When acclaimed author and anti-racism activist Tim Wise took the stage in the Marcelle Athletic Complex on Jan. 30, 2019, he immediately brought up the sanitization of Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory in national history, clarifying that the public memory actively strips the activist of his radical and revolutionary content. “See, everybody will tell you that they marched with Dr. King,” Wise said. “If everybody who says that they marched with Dr. King had actually marched with Dr. King, we wouldn’t be having to have this conversation about racism in 2019.”
Siena College welcomed Tim Wise as the keynote speaker for the 32nd Martin Luther King Jr. & Coretta Scott King Lecture Series on Race and Nonviolent Social Change. Wise is a renowned public speaker, author of seven books and the host of the podcast, “Speak Out with Tim Wise.” He has spent over twenty-five years traveling to colleges, high schools and conferences across the country, teaching on how to deconstruct racism. The annual lecture series hosts an impressive array of scholars, educators and activists who honor the legacy and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. Wise’s lecture was titled, “Challenging the Culture of Cruelty: Understanding and Defeating Race and Class Inequity in America.”
Following Wise’s visit, I spoke with Dr. Lisa Nevarez, chair of the MLK Advisory Board, who commented on the success of the event. “The MLK Advisory Board was excited to bring in Tim Wise as our 2019 speaker. During his lecture and his Q&A with the audience, he talked about what it means to be aware of race and privilege,” Nevarez said. “We were happy to see so many turn out to hear his message. We’ve since heard from many attendees how inspiring it was.”
At the core of Wise’s lecture was problematic historical memory, which he cites as the root of America’s divide. There are recurring themes and problems embedded throughout history, he explained, yet America keeps trying to “reinvent the wheel” rather than acknowledge the original problems. Drawing on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential slogan – “Make America Great Again” – and its now infamous red hats, Wise heavily critiqued the catchphrase alongside the current political administration. He stated that “America was never great for millions of people,” and cited some of the minority groups who have suffered under Trump’s presidency, including people of color, women and the LGBTQ+ community. The slogan, according to Wise, ultimately demands a lack of historical memory. “It doesn’t necessarily require that you be a racist if you rock that hat, but it definitely requires that you have an indifference to the lived experience of millions of your fellow countrymen and women,” he said. “And that is just as much of a problem – indifference to the suffering of millions of people is almost as bad as actually committing the act. It’s collaboration with injustice, but a lack of historical memory makes it hard for us to understand that.”
I spoke with English professor Dr. Keith Wilhite, who shared some of his takeaways from Wise’s lecture. “I was most struck by the emphasis on white America’s historical amnesia when it comes to discrimination and racism in this country,” Wilhite said, “not only in terms of a failure to reckon with that history, but a tendency to relegate racial discrimination, racist violence and white nationalism to some distant, long ago past.”
Wise utilized his sentiments on the current political administration to segue into historical examples of systemic racism and its structures, explaining how the system of policing was born from slavery. After joking that the statute of limitations had expired, Wise shared a personal anecdote from his college years during which he was pulled over for exceeding thirteen miles per hour over the speed limit in a small Texas town. Unbeknownst to the cop who pulled him over, Wise also harbored an arsenal of narcotics in his briefcase and a fake ID in his wallet. The cop eventually let him go with only a ticket, though Wise admitted he should have been arrested on the presence of a clearly fake license, let alone for possession with intent to distribute. “Moral of the story: if you think that encounter would have gone down like that had I been black or brown, thirteen miles an hour over the speed limit in Gonzales, Texas in 1988 or next week, you are not paying attention. I don’t mean to this lecture, I mean to life in general in this country,” he said emphatically, drawing strong applause from the crowd.
During the Q&A portion of the lecture, a student posed a question to Wise about how faculty should handle the topic of white privilege in the classrooms, adding that some professors often shut down in the presence of uncomfortable topics. White privilege has been a prominent topic at Siena since the article, “White Privilege: Injustice Does Not Fix Injustice,” was published in a 2017 issue of The Promethean. The opinion article questioned the existence and validity of white privilege, which fostered widespread, polarizing discussion across campus. Wise emphasized the importance of engaging each other in uncomfortable but civil conversation, as well as recognizing the various forms of one’s own privilege. Dr. Wilhite praised Wise’s handling of white privilege topic during the Q&A. “I was also impressed with the way Wise addressed the issue of privilege. To deny white privilege, is, in effect, to deny the experiences of people of color, to suggest that, as a white person, you somehow have a better understanding of what life is like for a racial minority in this country,” Wilhite said. “But there was also a glimmer of hope in his message: if people can begin to acknowledge the privilege they hold, perhaps we can begin to engage in more honest conversations about race.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. & Coretta Scott King Lecture Series on Race and Nonviolent Social Change is co-sponsored by The Times Union, the Center for Academic Community Engagement, the Damietta Cross-Cultural Center, the Diversity Action Committee, and the Greyfriar Living Literature Series.