Home > reflections on race > Tim Wise & First Racial Experiences

Tim Wise & First Racial Experiences

Part 2 of 3

Most whites havent given it much though, which is not surprising. Truthfully, why would we? Race, after all, is a subject that, for the most part, we rarely have to engage directly in our lives.

But what has always bothered me more; more than the blank stares that often manifest on the faces of whites asked the question, is the self assured response of those whites who actually think they know the answer, who have given it some thought, and then proceed to talk about the first time the encountered a person of color and noticed the difference or had it pointed out to them, or saw some overt form of mistreatment meted out against a black person Latino, Asian, or whomever.

Because indeed those were not our first experiences with race, but merely our experience with racial others, and we should not confuse the latter with the former. By the logic of such answers, for example, whites who have never been around people of color, or never met a person of color (and yes, there are still lots of folks like this, believe it or not) would be able to say they had never experienced race at all. Such a belief would be, of course, patently absurd, as surely as their relative isolation from people of color itself is about race, but few understand race this way.

Whites too often believe we are not experiencing race until someone who isnt white is in the room, ignoring the inconvenient truth that the whiteness of whatever room were in didnt just happen. If people of color werent around, theres a reason, one having something to do with history, exclusion, access, and who could and could not take it for granted that they could move where they wanted, live where they wanted, or put down stakes in whatever location their heart desired.

Fact is, in a nation as thoroughly racialized as this one, white folks first experience with race is at least as far back as the moment of our births, at which time we enter the world as members of the dominant group; the group that has always made the rules, and for whose benefit the rules were made; the group that still has the lions share of the nations wealth, and whose privileges relative to people of color continue to operate, albeit in less blatant ways than in the past. One might even say our experiences with race begin earlier than that, generations earlier in fact, when our families become part of the white club – some almost immediately, others over a period of time.

Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. New York: Soft Skull Press, 2005. p. 9

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  1. MomTFH
    October 26, 2009 at 7:00 AM

    Oh, OK! I am glad I have been paying attention and confronting my privilege. (Sorry as I pat myself on the back here). I figured this was what Tim Wise might have to say on the topic. White people’s perceptions of race are of the races of others, as they are the default.

    • October 29, 2009 at 6:35 PM

      I know that in the split second before I got from the question to the answer in the book, I was already scanning my memory trying to remember the first time I’d noticed race…

  2. November 2, 2009 at 11:47 PM

    I guess I should have read this before commenting on the other post. I interpreted the question as “memory of race” as opposed to experience.

    • November 4, 2009 at 6:25 AM

      Sarah, if it’s any comfort, pretty much everybody does it 🙂 Thanks for sharing your story!

  1. October 18, 2009 at 11:38 PM
  2. September 9, 2010 at 11:59 PM

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