This is an article I wrote in 2008 on my Red Room blog. I think it is still an important corrective. After I wrote it, Tim Wise did a whole book on the topic which is also absolutely worth at least one read. Tim proposes illuminated individualism as a concept to replace color-blindness, and Justin Podur proposes polyculturalism. I like both these approaches and add my own, which is radical empathy, which will be the subject of an upcoming book.
Reading over it again, I see that there’s a hostility that I am working on surpassing. I, like many others, get angry because I know we can do better. I know my neighbors and friends can surpass these limitations. I know that we can do better than Youtube comments and Stormfront jagoffs. An upcoming post will be on anger.
There is a common hypothesis, becoming increasingly popular on the eve of Obama’s election (an important step forward in the history of race relations and a major change from the last eight years of Republican neo-conservative decimation, but hardly a revolutionary or progressive vanguard-to-be), that likes to call itself “color-blind”. The reasoning goes somewhat like this: “The foundation of racism is seeing race, recognizing ethnic and racial groups. So if we want to end racism, we have to be color-blind. We have to stop seeing race or talking about race. And that means we can’t do affirmative action or talk about racism, because that’s just bringing back the problem. Nope. We’re all Americans here. (If you’re not American, then substitute your nationality: This issue is certainly big in America but I imagine sees traction elsewhere as well). After all, I don’t see race, and if you do, you must be a racist.” I call it the Colbert hypothesis or position on race, after Stephen Colbert’s brilliant reducio ad absurdum parody of this argument.
The fact that such an idiotic position can become remotely commonplace says nothing but that a lot of Americans will accept whatever is spoonfed to them thanks to not having been immersed in the critical thinking and resistance environments that might engender different outcomes.
Let’s begin with the quibbles first. Race doesn’t come from seeing race any more than sexism comes from seeing gender and sex or classism comes from seeing the poor. It comes from attaching onus, by definition. It is perfectly possible and indeed quite common for people to honor each other’s racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds without being divisive, insulting, racist, offensive or attaching stigma and stereotypes to the discussion.
Also, there is no we. Due to the existence of a racial caste system and a racialized opportunity structure, “we” has always only referred to white folks or black folks, never both at the same time. (Note that, of course, a progressive activist can use “we” to refer to the poor and therefore the white AND the black poor, but this is not what I’m talking about. Such an activist will be the first to point out that, in that parallel class instance, there is no such thing as “we” either, since the rich and the poor have diametrically opposed class interests).
Now, let’s get to the core problem with the argument. It is two fold. First: Color-blindness is an impossibility. Socialization, history and the institutional facts on the ground make being honestly color-blind quixotic. But, second: Were it possible, it would be a disability, just like, well, red-green color-blindness.
For the first: Implicit Attitude Tests conducted by, among others, Professor Brian Nosek and his partners Tony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji, have shown that whites tend to associate negative words and concepts with black faces. Even progressive whites often do this. Though I myself scored well on the IAT, actually associating black faces positively, this is clearly not the majority. But Nosek is only demonstrating scientifically what decades of sociology as well as the results of common sense and activism makes clear: People have prejudicial notions deeply socialized, from ethnic slurs to various stereotypes. This makes sense: They’re part of history, part of common parlance, part of the way we talk to each other.
There’s no problem with this, per se. These attitudes, stereotypes and concepts can be battled with consciousness and awareness. But that’s the point: It requires one to be conscious.
The “color-blindness” school thus, far from denying or reducing racism, actually allows it to flourish, by preventing the consciousness that would allow us to question subconscious stereotypes and implicit beliefs. An employer may pretend to be color-blind, but when it comes to evaluating resumés, he simply won’t give the applications with the black-sounding names as much attention or time.
And, of course, how many times have any of us, even those who do believe in color-blindness, heard someone say, “I’m not a racist, but.. [some incredibly racist statement]?” Undoubtedly plenty, especially those who engage in any anti-racist activism.
Simply put: It is impossible to be color-blind in a racist society. And anyone with pretenses to the contrary is not only lying to themselves and everyone else by extension, but is also perpetuating racism.
This becomes especially true when the unwillingness to bring up race and racism means being unwilling to hear the experiences of black and ethnic communities with racism and with the positive elements of their own culture. Whatever one thinks of multi-culturalism, the problem with cultural invisibility, simply pretending that cultural differences don’t matter, is that it acts as genocidal cleansing by the dominant culture (who have the power to make sure their culture is what’s left behind as the “non-cultural” norm) against the subservient culture. So, for example, whites who overwhelmingly declared that Katrina told us nothing about race were engaging in a racist exercise. Not only were they denying what blacks overwhelmingly experienced about what was happening to their community, but they even denied that such a disagreement said anything about race and racism in this country. I was so appalled by this fact precisely because to even hold it means to believe that black opinions about racism don’t matter, that they say nothing about race and racial relations whatsoever, an opinion that can only be held by those who implicitly believe that blacks opinions in general do not matter.
And that brings us to the second problem: Color-blindness, even were it possible, would be stupid.
It boggles my mind to think that it could be a virtue to be blind to any part of reality, social or otherwise. Failing to see things, understand things and cope with things never has been, never is and never will be the appropriate strategy. Being blind to really existing racism is just as much a disability as being blind to anything.
One can, I suppose, deny racism exists. Doing so is fundamentally idiotic, of course, and has absolutely no theoretical, common sense or social science support to it. Reasonable people can disagree about the salience of race in modern American society, but to literally believe it has no impact whatsoever and never appears to changes events is to subscribe to dogmatic idiocy. But this assessment on my part is moot. Suffice it to say that only if most of those discussing the matter agree that racism didn’t exist would it become even conceivable to declare that bringing up race and racism would be problematic. If the issue of the existence of racism is still a contentious point, then to deny the matter exists is as foolish and misguided as believing that, since the issue of the existence of the graviton is currently being debated, we must act as if gravity does not exist.
South Park, for example, made this error some years ago with an episode about Chef being offended by the South Park flag, which shows a black man being lynched by white men. Chef realizes at the end of the episode that the children, who were debating the issue, didn’t realize that a black man being lynched by white men was part of a racist past. South Park lionizes the childrens’ ignorance here, ironic given their later episodes that mock the concept of following or admiring children for their oft-vaunted childish innocence. Suffice it to say that the children being ignorant about the history of lynching in this country does not prove that racism is over, but rather that American school systems whitewash history for the sake of the dominant majority and those who truly run the society, or that white children can afford to be ignorant about racism thanks to the privilege that makes such ignorance possible and not a severe debit. Eric Cartman’s repeated barrages at the Jews alone demonstrate this point.
Imagine some hypothetical color-blind scholar. This color-blind scholar either does not know about race or racism, or does know about it but is perfectly capable of putting aside stereotypes and history and making completely fair analysis without any mention of race or racism. He analyzes American society and finds that, surprise, some people are poor and some people are rich despite merit, that there is extraordinarily low social mobility, and so forth. He thus develops a theory of class relations.
But then he discovers that a number of people are even poorer than their class situation would merit. Similarly, they are treated with predictably worse outcomes at every level of society, from mortgages to education. He must assume that their class has nothing to do with it, and finding no other explanation, must turn to an innate explanation, saying that those people really DO deserve the worse treatment they’re getting. And he would do so even if he remembered that racism against this group did exist in the past, because past racism is not sufficient to explain disparate achievement and living standards between black and white groups.
Thus, unsurprisingly, the logical extension of color-blindness in a racist society is racism. Because if we cannot explain disparate achievement by hypotheses about racism, we must either not explain them or explain them by some innate property of the group, a definitionally racist hypothesis.
Is it any wonder that it is overwhelmingly whites, who have quite a bit to lose from racism being rectified (even if they also stand to gain in some ways as well), are the ones who push this idea so hard? Who have sold it into the mainstream and into the psyches of otherwise intelligent people?
Yes, it is possible that when we discuss race and racism, we will implicitly bring up not only racist but sexist, classist and statist concepts and ideas thanks to the deep ingraining of those concepts into our socialization. But to say that this means we should instead give up is not only to do injustice to the entire idea of activism, but also simply to engage in a fallacy of perfection.
Yes, it is possible that by bringing up racism and trying to deal with it we might go too far and inadvertently hurt some groups that do not deserve to be impacted, or that some people may misidentify racism or malice when it is not there. But to deny social justice by the logic that social justice might hurt and be difficult to achieve is, again, repugnant. This is especially true when it is proferred by those who daily do the same thing, who daily are complicit with a system that hurts some groups who have never deserved to be impacted yet have been for centuries, and who routinely misidentify malice on the part of blacks.
Tim Wise in his comments system called this idea, “New Age shit”, and I am inclined to agree. Color-blindness as an idea is impossible to achieve, intellectually anemic, repugnant, and benefits only racists and those too tepid or lazy to deal with racists and racism. It does have the effect of clamping down on the worst, most overt racists out there, when it is applied evenly, which it rarely is. After all, how many “color blind” whites rushed to defend Don Imus or any number of other public personae who dropped the n-bomb or other slurs? How many “color blind” whites move out of their neighborhood when too many blacks move in? How many “color blind” whites nonetheless go out and buy the Bell Curve, which says that those blacks they’re supposed to pretend don’t exist actually ARE genetically inferior?
But even when it is evenly applied, color-blindness only deals with the most repugnant but also the most superficial racists. Those whose prejudice is slightly less palpable yet who nonetheless express it in their hiring decisions, corporate policies, lending paradigms, educational proposals, pedagogy, philosophy, racial profiling, and jurisprudence are at the end of the day far more dangerous. And color-blindness buys us, at its best, not having to deal with the obvious KKK and neo-Nazi racists at the cost of making it impossible to deal with the more subtle racists.
This is especially tragic for many reasons. Because there is no need to do so: There are alternatives to both color-blindness, racism and some of the sillier parts of multi-culturalism. Because the people who have this more subtle prejudice are generally our neighbors, our friends, decent people whose prejudice could be cured or mitigated relatively simply. And because these people are very often the real threat to black and brown advancement, success and equality.