So-called “color blindness” actually perpetuates racist attitudes, says Bill Johnson II. What will work to eradicate racism?
“I have a lot of friends who are of all different nationalities and their children are bi-racial so they’ve kind of talked to me a little bit about it and what to expect and what not to expect. I think that the most important thing is and the way I want to raise my children is to not see color. That’s important to me,” —Kim Kardashian Interview in Madame Noire, March 27, 2013
A White person edits my weekly column, or at least, I think he’s White. We’ve never met in person or had a discussion about our racial backgrounds; therefore, I am basing my perceptions strictly on headshot photos I have seen on the GMP website and Twitter. I could quite easily be mistaken, and even if I am correct phenotypically, I could be assigning a racial category to someone who personally does not identify as such. Regardless, that’s my perception and I’m sticking to it! I identify as an African American male, therefore, every interaction I have with this person is by nature cross-racial.
As someone who frequently writes about racial oppression for GMP, I find myself wondering how such differences play out in the nature of our professional relationship. Questions such as: “does he think about systematic racial oppression and its daily impact on his life specifically and American society in general” and “has he explored White privilege and the history of U.S. promoted White Supremacy” circle my mind from time to time.
I am not suggesting our racial differences, in and of themselves, serve as a barrier to connection and collegiality. In contrast, those same differences may serve as the catalyst or conduit through which authentic relationships are formed. The two of us may find that just as our differences enhance our connection, we have numerous commonalities which also deepen the intimacy between us. One commonality which has been evident since our initial correspondence is our mutual focus on confronting gender based oppression. Personally speaking we are apparently both fans of old school fantasy-adventure movies (“Princess Bride”) and sick to death of individuals who troll articles.
So, not only have I placed my colleague in to a racial category that he may or may not belong, I also have specific questions about him based on the categorization. Can I be any more racist?
Preconceptions and (mis)interpretations about other people based on race are pervasive in our society. Indeed, our willingness to discuss our internal dialogue regarding individuals belonging to racial groups different than ours is a critical part of confronting racial oppression.
Color-blind racial attitudes specifically promote the notion that “race should not and does not matter.” Helen Neville and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argue that “color blind racial attitudes” constitute the major form for perpetuating modern racism. We can all agree that race “should not” matter, but the “does” not matter component is problematic for several reasons. First, whether we admit it or not most of us not only make presumptions of a person’s race based on their physical appearance, but according to research we also make it based on tone of voice as well as based on someone’s name.
Those individuals endorsing color blind racial attitudes therefore feel that race has no bearing on educational, economic or occupational attainment, and may instead believe that if racial minorities had a stronger work ethic, such disparities would not exist. Research has revealed that individuals endorsing color-blind racial attitudes had more difficulty communicating in cross-racial dyads; these individuals also inaccurately underestimate the frequency of both blatant and subtle racism in society. Therefore it is actually warranted to acknowledge the existence of racial differences and I would argue that it behooves each of us to explore our individual racial bias.
In expanding on the conceptualization of color blind racial attitudes, noted author Eduardo Bonilla-Silva described the promotion of such views as akin to living in a “pretend world” in which skin color has no meaning, allows for, and can even encourage the non-recognition of discrimination against people on the basis of the color of their skin.
As a result, colorblindness allows the dominant group to take no responsibility for racial inequity and enables them to blame minorities for their plight by circulating in public discourse their alleged deficiencies. Additionally, by failing to acknowledge such feelings you might miss out on an opportunity to have an authentic discussion about racial differences. Such conversations are critical in reducing negative racial attitudes and racial oppression.
As a clinician I do not pretend that my clients do not have a race or ethnicity. Instead I encourage discussion of their cultural backgrounds and freely invite discussions which explore any and all cultural differences we may have between us. To do otherwise may be akin to ignoring the proverbial elephants in the room.
Going back to the question I asked earlier in this article: do my preconceptions about the editor make me racist? They definitely mean that it is past time that I reached out to him to have an authentic discussion about our racial-cultural differences.
I’m not racist but …
I wouldn’t pick one up in my cab
I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one
I wouldn’t rent my flat to one
I wouldn’t employ one
—Anita Heiss, I’m Not Racist But … : A Collection of Social Observations
Read Justin Cascio’s response: Owning Whiteness.
Image credit: allthecolor/Flickr