Anti-racism activist discusses latest book

Caroline Goldstein

Anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise spoke to students and faculty on March 29 about the ideas in his latest book, “Between Barack and a Hard Place: Challenging Racism, Privilege and Denial in the Age of Obama.” 

Wise’s lecture was one of  three campus events he participated in that day. The first event was a conversation with faculty and staff titled “Beyond Diversity: Challenging Racism in an Age of Backlash,” followed by a student discussion titled “But Some of My Best Friends are Black…Racism and the Culture of Denial.” 

The event was organized by the Center for Multicultural Affairs, the Diversity Programming Committee and the Campus Activities Team. The organizations bring a speaker to campus each semester.

“This subject matter is something that for a lot of folks is difficult and controversial,” Wise said.

Wise began with a story that he used as a metaphor for the current state of race relations in the United States. The story involved one of Wise’s roommates and a pot of gumbo. The roommate who made the gumbo left it sitting on the left front burner, and no one else would clean the mess up. The gumbo remained on the stove for several days until the smell permeated the entire house, and Wise decided that he would clean the mess even though he had not made it.

From that experience, Wise said that he learned an important lesson.

“I was tired of living in that funk…tired of living in the residue of others,” he said.

The lesson was that there is a difference between guilt for what one has done and responsibility for what one can change.

Wise said that we have inherited a legacy of institutional racism and that we have a responsibility to change that.

“None of what I just said changed on November 5, 2008,” the day of Barack Obama’s election victory. 

Wise believes that the voters liked Obama as an individual, but that “individual success tells us very little about systemic change.”

“Unity is not something we have just because you say it,” Wise said. “You have to actually work at it, and we haven’t finished that work.” 

Wise believes the nation needs more conversation about race issues. Members of the Villanova community, including Terry Nance, assistant vice president of Multicultural Affairs, agree. 

Nance said that the community needs what she calls “sustained dialogue.” 

She related Wise’s gumbo metaphor to the Villanova community.

“We will become a community that knows how to clean up,” she said.

Nance noted that the “mess” is all over the world. She hopes that Villanova students will be able to “take our cleaning skills into the outside world.”

Nance believes that this can be done through conversation, which was also one of Wise’s main points.

“In order for us to move past the systemic racism, we have to put ourselves in uncomfortable positions,” said DeVon Jackson, coordinator of Student Engagement and a coordinator of Wise’s visit.

Jackson believes that the turnout at the three events shows that people are interested in having the types of discussions Wise mentioned.

“I really believe students want to have those discussions,” Nance said. “It’s going to happen.”