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Tim Wolfe isn't an 'inside-out Oreo'; he's a professor on a mission

Emma Kerr
Frederick News-Post

Tim Wolfe

Photo by Dan Gross

Tim Wolfe sits in a sunny corner office at the Mount St. Mary’s University Frederick Campus, his hair grown out past his neck and his blazer neatly donned. Crank it up a few notches — fresh haircut, a suit and tie — and you wouldn’t believe how the world bends for him, he said.

Checking all of the privilege boxes, Wolfe describes himself as white, male, middle-class and well-educated. He grew up on an all-white street in Prince George’s County before his family moved to Montgomery County. When they sold the house to a black family, his neighbors threatened to burn it down.

Surrounded by family and friends who held racist attitudes, Wolfe was always a little different. Far from the man he is now — a professor at the Mount, husband to what he calls the “superintendent of Sunday school” — his teen years were riddled with drugs, drinking, vandalism and arrests. At court hearings for some of the more serious charges, he said he’d stand in front of the judge wearing a suit, accompanied by his mother, father and a private attorney.

“I would get off every single time,” Wolfe said. “I would check on my friends and they’d say, ‘they’re sending me to juvie’ and ask what I got and I’d say ‘I got a citation and community service.’”

The pattern repeated, and showed itself in other ways.

“I was arrested countless times and almost always in the company of other males, who were almost always black. I would typically be the only white guy, and I noticed that [police] would treat me differently,” Wolfe said. “All of my friends would say, ‘shut up, let Tim handle it.’”

Now, Wolfe teaches courses such as Restorative Justice, Social Inequality and the Sociology of Black Music. He said he’s obligated to speak out against police brutality and racism because of his past, and to encourage his students to show empathy toward others with different life experiences.

“If you took me with the same temperament and the same kinds of issues but placed me in inner-city Baltimore, I know I would have joined gangs and probably got deeply involved in that,” he said. “My life turned out differently not because I am a better person, but because I had better life circumstances.”

It’s only as a result of people who chose to believe in his potential that he was able to turn his life around, Wolfe said. He hopes to do the same for his students, and that desire to focus on the classroom pushed him to seek out smaller liberal arts colleges instead of large research institutions after he’d completed his graduate work.

Lately, he’s working on writing a biography of one of his favorite musicians, Chuck Brown, whom he considers a father figure. A musician himself, Wolfe says the biography is actually about much more than the music: It’s the personal struggle.

When Wolfe is in the classroom, he said he’s able to develop a strong connection with students because of his willingness to open up about his own life, and to talk about issues that matter to students. Classroom discussions of race and current events are increasingly polarized, he said, but he never turns down the chance to have a student walk away seeing things through a new lens.

“It hasn’t gotten so hard that I’m willing to stop it,” Wolfe said. “If anything, it’s made me redouble my efforts. I make it clear to students we shouldn’t judge folks just because they have different experiences and different views.”

He faces another challenge: a question of credibility. As a white man teaching courses about race and black culture, he said he works to incorporate the voices of black scholars and artists, bringing in speakers when possible. In fact, he said he can use his position as a white man to challenge other white people to have uncomfortable discussions.

When he was growing up, his friends called him an “inside-out Oreo.” That’s amusing, he said, but not accurate. He considers himself “bicultural” instead.

“I know who I am and what that means,” Wolfe said. “What I’ve realized over the years that as interesting as that is, I am always a white man and so there are things I think I understand, but I have blinders on. I am reminded of those blind spots all the time.”

Emma Kerr
Frederick News-Post