Yesterday, news dropped that Jason Whitlock was about to make Mike Wise, an oldish white Washington Post columnist and proud champion of liberal causes, his second official "black Grantland" hire. That's interesting not just because of what he is—this is supposed to be a site bursting with young, up-and-coming minorities, and Wise is the precise opposite of that—but because of what he does.
Wise, you see, just can't seem to stop showing his ass. Over the last year, he has attempted to engage in a dialogue on race in America, and specifically the word "nigger," that has consisted mainly of him lecturing black people about how they should listen to him and do as he says. It has not gone well.
All of this started about a year ago with this column, in which he clumsily equated Los Angeles Clippers player Matt Barnes's calling his teammates "niggas" with ex-Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito referring to Jonathan Martin a "half-nigger." In the column, he wrote:
The N-word is filth; it's disrespectful, confusing and uplifts no one. I know of no other minority in the world co-opting a dehumanizing, racial slur used by its oppressor.
Yet I'm told, "You don't get it; you're white."
No. That doesn't work for me. I deserve a seat at this table. This is about the world my 3-year-old is going to live in.
There are a few problems here. First is the effort Wise exerts in maintaining a willful ignorance about the meaning of the word "nigger," which, like a great many words, changes with context. In the most charitable interpretation, his noble failure to grasp basic principles of language is what allows him to be offended every time he hears the word "nigger." In a less charitable one, he is pretending not to know something that everyone knows. He is either stupid, or a fraud.
More important, though, is Wise's assertion that he is somehow deserving of a seat at the table at which blacks choose how to use language to address each other. Wise is not black, and his ancestors were not dragged from Africa and enslaved on these shores. No one has ever called him a nigger. This is why he has no seat and no vote. The only reason he would think he's entitled to either is because he has benefited from white privilege from his very first breath.
Wise, as far as anyone can tell from what he's written, truly believes in his heart that because he means well, he has enlightened insight into how minorities should act. This is dumb. Privilege, however, comes in whenever he acts on this belief by relentlessly and patronizingly telling black people to do what he thinks they should do. And he does this reasonably often.
He followed up his column, for instance, with these outraged tweets this spring, when he walked into the Indiana Pacers locker room during NBA playoffs—largely seen as a team's private sanctuary—and shat himself:
We laughed at him here, even though he veered away from the clueless end of the spectrum and toward the racist one with his condescending "Oh, my bad, dawgs." The main thing was that his lack of self-awareness was incredible—if not exactly unique among oldish white guys—and hilarious. Wise wasn't brought up again until last night's announcement. That's when people remembered that Wise was the white guy with strong takes on black culture.
Today, after being berated by a bunch of people on Twitter, Mike Wise once again tried to tell black people that black people shouldn't use the word "nigger," even among themselves. This was his greatest performance yet.
This tweet is amazing, because even as he offers to engage in a dialogue about a topic on which he has no say, he betrays that he has literally no interest in one. Dialogue involves opposing arguments and differing opinions that might trump your own; more fundamentally, it involves a willingness to change one's mind. Here's Wise, though, telling the world that nothing anyone can say to him would ever make him rethink his position.
All of this is standard fare when it comes to exhibitions of privilege, but it gets downright weird when Wise invokes the memory of Maya Angelou. There's an implicit assumption here that because Angelou was an important civil rights figure, all blacks see her views on the world as above reproach. A move like this closes off even the possibility of conversation, and shows that the person using it sees black people as a homogeneous mass that does little more than respond to the cues offered by charismatic leaders, and occasionally needs to be reminded of what those cues are by benevolent whites. Wise is basically using Angelou as a human shield here, from behind which he can exert his own various privileges. (He's been arguing with Black Twitter all day. Just look at this shit.) Wise later name-dropped Shaquille O'Neal, of all people, to prove he has the authority to tell black people not to make him uncomfortable.
The right take here, of course, is that the term "nigger" means different things to different populations of people and to different individuals, and that everyone should reckon with its context, and then make his or her own choice. (Unless you're white, in which case, don't say "nigger.")
There's no doubt that Wise, liberal champion that he is, means well. But inserting himself into a conversation to which he never was and never will be invited doesn't bode well for this new ESPN site. An oldish white dude blindly hurling around his whiteness and lecturing black people in the guise of conversation is the very opposite of what Jason Whitlock has said "black Grantland" is supposed to be. On the other hand, given how little difference there is between Wise and his new editor-in-chief, it's probably a very good guide to what it will actually be.