On the Importance of White Antiracist History… And the Dangers of Its Erasure: An Interview with Tim Wise

Lynn Burnett
18 min readJan 19, 2023

This interview is part of the White Antiracist Ancestry Project. For more from Tim Wise, follow him on Medium and Twitter.

Lynn Burnett: Why is it important for White folks to learn about White antiracist history?

Tim Wise: Well, in the U.S. we’ve done a horrible job of teaching history in general. Obviously, for years we’ve left out the contributions and the struggles led by people of color, except for very cursory mentions.

But in addition to that, we’ve also left out this large — although not nearly large enough! — history of White antiracist solidarity. Part of the importance of reclaiming that is that if we don’t learn about it, we foreclose options for White folks today. It becomes harder for them to imagine themselves in that role, if they see no tradition of White folks being in that role. Inventing the wheel is always harder than connecting to those who’ve already been moving in that direction historically.

When young White people don’t see those roles, they usually end up doing one of two things. In the best-case scenario, they decide that fighting racism is Black and Brown people’s job. They might admire them for engaging in that struggle… but it’s their job. I stand there and I clap and I applaud their courage and their bravery, but I don’t see it as my struggle. It’s just one of many things that I can observe passively. Obviously if White folks take that approach, we’re placing all of the burden on Black and Brown folks for fixing the problem.

The second option is the worse — and the more common — option. And that’s for White folks to not just think that it’s not their struggle, but to think that to be White is to go along with things the way they are, to not question the way they are, and maybe even to support the way things are. The erasure of White antiracist history actually reinforces the tendency for White people to default to a racist position, by either passively going along with racial inequities, or by actively participating in them.

The importance of teaching White antiracist history is to give White people a third option… which is recognizing that you don’t have to be a passive observer, and you don’t have to be somebody who accepts injustice. The third option shows that, in fact, you do have a role to play. What that role is is complicated, but the history can help us make sense of that, too.

Lynn: So, we all know that there’s been a huge erasure of Black and Brown history, and of histories of White supremacy. And I think you’re already hinting at my next question, which is: Why has White antiracist history also been erased?

Tim: Well, I think it’s been erased for a couple of reasons. The most innocent explanation is that we can’t teach what we don’t know. And so if early on this stuff wasn’t being taught, that next generation of educators, who didn’t learn about it, couldn’t pass it on.

A less innocent explanation is that it isn’t functional for certain folks and forces in society to teach White antiracist history. This isn’t conspiratorial… It’s sociological functionalism. That which gets done in our systems, including our school systems, tends to get done because it’s functional for people with power.

Think about how we teach history. Often, it’s still “great man” history… a handful of really important people who shape the world. Why is that functional for maintaining existing power structures? Because it keeps anyone in the present from thinking that they could be part of history. It makes history very abstract: History is what those people made.

That’s a general thing, but more specifically, think about how functional it is not to have young White people learning about White antiracist role models. If they learned about that, they might actually think, “Wait a minute! This average, everyday person did that? They weren’t any more amazing or potentially amazing than me. They weren’t necessarily any more intelligent than me. They were flawed people just like me, but they stepped into history, and they made a difference, and maybe I can too.” But we don’t talk about White folks that challenge racism, because that would be dysfunctional to a system that needs White folks to sort of shrug and go, “Sorry about the inequality.”

This erasure also happens in our family histories. In my own family, there’s a book that was put together by my mother’s father’s people…by one of our cousins many years ago, about the McLean family, originally from Western Scotland. And, you know, there’s all these stories of greatness and virtue. And there’s plenty of stories about the folks who fought for the Confederacy and who owned and trafficked in human beings, although that history is obviously sanitized. But what’s interesting is there’s one person in there who’s barely mentioned… and it turns out she’s an abolitionist.

Family members apparently didn’t want to dwell on that. Why? Because if you dwell on that, if you mention this person who was an abolitionist and who in her case convinced her own family members to free the enslaved persons they had, then all the other people in the story who didn’t do that are now found to be especially lacking.

What we’re doing by avoiding that, by not teaching that history… is that we avoid holding others up to scorn, or to feelings of inadequacy. The erasure protects the feelings of, and the sort of cloak of innocence that surrounds the broader White society. If you teach about those abolitionists, then what was wrong with your other relatives? If this person knew better, why didn’t this other person know better?

We’ve crafted a story — and you hear it all the time in modern race discourse — that you can’t hold the Founders responsible for enslavement, or White Southerners responsible for segregation, because back in the day, that’s just what everybody thought was okay. Well, of course the enslaved didn’t, and the segregated didn’t. But even lots of Whites didn’t. And if you admit that, then that whole sort of time-bound rationalization for inequality goes out the window. You can’t use it anymore. White antiracist history is a threat to our narrative of innocence. I think that’s another reason why we don’t teach it.

And this erasure of White antiracist history is dangerous, because the odds of White supremacy being brought down without White allyship is very unlikely. Of course, the primary agents of that liberation are going to be Black and Brown people. But it’ll be much easier if there is White resistance from within. Not teaching that history, and not exposing that option to White people, lowers the likelihood of that solidarity, and makes it harder to defeat systems of racial oppression.

Lynn: Have there been specific lessons from White antiracist history that have had an important impact on you?

Tim: A couple of things stand out. One is that those White folks who stayed in the fight over longer periods of time… were almost always deeply connected to Black and Brown people. They weren’t just coming to antiracism through their politics, or ideological, intellectual, or academic sources.

I joke when I get on Zoom calls that I’ve got all these books behind me, and they’re all about race. But why I care about this stuff has very little to do with any of that. And it has very little to do with the classes I took, or the intellectual part of the endeavor. It has much, much more to do with the fact that I grew up in newly integrated schools that were about 40 or 45% Black. That I played on Black basketball teams, went to a Black preschool before I even started first grade, where I was one of only three kids who weren’t Black.

When I say connected, I mean deeply connected… not just having a colleague or a “Black friend” who you might not even be that close with. I mean having a real interest in the lives of Black people as friends, lovers, neighbors, coaches, teachers. And when you look at history, and the White folks who really got involved and stayed involved… they have those connections. That’s true whether we’re talking about the Bradens, or how John Brown and his family had actual, real connections to Harriet Tubman and other Black abolitionists.

The folks who I think did the work with the most integrity and longevity tended to be those people. This is an important lesson right now, because in the wake of the uprising in the summer of 2020, on the one hand it was absolutely fantastic to see millions of White people around the country flocking to this issue and to the movement, and trying to connect to what racial justice can look like.

The only thing that gave me some pause was that, I felt that for many of the newcomers to the work — and God bless ’em, I’m glad they’re there — I think a lot of folks came to the work through their politics. It was just an extension of their political and ideological commitments. Whereas, for many of the people who really stay in the work, it’s the reverse… they often come to their politics through antiracism. They actually understood something about racism first, because of their closer connections to Black and Brown communities, and that’s what informed their progressive politics.

The second lesson is much more specific and contemporary. But I’ve been thinking about it ever since I was in college, when I met some people from SNCC.

I first met Bob Zellner and then later met Dottie. I met Bob in 1989, at a conference in New Orleans at Tulane. It was a civil rights movement reunion, and there were a lot of SNCC folks. Bob was talking… this was 89’, so only 22 years after the expulsion of White folks from SNCC during the Peg Leg Bates meeting. On the one hand there was obviously a lot of hurt still, and you know, there’ll always be hurt associated with the schism that took place.

But there was also understanding. For White folks trying to do this work with integrity, it’s really important to know that even when there are strategic schisms, it isn’t personal. Whites being asked to leave SNCC was a strategic schism. And I’m sure it felt personal. To hear Bob and Dottie talk about it even years later, it certainly in the moment felt personal because they were trying to help build this beloved community. They’d been a central part of it. That’s why it was such an agonizing choice, even for the Black folks who made that choice. But it was strategic.

It’s important for White folks who are gonna do this work to know that you can’t do movement work without having conflict, any more than you can have a marriage, a relationship, or a deep friendship without conflict. If you’re gonna argue or have some tension or disagreement with your partner or your best friend, you’re gonna do that with your movement colleague or comrade. It’s important for White folks to not let that derail us from the larger work. So even though what happened in SNCC was hurtful, just as is any split, it was critical for Bob and Dottie and others who left to know that they still had work to do, and that the work transcended the personal hurt. They didn’t just say, “I’m out. I’m gonna go find another issue,” which is so easy for White folks to do. To me, that’s a huge lesson.

A similar lesson is that you’re gonna screw up. You’re gonna make mistakes. You’re gonna say and do things that will get you called out. I’ve done it. We’ve all done it. Again, you have to have a view of this as a long-term struggle. Learn from your mistakes. Get up, dust yourself off, and get back into the work. That takes humility, and humility is something you have to practice, especially in this culture, and especially if you have a more dominant position in this culture. One of the lessons of White antiracist history is to expect to make mistakes, and to know that you can do better next time, and to know that being challenged or getting called out doesn’t need to derail you. You can grow from it, and come back stronger.

Lynn: So these were some of the lessons that most impacted you. What lessons do you feel are especially important for this new generation of White antiracists?

Tim: I think maybe the overarching lesson is, look, we’ve got 400 years of White supremacy. In this land that we now call the United States, we also have almost 400 years of what we could call some form of White or Euro-American antiracist solidarity. The fact that we have this arc of oppression, and this arc of resistance to oppression… and yet after 400 years haven’t cracked the code of fundamentally breaking that system, tells you that this is a long struggle.

Understanding just how deeply this thing goes is an important lesson. You’ve got 20 generations of folks who haven’t been able to figure it out yet completely. Of course, they’ve made enormous progress. But the system remains.

The lesson from that for White allies is, don’t assume that you or your friends are that much more together strategically or intellectually. It’d be nice if you were; we’d all love to see justice next Tuesday. But dig in for the long haul. Make the contribution that you can make. Teach who you can teach and bring them into the work. Plant the seeds that you can plant.

I say this because, one of the things that modern culture does that’s really harmful — especially to young people, but even to some of us who aren’t so young — is the immediacy with which we can get heard. Whether that’s on social media, whether that’s on YouTube, it is so much more rapid than even just 20 years ago. There’s an increasing pressure, and a reward, for what’s instant. It’s becoming harder to focus and be truly thoughtful. Even for myself, it’s harder to sit down and read a book than it used to be.

So if you’re young in this culture, and you’re doing the work and things aren’t changing very quick… Let me put it like this: if you went into the streets in the summer of 2020, it was obvious that there were people who genuinely believed that the sheer numbers of people would be so overwhelming, and the militancy would be so overwhelming, that there was gonna be some fundamental change that was gonna happen very quickly. Just like people who were in the streets in 68’, and thought the revolution was literally around the corner.

The danger is, if you expect that, it’s so easy to get burned out and get despondent. You think to yourself, “23 million people were in the streets! And nothing fundamental or structural about racism and policing has changed!” Now, I would argue that the narrative has started to shift, and that’s big. For those of us who worked on shifting the narrative for 30 years before the uprising, that was important. But if you’re new to it, you didn’t see those 30 years. You just saw those three months and you expected something bigger to happen.

The more young people can learn about the long arc of history, both racist history and antiracist history, the more they can understand, “Oh, I’m just a part of this. I’m taking my place in the great chain of humanity and solidarity, and I’m gonna do the work as best I can, but I’m not gonna beat myself up about it if, you know, it doesn’t happen by next week.”

Lynn: I’ve seen many White antiracist folks who are really committed, feel that on the one hand they have something to learn from the legacy of White antiracist history… but on the other hand, they worry that focusing on that history might veer into White centering or saviorhood. What advice do you have for someone who is feeling that kind of confliction?

Tim: Well, I think it’s a good conflict to have, and it’s an understandable feeling to have.

Many years ago, I had a White kindergarten teacher who came to me around MLK day. She didn’t want to oversimplify it. She wanted to tell at least some of the truth, but there were some Black kids who got very scared when they heard about the assassination. And then, some of the White kids started feeling guilty. And so she felt like a mess, and she wanted to figure out how to do a better job.

I helped her think through ways to teach the history that can avoid both White guilt, and Black disempowerment. The problem with her lesson was it made Black people just the targets. It was like, this is what happens when they speak out. They get shot, and its White people that shoot them. In that framing, White folks are guilty, and Black folks are feeling like they have no agency and they’re just acted upon.

I suggested that she start with resistance narratives, resistance led by people of color. And yes, they were met with violence. But really focus on their resistance, their agency, and when you bring in the violence, focus on their courage and resilience, so that Black kids in the room don’t feel acted upon or that they’re lacking agency or being decentered.

They’re the center of the story. They’re leading. And then, teach about White allyship side by side with that, which gives those White kids an alternative identity other than James Earl Ray or Bull Connor. Let them know that they can be like this other person, this ally. But talk about that White allyship side by side with Black leadership.

You don’t have to look at White antiracist history in a way that overly centers Whiteness or that disempowers Black and Brown leadership. You want to say, look, there are these two histories that we never learn about. They’re interconnected. Your story’s connected to my story, and this story’s connected to that story. There’s no need to exclude one from the other.

Also, when you look at White antiracist history, these are typically White folks who were following what they saw Black people doing. They were responding to the demands of Black people themselves in almost every instance. In some cases, maybe they decided to go out on their own and try things, but for the most part, they were always following. It’s important that we recognize that they’re taking Black leadership, and that they’re functioning in some kind of background support role. As long as you look at that in their relationship with Black and Brown communities, you’re probably okay.

But once again, we also need to approach history, as a whole, differently. Most of the time, history is not made by some great person, it’s made by communities and collectives. We need to know some names and some stories, because human brains respond to stories, and stories need characters and narrative arcs. But we need to remember that those people and those stories are part of a larger communal and collective narrative. Bob and Dottie Zellner don’t exist outside of this Black-led organization that they became a part of. Anne and Carl Braden don’t exist outside of Black-led organizing.

Also: you know, White antiracists throughout history are flawed people. You look at some of the writings of White abolitionists, even the ones you thought were really on point, and you’ll find racist and patriarchal stuff that’ll make you cringe. They didn’t have it all together. I mean, of course they didn’t! And it’s really important to learn about those flaws — and to learn from those flaws — and to not portray these people as perfect.

One of my concerns in this modern era is that we are so quick to want these pure heroes, that when you find out that one of your heroes said or did something really funky, that you just want to cast them out. Like, “Well fuck ‘em! I can’t look up to that person.” But that’s not how humanity works. We can’t look for — and it’s weird that we would look for — that level of perfection in our White antiracist allies. Do we look for that level of perfection with our Black leaders?

Dr. King had his flaws, probably more than we realize. And yet that doesn’t mean that we can’t respect King for his greatness. White antiracists are flawed people, they’re just human, and I want us to dig deep and to find out what some of those flaws are. I hope that as we recover White antiracist history, that we’ll write about that. I hope we’ll explore the good, the bad and the ugly. That’ll keep us from getting too carried away with the hero worship piece and just say, actually, these are pretty average everyday people.

For example, there’s a scene in the documentary about Joan Trumpauer Mulholland, who I deeply admire, where she says the n-word. It’s not her word choice, obviously. She’s quoting some racist who hit her over the head and called her an n-word lover or something to that effect. Now, we’re in a place where most every White person looking to be antiracist knows you just don’t say that word. And some folks might even feel that, if you say it… then I can’t learn anything from you.

I extend her more grace than that, especially because she’s older, and maybe didn’t get the memo or she just thinks that the way she used it is different and okay. But yeah, I wish she hadn’t said it. There have been times when I haven’t wanted to share that video with people, because I don’t want people to freak out, and I don’t want her legacy to be tarnished. But then I’ve pulled back and said, wait a minute, this is perfect. This is a complex person who’s done incredible stuff, but she’s not perfect. And that’s okay… because that’s how we all are. We shouldn’t need everyone we look up to to be perfect.

I feel like as soon as we put anyone up on a pedestal, we no longer relate to them. It doesn’t have to be a White person. You don’t learn anything from any freedom fighter that’s up on a pedestal.

Lynn: I deeply appreciate this point, because something I’ve seen — especially while leading workshops on lessons from Anne Braden’s life — is that people learn just as much from her growing process, and from the way she learns from her mistakes, as they do from the brilliance of her organizing. Her growth becomes a chance for people to reflect on their growth; her mistakes become an opportunity for people to learn from those mistakes without having to make them themselves. I’ve seen so many people feel that if someone as brilliant as Anne Braden can mess up, get called out, and learn from it and keep going… that it must just be part of the process, and they can do that to.

We’re all imperfect, and we can all grow. We can just say that Joan Trumpauer Mulholland was a Freedom Rider and all that, but what was her process? What happened in her life that led her to that point? Looking at the process is huge.

Tim: Exactly.

Lynn: So, here’s the last question. What are your thoughts about the concept of White antiracist culture? What role could White antiracist history have in building that culture?

Tim: It’s hard, because culture is such an amorphous thing. It’s hard to define. But to me, culture is comprised of the traditions that we hold and that we pass down. And that includes the stories that we tell, as well as art, and music, and so on.

The real purpose of building antiracist culture — and maybe it is just antiracist culture, and not necessarily White antiracist culture — is to bring down racism. I want us to do the cultural work of creating a self-sustaining, reproducible way of living, way of being, way of knowing, way of speaking, way of learning and way of teaching, which involves a lot of the principles that we see reflected in groups like SURJ and European Dissent…. And that we’ve seen in various White antiracist spaces historically.

But I also want us to not lose focus on the broader multicultural work that has to be done. I don’t want us to fetishize this project of White antiracist culture building, at the expense of losing sight of the bigger issue, which is multiracial organizing for collective liberation.

Really what we’re trying to do as antiracists, and especially antiracist Americans, is we’re trying in Baldwin’s terms to achieve our country, right? We’re trying to actually be this thing that we’ve been told about. We’re trying to create this mythological place that we were told was ours, but that has never really existed. I want us to create that. I want us to create an antiracist America. Part of doing that will, probably, involve creating some cultural elements.

Lynn: Absolutely. The reason why I’m asking is because I’ve seen a lot of interest in Resmaa Menakem’s call to build a White antiracist culture in his book, My Grandmother’s Hands. The concept has felt abstract to me, but I’ve also felt it deserves some real fleshing out. The part of Resmaa’s argument that most resonated with me is his concern that White antiracist spaces can be very much in the head… but that what makes people actually bond and connect and want to be a part of something isn’t about that heady stuff, it’s about culture. And to me, history, and the stories and lessons from history, feel like an integral part of that.

Tim: I mean, even if you look at the Civil Rights Movement, there was so much that drew people in and kept them in that wasn’t just reading and talking about stuff. Sure, there was also a lot of heady work. But music was huge. People were listening to early Motown records all night long, partying in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, when they knew they had to go out and work tomorrow and they could die. They were creating spaces of cultural freedom.

That cultural dimension was one of the most threatening things to the southern segregationist, because it really brought people together, and of course that stirred up their obsession with interracial sex and all of that. But yeah, we all respond to food, we all respond to music, we all respond to movies, we all respond to laughter and humor. Resmaa’s book is brilliant, and I do think he’s very, very right about culture having the power to bring people together.

That’s actually a healthier way to come to this work, than from a purely intellectual place. If you come to antiracist work from a more affective, emotionally connected — and even for some people a spiritual place — I think it has a deeper resonance, and the roots get planted more deeply in that soil.

This interview is part of the White Antiracist Ancestry Project, where you can learn much more about White antiracist history. You can also support that project here.