Sheryl Sorrentino's Reviews > White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son

White Like Me by Tim Wise
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it was amazing
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White Like Me takes no prisoners in exposing this country's sordid racial history and its present-day vestiges, which every thinking person should realize are alive and well—thriving, in fact, under this current administration. He takes an admittedly squirm-worthy subject matter and makes it superbly understandable through his user-friendly, almost "folksy" chronicle of his personal life experiences of white privilege. I couldn't put this book down, which is usually not the case for me with non-fiction writers. Indeed, this racial exposé that is equal parts memoir truly makes the political personal, which is exactly what this nation needs if we are ever to have a "white awakening."

That being said, this book is not perfect. While overall it's a five-star read, it contains a half-dozen or so annoying typos ("your" for "you're"; "effect" for "affect"; and others I noticed but didn't initially mark because I wasn't expecting so many). I see White Like Me was published by a small press in Berkeley, California, so I can somewhat forgive this. But for as important as the subject matter is (especially with a "racist-in-chief" occupying the Oval Office), the otherwise excellent job Mr. Wise does shedding sunshine on darkness could stand a fine-toothed editing so that its presentation is equally excellent. Also, Mr. Wise, like many storytellers allowed to expound on important political/social issues through uncensored personal vignettes, sometimes veers afield or draws questionable conclusions from his personal experiences. But this is nothing that said "edit" couldn't fix.

For example, while I generally agree with the author's argument that "political power," when held by people of color, does not necessarily translate to "economic power," his example of the Prime Minister of Bermuda does not hold up to intellectual scrutiny. Alex Scott (the Black Bermudian PM) was made to apologize to a white political opponent for an anti-white comment he made via email. I daresay that (before January 2017 at least) had a white U.S. politician made a similar comment about being "sick-and-tired" of receiving criticism from people who "look like" thus-and-such Black person, he (or she) would have been chastised and forced to apologize. Mitt Romney's ("those people" don't even pay taxes") remark probably cost him the 2012 election. So while I do not disagree that Black elected officials too often have to kowtow to the sensibilities of white opponents and constituents (one need look no further than Barack Obama to see this phenomenon in play), I think the above Bahamian example falls flat.

Other than these minor weaknesses, White Like Me is a powerful read, made all the more compelling because it is written by a privileged white male—one who recognizes that being Jewish (like being gay) does not automatically obliterate one's white advantage, and who has truly put his money where his mouth by dedicating his life to exposing and combating racism. His oft-repeated example about how his grandparents' home (in a racially-redlined district) helped finance his college education, while tiring in its repetitiveness, hit home for me. My father, lacking even a high-school diploma, was able to buy a ten-room home in a solid, all-white neighborhood with good schools and virtually no crime. It abutted a tonier town across the city line. All throughout my life, I, a veritable "nobody" with no connections, saw doors magically open as I got my education and sought higher-paying jobs and better opportunities. First, by virtue of my (actual) Jewish last name, I was (nod, nod; wink, wink) invited with open arms into probably a dozen predominantly Jewish law firms in various roles over the course of my career. Second, when I told interviewers, in all types of jobs, where I had grown up, the knowing nods affirmed me as being "one of them" despite my sketchy-upbringing, despite being half-Jewish and half-Italian, despite being female, and despite being solidly lower middle-class/borderline "white trash." That childhood address branded me a well-raised, solidly middle-class white girl who had come up on the "right side of the tracks." I moved seamlessly from cashier in high school, to secretary and paralegal in college and law school, and ultimately to attorney at large and "exclusive" law firms on both coasts. Had I been a Black woman from the Bronx sitting for those same job interviews, I seriously doubt those doors would have flung open so easily.

I think it is extremely important for every white person, regardless of background or economic station, to take stock of how their skin color has advantaged them—to whatever degree. That task honestly and humbly completed, we have an obligation to speak out whenever and however we can to acknowledge the disparities in treatment that have so benefited us compared to our brothers and sisters of color. We must recognize "white backlash" and so-called "reverse discrimination" for precisely what they are: white angst and resentment not about unfair treatment, but simply about being asked to cede a tiny bit of our privilege so that others might have a shot at the things all of us want: a decent, safe place to live; a job with a living wage; a good education for our children. Even that small bit of recognition and "sharing" is apparently too much for white people to abide and get behind. How shameful.

White apathy to racial injustice is pervasive, because that injustice benefits white people and is largely invisible to us. It is so embedded into our legal system and social fabric that we view racial injustice—if we acknowledge it at all—as something happening "out there" someplace else to someone else—to "those people" about whom we might not especially care because we're essentially doing okay. And even if we do care, what are we supposed to do about it anyway? Shouldn't "they" just "get over it" and "move on"? And how can anything we say or do possibly help move the needle?

I loved Wise's allegory of a new CEO who had just taken over a multi-billion dollar corporation. He blithely tells his CFO that he plans to ignore the liabilities column of the balance sheet because "he wasn't there" when those liabilities were incurred. Too many white people argue that "my family never owned slaves" (if that happens to be true—many white families can trace their roots—and their privilege—back to slave-owning families) or "I never personally oppressed Black people," ignoring the fact that each and every one of us has been born into a system with unpaid liabilities on its balance sheet, those being the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and continued separation of Black and brown people. To quote Mr. Wise: "The notion of utilizing assets but not paying debts is irresponsible, to say nothing of unethical. Those who reap the benefits of past actions and the privileges that have come from whiteness are certainly among those [who] have an obligation to take responsibility for our use of those benefits." How true, typo notwithstanding.

As for what difference anything I do can make, Mr. Wise argues compellingly that ultimately "winning" the battle is beside the point. There is a long and largely ignored history of white resistance to racism and injustice in this country, and it behooves decent white people to identify with that version of our white heritage and to join in. Resisting racism, standing on the right side of these issues, and taking the moral high-ground (rather than standing idly on the sidelines while this ugly battle rages)—that is the point. It boils down to what sort of person you want to be, and what sort of life you want to live. For every one of us white folk—and especially those who call themselves Christian or "people of faith"—there is no more important question to answer in this lifetime.

I was also persuaded by the author's arguments as to why racism and unequal treatment harm not only people of color, but white people, too. Systematic unfair advantage presumes that white people aren't good enough to "make it" without the head start and "leg-up" we implicitly and undeservedly expect as our birthright. This allows too many mediocre white people to excel while only the most spectacular people of color are allowed similar gains. It lumps all white people into the same selfish, ignorant, clueless "basket of deplorables" in the eyes of our darker-skinned brothers and sisters, when many (most?) of us can, should, and in fact want to "do better" by them.

Just as our current pr*sident has given license to white supremacists to "come out of the woodwork" with their tiki torches and vile rhetoric, Mr. Wise gives moral imperative to decent, right-thinking white people to "show up" and SPEAK UP. For that message alone, for that permission, Mr. Wise's book deserves five stars.
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
August 5, 2018 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
August 5, 2018 – Shelved as: to-read (Other Paperback Edition)
August 6, 2018 – Started Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
August 7, 2018 –
50.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
August 10, 2018 –
75.0% (Other Paperback Edition)
August 11, 2018 – Finished Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
August 12, 2018 – Shelved

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