Genealogy itself is something of a privilege, coming far more easily to those of us for whom enslavement, conquest, and dispossession of our land has not been our lot. Genealogy offers a sense of belonging and connectedness to others with firm, identifiable pasts, pasts that directly trace the rise and fall of empires, and which correspond to the events we learned about in history classes, so focused were they are the narratives of European people.”


“Though many would excuse the barbarity of enslavement by suggesting that such an institution must be judged by the standards of its own times, rather than today, I make no such allowance, and find it obscene when others do so. It is simply not true that ‘everyone back then felt that way,’ or supported slavery as an institution. Those who were enslaved were under no illusion that their condition was just.”


“Simply being born to a white family meant certain things about the experiences I was likely to have once born: where I would live, what jobs and education my family was likely to have had, and where I would go to school.”


“I say this not to suggest any guilt on my part for having inherited this legacy, It is surely not my fault that I was born, as with so many others, into a social state over which I had little control. But this is hardly the point, and regardless of our own direct culpability for the system, or lack thereof, the simple and incontestable fact is that we all have to deal with the residue of past actions.”


“Just as a house or farm left to you upon the death of a parent is an asset that you get to use, so too is racial privilege; and if you get to use an asset, you have to pay the debt accumulated, which allowed the asset to exist in the first place…. Those who reap the benefits of past actions—and the privileges that have come from whiteness are certainly among those—have an obligation to take responsibility for our use of those benefits.”


“At the level of labels, racism has long operated to impose white reality onto others. Whites found assertion of blackness (and especially as a positive, even “beautiful” thing in the 1960s and 1970s) threatening because it was an internally derived title unlike ‘color’ or ‘Negro,’ terms which had been foisted upon black bodies by the white and European traditions. Likewise, many whites today react hostly to the use of the term ‘African American’ because it came from within the black community, and as such, stands as a challenge to white linguistic authority.”


“Anything that makes us feel proud can be said, facts notwithstanding. Anything that reminds us of the not-so-noble pursuits of our forefathers or national heroes, on the other hand, gets dumped down the memory hole. And if you bring those kinds of things up, you’ll be accused of hating America.”


“Mr. Kennerly, my geography teacher, made a lasting impression on my when explaining that Western concepts of ‘civilization’ were subjective, and that the term should not be used when referring to the U.S. or the industrialized world, especially not in relation to non-Western societies who had their own social and cultural understandings of what a good society should look like. We use the word ‘civilization to mean ‘materially wealthy’ and technologically advanced, even though material wealth and technology are often used for uncivilized, unethical ends.”


“Colorblindness is not the proper goal of fair-minded educators… To not see color, is, as Julian Bond has noted, to not see the consequences of color. And if color has consequences, yet you’ve resolved not to notice the thing that brings about those consequences, the odds are pretty good that you’ll fail to serve the needs of the students in question.”


“Whites (especially affluent ones) much more so than folks of color, have the luxury of looking at life or death issues of warm peace, famine, unemployment, or criminal justice as a game, as a mere exercise in intellectual and rhetorical banter.”


“Whiteness is about never being really out of place, of having the sense that wherever you are, you belong, and won’t encounter much resistance to your presence.”


“It isn’t the job of people of color to fix us; is it our job. It is on us to practice that ‘personal responsibility’ about which we so readily preach to people of color.”

  • Jen Moore

    2014/08/19 at 3:45 pm

    I’m so glad you are reading this book and sharing it with your readership. As a white woman who teaches Women’s Studies white privilege is a subject that I talk a lot about in my classroom. As whites we don’t see ourselves as having a race, duh! that’s the privilege and once we can move beyond that point and my white students acknowledge this, then the conversation gets rolling. In all my years of teaching this subject I have never been in a classroom where the students of color don’t appreciate the struggle their white classmates experience–they are so relieved it’s being talked about. And, guilt, GUILT is always a topic and I don’t know that it shouldn’t be. Usually I find after the guilt, comes sadness and then hopefully consciousness and then action. xo

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/19 at 4:31 pm

    I can totally see guilt being a topic. I think maybe I experienced so much of it as a Mormon that I know now how inherently worthless it is in terms of changing yourself or making worthwhile change outside of yourself. You can’t just feel guilty. “Feel guilty and repent” was always hammered home in my religious upbringing, and yes, that needs to happen. Guilt can perhaps plant a seed for change. But then… what about *changing my behavior*? Don’t just feel guilty for cheating on a test or buying a paper. Don’t do it again and don’t stand for anyone else doing it because *this* is why it hurts everyone involved.

  • Ariane

    2014/08/19 at 4:32 pm

    Just bought it. Thank you for the recommendation.

  • Amusing Soprano

    2014/08/19 at 4:32 pm

    White is a colour not an ethnicity. I’m lumped into the amorphous mass called ‘white’ but I’m actually sort of pinkish at the moment (winter) and then slightly tan in summer 🙂 Maybe if we stopped using colour as a label it would then drop away the racial concepts that have attached themselves to those labels.

  • Jen Moore

    2014/08/19 at 4:42 pm

    Yes totally. Guilt is often used as the “out” for changing behavior or action…feeling guilty isn’t enough. Know that you know, do something differently. Yes while different than being a Mormon, I grew up and was a Christian Scientist until my mid thirties…guilt oy vey! If I didn’t heal myself through prayer did I ever beat myself up..ugh so glad to be over that. Hello modern medicine, hello naturopathic care and hello my body is telling me something I probably shouldn’t ignore it! Well hello, it seems I lost myself there..ahem…I know all about guilt. Useless emotion IMO.

  • Karen Walrond

    2014/08/19 at 5:02 pm

    *fist bump*

    (and thanks for the shout-out, friend.)


  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/19 at 5:16 pm

    “Hello my body is telling me something I probably shouldn’t ignore it.” I wasn’t even Christian Scientist and did that ever speak to me!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/19 at 5:17 pm

    I normally only receive bills from lawyers, not fist bumps. I WILL TAKE IT.

  • Karen Walrond

    2014/08/19 at 5:25 pm

    The bill’s in the mail. 😉

  • Jen Moore

    2014/08/19 at 5:47 pm

    Boom–mind blown, your welcome 🙂 [fist bump]

  • Gus Hinrich

    2014/08/19 at 5:59 pm

    This is SO good Thank you.

  • Jack

    2014/08/19 at 6:12 pm

    Fantastic! I’m (obviously) not white but I’m going to pick this up too.

    If you haven’t already, check out “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Dr. Beverly Tatum. It puts into very simple terms many very difficult topics about being black in America. The chapter I’m reading right now explores the stages of how white people react when they realize their privilege and the different stages they go through. Thoroughly fascinating.

  • Michelle

    2014/08/19 at 6:29 pm

    Defensiveness is a reaction – typically the first reaction to having something negative brought to one’s attention. It’s not the ideal way to launch a dialogue, I agree. But what other ways are there when nearly all other approaches excuse complacency? If discomfort and defensiveness is what a person feels when shown an unpleasant truth, what else might motivate them toward participating in change?

  • Kate G

    2014/08/19 at 6:32 pm

    So let’s just not talk about race and racism and then the problems will just vanish? If only it were that easy. Whiteness is a changing target that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with skin color (just ask the Irish who immigrated to this country a hundred years ago).

    As a woman who benefits from white privilege, I am super uncomfortable talking about race, and I have been guilty of many of the dumbass things that Tim Wise calls out in his work. But here’s what I do know: if I don’t talk about race/racism/privilege, then I’m helping perpetuate the problem in our country instead of working toward a solution.

  • jawnbc

    2014/08/19 at 7:01 pm

    Very true. I focus on the evidence about the history and today. Then about causes and conditions. Discomfort is a good thing in this case, isn’t it? But most of all stories—when people feel empathy they are open. BTW I wouldn’t ever undermine someone’s efforts in this area when they’re facilitating or teaching. But in this context I will offer critique. And accept it too!

  • readiness

    2014/08/19 at 7:27 pm

    From this post:

    “Colorblindness is not the proper goal of fair-minded educators… To not see color, is, as Julian Bond has noted, to not see the consequences of color. And if color has consequences, yet you’ve resolved not to notice the thing that brings about those consequences, the odds are pretty good that you’ll fail to serve the needs of the students in question.”

    Whether you want it to or not, color has consequences. Being white (or “pink” or “slightly tan”), give you privilege. By not seeing color, you literally erase POC’s experiences. Because whiteness is the dominate culture, it’s the go to. When people say “colorless”, they often mean white even without intention because they have the privilege of belonging to dominate group. I have white privilege *just because I look white*. I’m mixed race and see the way more African American looking family members are treated in comparison to me. The fact we have different colored skin *matters*. It means I won’t get arrested for going into my own home, just because it’s Cambridge (like Mr. Gates). My heritage doesn’t negate my privilege because I pass. I am functionally white and that mean a lot in this society.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/19 at 7:38 pm

    “If I don’t talk about race/racism/privilege, then I’m helping perpetuate the problem in our country instead of working toward a solution.” Yes. This. This is what I am totally guilty of.

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/19 at 7:48 pm

    There is so much in this book that I could not speak to here (lack of space and room and I thought I was infringing on copyright at some point) about inequity as a starting point. But he is always quick (and right) to bring it back to… if you are white you *still* have an advantage and you HAVE to see that. You still have a leg up. You still have advantages in this country because of your skin color regardless of whether you are poor or LGBQT or disabled or a woman. That is one of the founding constructs of this country and how it operates.

    And this why you see cities like Ferguson blowing up. Ferguson is not blowing up because it is poor and was not given enough food stamps. It’s not blowing up because people of color are predisposed to violence. It is blowing up because institutionalized racism has enabled so many of us for so long to get away with so fucking much including KILLING INNOCENT AFRICAN AMERICANS WHO WERE DOING NOTHING SUSPICIOUS. Even poor white Americans who start out with “inequity as a starting point” have a duty, albeit one probably less than my own, to agree that this is happening and it has to stop.

    If someone cannot walk down a street without being treated as a common criminal *specifically because of skin color* then everything about our culture needs to be examined and deconstructed and torn apart. FUCKING PERIOD.

  • jawnbc

    2014/08/19 at 8:01 pm

    Nice. And no, not fucking period…in fact, you’ve just proved my point. Because I want EVERYBODY who’s willing to engage to be able to, up front. Being outraged is totally appropriate to a lot of what goes on. Railing against injustice—absolutely. Railing against people trying to make sense of a deeply entrenched, complex system of hegemony? Different task and different approach.

    Rather than just crap on your ALLIES, try channelling that into something productive. You want people to talk about race, don’t use expressions like “fucking period” to try and shut them down. And, just for the record I’ve been doing this work for over 30 years—starting as an activist. You want it to be simple and stark and easy and linear, stay in your living room typing.

    Skip the vitriol, or at lease save it for actual enemies and villains…

  • Amusing Soprano

    2014/08/19 at 10:54 pm

    You’ve misunderstood what I was saying Kate – I didn’t say let’s not talk about it, I said let’s not lose focus on what the issue is by using imprecise terms. Colour is such a small part of it. Yes, we MUST talk about racism. Which as you say, is uncomfortable for many of us.

  • Michael Mathews

    2014/08/20 at 12:39 am

    I drew some parallels during discussion of the immigration law in Arizona (which some call “papers please”). My reaction to that law was that of course I would not have to worry about carrying my passport when I visit Arizona, but my partner who is Mexican by birth but a US citizen might. That was one stark example of the whole privilege notion. There are so many things I don’t have to worry about because I have white skin.

    What dismays me is how often the conversation steers towards victim blaming. The clothes, the slang, not working hard enough, not staying in school, abandoning fathers, music. Blah, blah, blah. So many of us cannot see how our privilege blinds us to the real struggles.

  • Tui_P

    2014/08/20 at 1:46 am

    I hear you. When we talk about the social injustice of inequity we can all get behind it. We can identify, statistically, that there are races who suffer more socially, economically, psychically and psychologically. We can look at injustices and look to ways we can change legislation and misconception above motives. And we do it together because when a group is suffering and we can work towards change, we all win.

    “Most people are good. Most people can—and want to—be better.”
    So true!

  • jawnbc

    2014/08/20 at 2:02 am

    Thanks Tui.

    And don’t get me wrong: if someone’s being overtly racist I call it—sometimes directly, sometimes in a way that allows them to save (some) face. Rarely do I think it’s good to humiliate people on purpose. So it’s not all kittehs and hugs. And I also have days where I’m not being my best. Many, many days… 🙂

  • jawnbc

    2014/08/20 at 2:08 am

    Absolutely. There’s a large, pervasive mythology that’s not unique to America: people who struggle largely do so because they don’t try hard enough. Poor=lazy; lots of poor Black people, ergo Black=lazy. No, that’s not racist, it’s data.Yeah right.

    Sorry your partner and you have to deal with that.

  • Autumn Canter

    2014/08/20 at 5:07 am

    I am adding this to my goodreads. My husband is biracial. One of our children could “pass” and the other cannot. Color comes up a lot in our household. Often my white family thinks I am overreacting or labeling my children when I discuss race. My own beautiful babies have said things like, “I prefer lighter skin.” and “I wish my hair was yellow.” Already they know what race is “preferred” in our culture even though I try to represent both in their toys or use the brown crayon when we draw people and talk about how beautiful our differences are. Media is just overwhelmingly white! As are picture book! Toys! The issue of race came up all over again when my daughter said she wanted a Barbie for her birthday and I went on the look out for a Barbie that looks biracial. I wondered if I was being silly. If there was any way, as their white mother, I could encourage my children to feel empowered by their diverse background. At least we live in Baltimore where there is all sorts of combinations of people. We used to live in rural upstate New York where my husband always felt stared at!

  • Heather Armstrong

    2014/08/20 at 8:30 am

    Saying “FUCKING PERIOD” about the injustice of being able to walk down the street without fearing for your life is in no way proving your point. It is in no way crapping on “allies.” It’s not shutting anyone down. It’s addressing specifically the *system* that is in place. A system that has to be dismantled.

    I understand that most people are good and most people want to be and do better but here is where I get uncomfortable and nauseated:

    “Everyone benefits from a safe space.”

    White people already have that safe space. We always have. And yet how many times are people of color denied this, how often and so fatally are they denied this? And yet, we’re supposed to gift white people what we already have to see the injustice we do not suffer? This makes me so uncomfortable, as if somehow white people are owed time and comfort to see our part and history in this, and once given that time and safe space we’ll do our part as an ally.

    I guess *am* too linear and stark. Guilty as charged.

  • Kate G

    2014/08/20 at 8:43 am

    Perhaps. After all, I don’t know anything more about where your statement was coming from, or what your background in racism awareness/education/activism and other social justice work may be. That’s the thing about written exchanges – everyone reads a bit of their own baggage into the words.

    Here’s where I tweaked: ignoring the labels or using more coded versions of the same doesn’t address the systematic and institutionalized racism that underpins American culture, it just makes it sound nicer.

  • justme

    2014/08/20 at 9:16 am

    What I find interesting about this discussion is that:
    1. The situation in Ferguson has been reduced to just another example of institutionalized racism. It can be, certainly. And yet. Mike Brown has a name. Ferguson was built on a dynamic that you haven’t even bothered to research. You’re trying to address racism (a laudable goal) as something generalized. It’s not. Look at the city. Read about the people. Otherwise, please do not use Ferguson as an example. Please afford victims a place not an arena. Being reductive doesn’t help anyone.
    2. The book you promote. You mention in the comments that just being white affords a certain “leg up” which is, statistically, true. But trying to separate out color from gender and sexuality is a dangerous road that many before this have addressed. Why would you then promote this particular text?
    3. Yes, it is copyright infringement. Perhaps the author is fine with this, but in the event that the author isn’t or doesn’t hold copyright do you think that it points to your privilege that you posted it without even checking and, to date, have had no repercussions? You post something and say that if the publisher has a problem with it that you’ll “whittle” it down?

    It seems as if you heard about a situation, blogged about it, read a book, and now want to jump on the situational bandwagon. It just strikes me as condescending which I cannot imagine was your point. And there may be many notes behind the scenes of which none of us are aware. At this point, though, it seems as if your privilege is propping open the door rather than being kicked out.

  • Jim

    2014/08/20 at 10:52 am

    Heather I’m curious about why you mentioned Renisha McBride in this post among those other individuals. In that case police arrested the individual responsible for her death, prosecutors brought the case to trial, and a diverse jury of his peers convicted him of second-degree murder. I did not realize that those outside Detroit even followed this case, let alone associated it with Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. A tragic case, to be sure, but I do not think it evidences systemic racial injustice like those others. Quite the opposite, in fact.

  • BeckySTL

    2014/08/20 at 10:58 am

    I’ve heard of this book and will give it a shot now reading your review. I live in Saint Louis. I love my city. I’m so angry and frustrated right now, but guilt is an emotion I rarely realize I’m experiencing as well. We are all struggling with our own issues but right now the racial topics are so explosive here everyone is so tense. It hurts my heart. I hope my city recovers. Thanks for being willing to discuss even tough topics.

  • Penelope Luedtke

    2014/08/20 at 11:10 am

    So glad you found Tim! If no one has suggested it yet – I would encourage you to Google “White Ally” and learn more about the concept of using your power of privilege to dismantle the system. Welcome aboard! 😀

  • Liz

    2014/08/20 at 11:19 am

    Very thought-provoking — thank you.
    In a minor way, and one that is much less dangerous and stereotyped, I feel like being Jewish has made me understand some of these concepts. People who are Christian, even those who are non-religious but still have the cultural history of celebrating Christmas, often don’t understand why hanging Christmas lights, or having every radio station play Christmas carols for months, has at times made me feel bad. I am not religious now, and my husband’s family celebrates xmas, so I do too. But when my husband wants to hang lights on our house, because to him they are just festive and playful, not symbolizing anything, for me, as part of a minority, it does symbolize something. It symbolizes that I fit in, when I know I don’t. It says I might believe in Jesus, because growing up, anyone who had lights on their house, was Christian. And I don’t want to give up my identity, or act like it has changed, because even though I’m an atheist, it is important history to me. My husband now understands my perspective, but only after many conversations, and we still have them every December. And I know his mother doesn’t understand, as she encourages me to go to church, “just for the songs and the community.” As the majority, it is so hard to understand the exclusionary aspects of that majority, and the rights and opportunities that are taken for granted. It sounds like this book highlights these things, on a topic that is much more important than the one I mention here.

  • Laura

    2014/08/20 at 12:07 pm

    That’s so fascinating to me. I’ve heard many Christian Scientists say they experienced a lot of guilt, but somehow with the same CS upbringing I never felt it. So I wonder if there are individual predispositions for guilt vs. arrogance (which was/is my opposite-land issue) even within the same belief structure. And I wonder how that might apply to racism as well. Just thinking out loud here.

  • Manisha

    2014/08/20 at 12:33 pm

    I commend you and everyone that takes away some knowledge from this post. I hope that the work continues beyond this because it is not enough to acknowledge it. People of color have days of it being forced in their faces all the time. Some more than other days. And just when I personally get comfortable or see my white colleagues (and friends and neighbors) take these small steps, just when i get comfortable and am able to breathe and just be, I get slammed unexpectedly.

    I am married to a white guy and we have a biracial daughter who might be able to pass. And I don’t want that but I do want that, and then again, I don’t want that. It scares the crap out of me to put her into this world which is why we waited 16 years of marriage to have a child.

    Good work, Heather. I hope that you will continue to evolve your blog in this manner and not just stick with the posts that appear when race issues are so apparently in all of our faces. Thank you.

  • Karen

    2014/08/20 at 12:34 pm

    This rhetoric just seems a little bit irresponsible to me. Michael Brown was not killed for being black and doing nothing suspicious. He was killed after assaulting a cop and trying to take his gun — a fact that you’d probably feel differently about if it had been your father, brother, or friend inside that police car.

    How the altercation started should certainly be examined, but I think the findings will show the responsibility for the death lies with both of them. If Michael Brown had been white, I bet we wouldn’t even be questioning that. We’d probably just shake our heads at his stupidity, and diagnose him with Affluenza.

    If we’re going to get anywhere with promoting equality, these are the sorts of standards that have to be equally applied. Especially in the news. I know that by being white, I was born into a certain amount of societal privilege. I completely get that. But we shouldn’t be so wrapped up in our media-induced, Caucasian self-loathing that we lose all our common sense.

    Brown was high, and had just robbed a gas station nine minutes earlier. These two facts seem to back the cop’s story that Brown was in an agitated state and behaving erratically while walking down the middle of a busy street. At the very least, this should confirm for us that his gut decision to stop them was spot on. The responsibility for what happened next lies with both of them. The responsibility for sensationalizing this story lies (ironically) with the very people who claim to want reconciliation and peace.

  • aarynb

    2014/08/20 at 2:06 pm

    Your racism is showing, Karen.

  • Jen Moore

    2014/08/20 at 2:24 pm

    I think religion and guilt go together like chocolate and peanut butter

  • Kate G

    2014/08/20 at 2:24 pm

    You makes some valid points about Wise. On the other hand, after spending some time in academia, I’ve found that even assholes sometimes have things to teach us. And no matter his failings (’cause we’ve all got failings) as a human being or activist, I think the ideas in the book are clearly articulated and a good first step to thinking about privilege and discrimination in this country.

  • aarynb

    2014/08/20 at 2:24 pm

    The reason Renisha McBride deserves inclusion is because the larger issue is that of the devaluation of black life, though I think you are right to point out that in this one case, justice was served. It’s not enough, though, to say that systemic racial injustice isn’t at play or real, and actually strikes me as a dangerous turning away from the reality of being black in America. If Renisha had been a white college co-ed, the outcome of the story would most likely have been completely different. This is because the shooter, Timothy Wafer, had biases and prejudices that informed his decision to shoot his gun while it was pointed at McBride’s face; these biases and prejudices were/are ingrained and got that way because society and institutions perpetuated (and continue to) the idea that whiteness is better than blackness from the time Wafer was little. So yes, even though there was justice of some kind in the McBride case, systemic racial injustice was definitely at play when she was shot. Black life, black bodies aren’t as valued as white life, white bodies. Jordan Davis is another example of this. And Trayvon Martin. And Oscar Grant. And Amadou DIallou and Sean Bell and the list really just keeps going.

  • Karen

    2014/08/20 at 4:46 pm

    I suppose I could see how it comes off that way, but in a situation like this, it’s hard to be phased by one of society’s most overused and misapplied trump cards. I called for equal application of standards and common sense consideration of all facts. These ideas are not race-specific, yet are vital to achieving a truly egalitarian society. Nevertheless, I’ll keep your words in mind.

    FWIW, I am a group home foster parent who has cared for dozens of at-risk children of several different races, and two things remain constant in every one of my kids: They just want someone to be kind to them, and they want someone to raise the bar. It gives them no hope if I tell them through my words or actions that their behavior matters less because of their lack of privilege, or worse, their race. They want to be held to the same expectations as the person next to them. They want to know they’re capable of better than what society might expect because of their past behaviors (or the behaviors of their parents). A crucial part of this is learning to take responsibility for their actions, and showing consideration for the effects of their choices. Again, not a race-specific concept, yet vital for responsible living.

    My point (albeit long-winded) was meant to be simple: I find it non-nonsensical to assume that although Michael Brown was high and wandering down the center of the street, racism was the only reason he was stopped. I also find it non-nonsensical that we can’t take any lessons away from the altercation, for fear of being called a racist. The cop has the skull fractures to prove this was not a one sided affair. And he got them before he ever got out of his car. Common sense tells you Brown could have done a few things differently, and I don’t see what difference his race makes in that very important truth. I expect better from our citizens regardless of what color they are. Why don’t you?

    This story is a tragedy, and I believe both of these guys are to blame. But we don’t do society any favors by backing down from considering all the facts just because they might point to something a little less en vogue than the narrative that keeps us from getting banned on message boards.

  • MallyMon

    2014/08/20 at 5:05 pm

    It isn’t just an American phenomenon. I’m white British, living in England and, frighteningly, racism is rising here. I lived in South Africa for three years in the 1970s and I found the whole experience absolutely horrendous. I now live in an area of England where there are very few black people – there is just one couple living in my area who are black. (Here we are asked to say black rather than ‘coloured’ or ‘of colour’). When my daughter was small we lived on a street where there was just one black family. All the kids played together, all the adults socialised together, there was no racism. Why can’t adults just act like kids for once? My daughter did notice the difference and asked me about it. I just said that was the way things were, we’re all different, we all have different coloured eyes for example. I often think if we were all blind, well, then what would we have to argue about? ‘White privilege’? I don’t feel guilty because that somehow makes me feel part of the racist conspiracy. What it does, it just really makes me feel so ILL. And I wish I could march on, with, for and in support of Michael Brown (RIP) and Ferguson. Ferguson needs to blow up and blow up more and more white people need to be there too.

  • MallyMon

    2014/08/20 at 5:08 pm

    He was shot at least six times, twice in the head. He was unarmed. That would NOT never no way have happened if he had been privileged white.

  • Jennifer

    2014/08/20 at 8:00 pm

    Growing up, I had a best friend who is Indian. Attending her family gatherings, I was the only white person there. So, I got a taste of what it is like to be the only one in the room belonging to my particular group. Then, the university I attended was predominantly Hispanic. That was less of a stark contrast because, being from Texas, I already had some familiarity with culture, food, language, etc. Then I became Muslim, which put me into a whole new category. Now I belong to a religious minority, while still being part of a racial majority. I know that my experience of being Muslim is not the same as those from South Asia, Africa or the Middle East due to the color of my skin and the way I speak and dress. I also know that my experience of being white is not the same as those who are Christian. Now, I live in the Middle East where I belong to the religious majority, but am in a linguistic and cultural minority. Everyone who belongs to the majority, whether ethnically, religiously, or linguistically, should have experiences being the minority. It’s eye-opening to see how the whole system is set up to favor the majority.

  • Bretley

    2014/08/20 at 9:38 pm

    Heather, thank you for this piece. It has made me think in ways unlike any others. I am a woman, conventionally unattractive, obese, an addict (functioning alcoholic), with psoriasis resulting in unsightly spots on my entire body. All the things I’ve listed are detriments to my quality of life, but I am also a white chick from the Midwest. None of those things would change the game more than if I were a person of color. I have never, ever, felt uncomfortable walking into a place of business, or to an event – anywhere, because of how I looked, other than my own vanity. I have never feared the establishment, the police, others in the crowd, because of what I physically look like. Thank you for pushing through and helping us all think deeply about the issue of race today.

  • aarynb

    2014/08/20 at 11:59 pm

    FWIW, I’m an adoptive mom to a black child. What she and all your foster kids need is not just to have someone “be kind to them” or to “raise the bar” (which are so patronizing and diminutive, I mean really). They obviously need much more than that. But one of the things they need most of all is to be taught what it means to be black/brown in a society that devalues them because of the color of their skin. And while all people of color suffer at the altar of white supremacy—which is the foundation of this country and remains how it operates—black people occupy a special rung. My child and all black children need to be prepared, armed if you will, to go out into the wilderness of their lives where they will meet resistance at almost every turn. Your view is skewed and this is so clear by your language. Of course, people of color want to be held to the same expectations as the person next to them (assuming that person is white). And black people (specifically) are not held to “a lower standard;” they are held to an impossible standard. It concerns me deeply that someone with such an inept understanding of race in America, and with obvious racial bias is somehow approved to take in “dozens of at-risk children of several different races” while you have an obvious disdain for where they come from, and complete lack of understanding of the system that got them there.

    As for the Michael Brown case, we have seen no evidence—zero—of facial fractures to the officer who shot brown. In fact, all of the stories put forth by the police force have been just that: stories. Our culture of whiteness- protecting-whiteness immediately assigns all the credibility to the police, so the media presents what the police release and that becomes truth in the minds of those not willing to think more deeply. Look at how you just assume an authoritative position and declare, as fact, information that was merely reported in a newspaper. Wake up. This is a deeply ingrained racism, and it’s evident in the way people refuse to consider other possibilities, possibilities that would require actual “common sense.”

    Finally, whether Brown was stoned or whether he stole something from a store is irrelevant, and conflating that information with actual facts (and there are some) is obtuse. But it’s a convenient narrative for those who can’t or won’t acknowledge that there was an injustice here. Fact: he was shot six times. Fact: he didn’t have a weapon. Fact: he was left in the street uncovered for hours. Fact: that doesn’t happen to white 18-year-olds. If you can actually justify that in your mind that this is somehow a fair-and-balanced interaction with equal blame to go all around, you have some serious stuff to work out.

    What your dozens of foster kids need, what my child needs is for thoughtful and brave adults to take them by the hand and walk toward trouble, as a reverend recently told me. We need to show them the ugly realities that lie ahead for them and then prepare them to handle it. They need people to arm them with information so they don’t end up face down in a pool of their own blood like Mike Brown.

    Seriously, you need to educate yourself before you continue with the white savior gig.

  • crosberg

    2014/08/21 at 6:53 am

    I agree that even assholes have things to teach us, that’s absolutely true. But a man who goes around attacking women of color regularly isn’t just as asshole, he’s writing something that isn’t *true* to his experience and benefiting from it.

    More than that, his books include massive swaths of thought and work that have been written before by people of color, and no one sees their books at the top of best seller lists, or their books on sites like this one, which is yet another form of institutional racism. White people (myself included) must do better than lifting up the allies who do (or claim to do) the right thing. We must advance the voices of the unheard, instead. Why not Roxane Gay? Why not Audre Lorde? Why not bell hooks or Beverly Daniel Tatum as another commentor mentioned? Why are we celebrating yet another white man when people of color, in particular women of color, have been saying all the same things for DECADES and getting no accolades?

  • Kelly Mochamomma Wickham

    2014/08/21 at 12:05 pm

    Have we yet had the discussion of my growing up Catholic and the guilt thing? If not, we should. We have much to chew on, my friend.

    I have to give you credit, Heather. You’re taking this on in a way that many still aren’t. And I will say that this time around (MY GOD, THIS TIME AROUND) I am not just taking account of who is standing up and who is sitting down. This time, I’m going for the jugular when my friends who break bread with me, have my phone number, and attend my children’s weddings and birthday parties are deciding to stay silent.

    In some of the great matters brought up in your piece from Wise’s writing I would love to address one thing in particular that the brilliant Rebecca Carroll wrote in the Guardian:

    “You are the ones who created this godforsaken racist system by using your circumstantial power and privilege 400 years ago to institutionalize white supremacy. Now use that power and privilege you still have, 400 years later, to dismantle it.

    And please don’t quibble about whether you have any direct lineage to the architects of racism. You are benefitting from it, so you have a direct responsibility to figure out how to undo it. Because maybe you’ve seen what happens when we black people try to undo it in 2014 – they call in the National Guard.”

    I think we keep talking about race in terms of White privilege and mixing that up with guilt which makes White people defensive (so says my White mother) when they believe they aren’t a part of the systemic racism built into this and many other countries. Looking at dismantling that is something we can do. Sure, it’s big, but even if you’re going to eat a whale you take one bite at a time.

  • Karen

    2014/08/21 at 12:57 pm

    I think we might be talking past each other a little bit.

    For clarification, my kids come to my house on a rotation (one to six at a time) to complete a state-approved program as an alternative to juvenile detention. They attend school with specially trained case-workers who teach classes and offer counseling sessions designed to help them with life skills and completion of their diploma. However, Some of my kids have come to me because custody has been lost to the state, or the parents are incarcerated.

    In short, they have some very difficult circumstances, and need a specific type of help to overcome it. These kids are not patronized, their parents are not disparaged, and I do not consider myself a white savior (fairly disparaging, there). I’m just a regular person trying to help all of them process the situation they’re in and to find a good way back.

    I understand what you’re saying about training our black kids about the specific evils they’ll face in this world, and those evils certainly do exist. But because of what I see on a regular basis, I see little value in telling my kids that their skin color has predetermined what kind of life they will have. In fact, I’ve seen much better results from doing the exact opposite.

    For example, I once had a 15 year old black girl who was in my program for shoplifting, and a 14 year old white girl whose mother surrendered custody to the state rather than move out of her boyfriend’s house when he sexually abused her daughter. Perpetuating the narrative that the white girl has some automatic advantage over the black girl would be lost on them, and seems counterproductive at best. At worst, it would have made the black child feel excused and the white child feel hopeless.

    What I find more useful is telling them that we’re all people equally deserving of respect and responsible for our actions. And if someone disrespects you along the way, the fault lies with that individual alone. A truly egalitarian mindset (in part) will mean having the ability to identify a behavior without ascribing it to a race, and the ability to receive critique without dismissing it as racism. It will mean realizing that you only control you. And it will see the great power in that kind of mental and physical discipline.

    This is what I meant by using a common sense approach when discussing Michael Brown. Were there injustices? Yes. Should there be change? Absolutely. But if we can’t juxtapose that with a conversation about whether Michael Brown bears some responsibility in what happened, then we’re not accomplishing anything. We’ve swung the pendulum too far the other direction, and it will have catastrophic results.

    At any rate, I appreciated your statement above:

    ” We need to show them the ugly realities that lie ahead for them, help
    them feel safe as we do it, and then prepare them to handle it. They
    need people to arm them with information so they don’t end up face down in a pool of their own blood like Mike Brown.”

    I’m curious what you believe that should specifically look like. How do you plan to train your child to avoid what happened to Michael Brown?

    For me, it looks like training all my kids (of all colors) to be thoughtful, disciplined, and respectful of others. Sometimes, even above themselves. I believe Darren Wilson and Michael Brown could both have benefited from a healthy dose of all of that.

  • Jessica Howard McAfee

    2014/08/22 at 2:18 pm

    YES! YES! YES! YES! Thank you for using your platform to give a voice to race relations in this country. All I wish is for people to have a conversation, to listen to one another – not just bide their time to spout their opinions – really share a dialogue with one another to find common ground. Posts like these help start those conversations and I applaud you for “going there”.

  • Jessica Howard McAfee

    2014/08/22 at 2:26 pm

    Hi Autumn! I can relate to your frustrations with media. My little girls and my family have a VERY diverse set of friends…my girls are around people from all over the world, of all colors and nationalities…yet my 4 year old has discerned that her brown skin isn’t the preferred color to be….She is obsessed with princesses, just like most little girls, and most princesses on television and books are white. She put 2 & 2 together at 4 years old!!!! The media has influenced her despite all of the work of her family and friends.

    Kmart has a set of 6 princess dolls on their website that kinda look biracial. They are light brown. Check them out. Your daughter may relate to them. They are dressed similarly to the Disney princesses.

Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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