Colorblindness in America

Race, and thus racism, is ingrained in the fabric of American society. From the start of this nation, the way colonists dealt with Native Indian tribes and African slaves set the tone for how our nation would receive and interact with people of color for years to come. Today, race relations have certainly evolved from the status it was in our nation’s past, but there is still a lapse and disconnect between the way different races approach one another. Rather than having a dialogue about race and how it’s played such a huge role throughout history, many people would rather cling to their ‘racial colorblindness’— an ideology that claims people can easily extract skin color out of the situation and see people simply as humans, and through that, see all people as equal. The intentions behind colorblindness can be well-meaning. In some cases, people simply want to erase the arbitrary racial groups we’ve all be placed into and unify people through their humanity—and that’s a noble idea. But sometimes, a meaningful conversation about race fails to come to fruition because it is still a topic that is uncomfortable and uncharted for the average American. Race relations in our country today prove that we are not yet at a place in society where we can work on our future without thinking about our history. The idea of racial colorblindness perpetuates race problems in America because it ignores the legacies that racism have left behind that continue to affect racial groups to this day, thus setting back productive conversations and preventing real progress in our racial dynamics.

To talk about why the idea of colorblindness came to be, it’s important to first recognize what make talking about race so difficult. The idea of colorblindness stems from the difficulty of having a meaningful and productive conversation about race, racism, and oppression. Because of this, the solution for many was to simply take out the factor that was making conversation difficult. But why is it so hard to talk about race? There are many different possibilities—the first being that sometimes, it’s just too uncomfortable. In an article written about discussing race in college classrooms for the Harvard Educational Review, Beverly Tatum writes that “the inclusion of race-related content in college courses often generates emotional responses in students that range from guilt and shame to anger and despair. The discomfort associated with these emotions can lead students to resist the learning process.” In many cases, learning about race and oppression in the United States means learning some very heavy truths about an individuals’ place in the world compared to those around them and exactly what it took—or what was taken—in order to get there. Race gets personal very easily and often, and if it’s difficult for college students—with their access to education, context, and exposure to differing views—to hold a civil conversation about race, it’s not surprising that it could be even more difficult for those with limited amounts of those resources to do the same.

This phenomenon has been studied and proven by Dr. Robin DiAngelo when she coined the term, ‘white fragility’. Her research shows that most white people “live in a social environment that insulates them from race-based stress,” and because of that, “even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves” (DiAngelo). Due to lack of exposure to race and racial issues, white people are more likely to deflect in conversations about race, and thus, are more likely to default to colorblindness when the conversation creates that racial stress. Because of this, it’s obvious to see that colorblindness isn’t rooted in progress or understanding, but instead in oversimplifying a complex situation and making things more comfortable. In fact, colorblindness “allows many whites to define themselves as politically progressive and racially tolerant as they proclaim their adherence to a belief system that does not see or judge individuals by the ‘color of their skin,’” but that’s not reality for minorities in the nation. In fact, almost every institution in America—from immigration policies, to crime, to housing—treat people differently due to their race. White fragility allows for the privilege for certain people to take race out of the equation as if it’s not an important fact and just see people for who they are, but as we know, that’s not how our country functions.

White fragility can also explain another aspect that makes talking about race so difficult—the fear of being called a racist. As DiAngelo pointed out, a very minimal amount of racial stress can lead to someone becoming defensive and closed off to conversation. Being called a racist for saying something prejudiced or misguided can feel very dramatic and detrimental to those who haven’t had discussions of race at length, and that mere accusation can be enough to for someone to shut off further conversation or further opportunities to be called a racist. Colorblindness is once again an opportunity for individuals to remove the factor of the conversation that puts them in danger or in fear—usually the part where there’s discussion on the different racial histories of the ethnic minorities. This can also result in backlash against the minority group that is trying to raise awareness and have meaningful discussion, as we’ve seen in the rise of ‘anti-politically correct’ movements. Neo-conservative like Milo Yiannopoulis often capitalize on the idea of politically correct terminology, and has even gone so far as to say that “progressive social justice, feminists, Black Lives Matter … is so cancerous and toxic to free expression” (Lieberman). While Yiannopolis’, and even higher up Donald Trump’s, rhetoric stems from a pretense of racism and prejudice, the anti-political correctness movement is an example of colorblindness at work. By eliminating speech that is more inclusive and understanding of history and context, those who want to be ‘anti-PC’ are just trying to assume that everyone is on a similar base line in society where slurs and insults hit just the same, and thus they don’t think about historical legacies and the same detrimental language that has existed for so many years continues to perpetuate into the future. If you don’t know the legacy behind racial slurs, how they formed and the violence behind them, how can you stop others from using them? So similarly to the idea of colorblindness, an anti-PC mindset rejects the idea of using language that is perhaps more conducive to productive conversation, and that’s harmful because it prevents constructive conversations by often avoiding important topics and brushing over uncomfortable details of America’s racial history that are intrinsic to understanding why race relations are the way that they are today.

Looking deeper into the details of racial colorblindness itself, the idea of taking race out of the context of discussion in an effort equalize the conversation is one that is inherently rooted in privilege. White privilege, as explained by Peggy McIntosh in her work ‘White Privilege and Male Privilege’, is “an invisible package of unearned assets” or societal benefits that come naturally with being white. As DiAngelo pointed out in her theory of ‘white fragility’, white people don’t come across the issue of race much in day to day life because race doesn’t play that large or noticeable of a role in white people’s day to day lives. That’s why white fragility is so uniquely impactful as they are the only racial group that has this unique experience of power and privilege. But the idea of colorblindness and putting everyone on the same level and not seeing the differences that come with race does race discussions an injustice because they “maintain white privilege by negating racial inequality” (Gallagher). If all racial minorities and whites were on the same page because a person is ‘colorblind’ and views them all equally, then that does a great disservice to analyzing the context of power structures that have put certain groups above others. It does a disservice in recognizing that white people have controlled much of the world and its wealth for years, and they have used that power and wealth to keep minorities—black people in particular—down and with limited social mobility. It does a disservice in recognizing that white people have controlled much of the world and its wealth for years, and they have used that power and wealth to keep minorities—black people in particular—down and with limited social mobility. Charles Gallagher goes further to ascertain that in a colorblind society, “whites are able to imagine that the material success they enjoy relative to racial minorities is a function only of individual hard work, determination, thrift and investments in education.” With a colorblind view on race, we also get a blind analysis on white privilege and the role it plays in society—and a conversation that doesn’t discuss what a crucial role the privilege has played in subjugating certain races over others and creating a hierarchy within our own nation won’t do enough to lead to progress and change. In fact, it’s when you have a discussion on race without that context on different racial groups and white privilege, that’s when you see comments made by people like Ben Carson who say that “poverty to a large extent is also a state of mind” that ignore an understanding of history (Fessler). Through colorblindness, there’s a shift from understanding a person’s historical background to reducing them to a product of their own circumstances. Through colorblindness, a person’s socioeconomic status that is influenced by their racial background can be reduced to that individual’s fault. In terms of creating real progress in the racial dynamics of this country—or simply helping people who need it—this ideology and mindset proves to be more harmful that productive as it does

Another way that colorblindness is detrimental goes back to the idea of white fragility; the fact that colorblindness often removes the oppressor of the guilt or discomfort that should come with talking about race. As Charles Gallagher put it, “the color-blind perspective removes from personal thought and public discussion any taint or suggestion of white supremacy or white guilt while legitimating the existing social, political and economic arrangements which privilege whites.” Discussing race always leads to a discussion of power structures, and thus white supremacy throughout the world and how it has unfolded and shaped our societies. However, in a colorblind world, if we reduce all ethnic groups to the same, then once again that understanding of white domination throughout history is erased, and again we fall into the trap of ignoring important history that has led to form power structures and institutions to be the way they are today. History is important because understanding it is crucial to how we view and interact with people of color in the present. When slavery and Jim Crow laws are minimized or brushed off as something from so long, it creates a national mentality that is more willing to forget it’s past instances of racism and is doomed to repeat them again. Like Japanese internment and the Muslim ban of today, race can directly impact a person’s life in a multifaceted way; from policy decisions made to control them or to plans created to deport them. Ignoring the fact race plays a very important role in the lives of people today— as well as the way their families have been seen and accepted in the past— ignores a very important aspect of racial dynamics that needs to be discussed and analyzed to be overcome.

Colorblindness not only erases historical context, which is vital to understanding our present, but it also muddles the importance of racial identities and experiences which alter the way we see race and racism moving forward. As a nation that prides itself on being a ‘melting pot’ of diversity and multiculturalism, it’s obvious that we may not be in such peace and harmony that we like to project. Despite that, culture and differing cultures and traditions are at the root of America, as well. It’s never been required to assimilate into ‘American culture’ upon emigrating to this country—however, most new Americans do take on that burden to fit into American society. However, for those that don’t do that and those who face racism and persecutions for the traditions that they follow and customs that they hold, that racism and backlash from society is not sporadic and not unusual but a regular occurrence. However, when analyzing things from a colorblind perspective, it becomes common for people to reduce these instances of racism and prejudice to singular narratives that thus don’t become understood and fought against in our communities. If someone believes that hate crimes only happen occasionally by a few ‘lone wolfs’ or that instances of police brutality could happen to anyone, that is a harmful approach to understanding race because there’s much more at play—much more regarding specific ethnic groups—when noting these instances of racial violence. And once again, until there is an honest conversation about race, ethnic groups cannot and will not come together to combat the racism prevalent in our communities.

Simply, when has the approach of not talking about a problem ever worked in solving the problem? The same can be said for the idea of colorblindness. Colorblindness works to perpetuate the same systems of racism and oppression we have today by continuing to make race difficult to talk about, maintaining white privilege and white supremacy by taking color out of the equation, dehumanizing racial/ethnic groups, and in the end, simply making race something negative and taboo to talk about. Through these instances, the main goal is to stop a discussion about racism and race in American society—because truthfully if there is no discussion about race and injustice, then there will be no eventual revolution in the future. By eliminating color and pretending to not see the differences between very different groups of people, it is only a disservice to those people in terms of the resources and benefits they will receive going forward. It halts collaboration of minority groups working together to combat the common evil, white supremacy, and prevents people from learning from the mistakes of racism and prejudice in our nation’s past. Colorblindnees is a tool of privledge that can only be used by the privledged—people aren’t be fully aware of their color and the history of their race at every moment because it continues to affect the way they survive and thrive in the nation. Colorblindness is indeed a tool of racism in itself because it misguides others into believing that someone is knowledgeable and aware of racial issues that affect minorities, when in reality, colorblindness is used to avoid delving into those topics. Colorblindness is regressive and unproductive because when trying to progressive and proactive about race relations and issues in America we should be actively asking for each other’s input and experiences, as well as the harmful legacies we’re continuing and things we need to work on from our past. Colorblindness panders to white privilege, white supremacy, and white fragility by creating an environment to discuss race that truly doesn’t delve deep into the roots of racism at all. It allows for a comfortable and safe discussion, when race has never been comfortable or safe—and thus, even in an opportunity to finally give minorities a voice, it’s still happening according to white people’s requests. Colorblindness is detrimental, and it inhibits the ability to truly learn and evolve because we’re avoiding what makes us as feel guilty and uncomfortable—but in the end, that’s the only thing that can spark change.  

Works Cited

Fessler, Pam. “Housing Secretary Ben Carson Says Poverty Is A ‘State Of Mind’.” NPR. NPR, 25 May 2017. Web. 30 May 2017.

Gallagher, Charles A. “Color-Blind Privilege: The Social and Political Functions of Erasing the Color Line in Post Race America.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 10, no. 4, 2003, pp. 22–37. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41675099.

Lieberman, Story By Dan. “Milo Yiannopoulos Is Trying to Convince Colleges That Hate Speech Is Cool.” CNN. Cable News Network, 02 Feb. 2017. Web. 30 May 2017.

McIntosh, Peggy (1998) “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies”.

Tatum, Beverly (1992) Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom. Harvard Educational Review: April 1992, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 1-25.

 

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