So now you have the history. Let’s get to the context.
Why am I talking about colorblindness?
Yesterday The other day, amidst the many many bloggy happenings that went on, one of Aunt B’s threads ventured into (pardon the pun) some muddy waters.
Or, should I say, water that is difficult to see through but which has no discernable or relevant hue-related qualities. Heh, I kid. But the spectre of “colorblind” philosophy raised its head, and I had a mild, squeaky fit.
Since it was tangential, though, and since all sorts of other stuff was going on that day, I kind of let it drop. It’s hard to explain how such sincere well-intentioned comments made me start squirming around in my chair, wondering what to say. And firing off a half-baked, poorly linked reply wasn’t really going to help. So I dropped it.
Then I noticed that Kat, in the “When all else fails, blame black people” thread, had asked for my opinion on the matter, and I rethought it. So I gave her a short answer, and said I’d find the links and theory to beef that up today. Here’s to hoping nobody asks me to do anything strenuous today.
(Is it bad that I totally didn’t notice it was a different thread until just now, when I went to link it?)
Remember when I said I was working on two other posts? Well, one was a response to the “colorblind” thing, and the other was a fuller explication of some things that were snipped from my comment over at Mack’s place. Well, this post ate them both. Hopefully, I’ll be able to show you how all of this ties together.
*cracks knuckles* This is a huge subject. And I’m jittery enough right now, between the caffiene and the Adderall and the thirty million different ideas running through my head that I want to make sure to bring in, that this isn’t going to be the most eloquent post I’ve ever written. If you want eloquent and well-written, you might try the hair post, or It’s not that simple, or go over to Aunt B’s instead. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
I will be linking to a lot of POC blogs. Because this is a touchy subject, they may not always be nice, or explain their terms in ways that are comfortable for white readers. Keep in mind that although the tone may be challenging or confrontational, no one is trying to insult you personally.
Please also remember that, just as in your home communities, there are inside jokes, ideological shorthand, and codes of conduct that may not be immediately evident. If something seems unnecessarily harsh, or ill-explained, generally more looking will produce an explanation. If not, asking politely will usually get you pointed in the right direction.
If you are going to post in any of these places, I ask that you respect their rules, and treat them as safe spaces. Tekanji’s look at “minority spaces” may be useful here.
Oh, and even though this was inspired by some things that happened at Tiny Cat Pants and elsewhere, it really, truly isn’t directed at anyone. I switch back and forth between “I” “we” and “you” pretty frequently, and I know it’s a literary failing of mine. Bear with me, and remember: this isn’t (specifically) about you.
Some of the terminology I’m going to use here is necessarily going to be pretty specific. Since I always wind up wading into comments to clarify my terms, I might as well do it upfront.
Color-blind refers in this case to the philosophy that, in order to eliminate racism, one must (simply) ignore race entirely. It emphasizes treating everyone equally, and not judging based on skin tone or percieved ethnic features. It relies heavily on the (erroneous) assuption that it is the ability to (linguistically) mark people as “other” that facilitates the hatred directed to out-group members, and, much like in 1984, strives to simply eliminate the ‘bad’ words/concepts from the lexicon.
It’s sibling, race-neutral philosophy, is what I generally call the “charitable” reading of color-blind philosophy. Where colorblindness depends on near-literal “blindness” to racial characteristics, often to the tune of “I don’t think of you as black” statements, race-neutrality instead emphasizes the relative weight of percieved race or ethnicity in various situations. Under this philosophy, race is often likened to eye color; a real, visible marker that nonetheless has no legitimate bearing on hiring decisions, relationship matters, or other decisions.
POC – People of Color. Generally self-identified, but often used as a general marker denoting the ethnically non-white.
Brown – a recently popular term covering most of the same ground as POC. It is generally a reclamatory term, and despite popular colloquial color metaphors, may include Blacks and Asians if they so choose.
Essentialism – the belief that things are as they are because they are essentially, or inherently, that way. Often extended causally to include behavior, lending itself to arguments along the lines of “women like to cook because the nature of woman is to nurture.”
I will probably be using terms which may be found in Nezua’s Definition of Terms section as well, though I will try to link when doing so. Bear in mind that these definitions are tongue in cheek, but well convey the ire that often accompanies their use.
On to the analysis…
So what’s the deal? Being colorblind sounds like a really great idea, doesn’t it? After all, if you teach your kids not to notice what race people are, they won’t think to disparage people on the basis of things that don’t matter, right?
As far as it goes, it’s not an inadmirable sentiment. I fully believe that most people who profess colorblindness do so from a well-founded desire to do the right thing. Unfortunately, many of those same people have either not thought it out entirely, or simply don’t know what to do with it. And some people are just mean, and relish the increased opportunities for passive-aggressive bullying it allows. Sometimes, it just comes out racist.
A common mistake among many white liberals is that they honestly believe if you merely announce to the world that you believe in the equality of all people, that would be the end it. This is NOT to say just because they do not “get it” that they should be compared to white supremacists that practice the overt forms of racism. I sincerely believe most white folks despise racism; however, many of them still do not “get it.”
There are a couple of problems with the framework, though.
1) It paints “color” as the problem. The problem is coded as race, not that people are racist.
I don’t want to be not black, I want not to be a problem. When you say “I don’t think of you as black,” you are ignoring me, plain and simple. I am black. That’s part of who and what I am. As Nezua (paraphrasing Rafael) said: “if you are COLORBLIND, then you don’t see my struggles.”
It is not my fault that race relations are fucked up. If you cannot simultaneously think about me as being a person of color and a regular person, a friend, a smart person, a potential employee, or what have you, that is your problem and you need to fix it.
2) It doesn’t address the underlying power structures. By pretending everyone is white, it implicitly casts “white” as better than any “race.” It just moves everyone into the same category, without addressing how and why those categories are constructed, or what might be messed up about constructing hierarchies the way they currently are.
3) It relies on the framework of white as the unmarked default. It only really works if you agree that the dominant cultural paradigm here is not a white one, and that white isn’t a racial and cultural framwork at all. Because otherwise, it would be “whitewashing,” and not “colorblindness.” You can only pretend to ignore race as long as you steadfastly deny any racial taint in the system you want everyone to hew to.
And make no mistake, that system has rules, and those rules are white rules. How you speak, how you dress, what your name sounds like, what music it’s okay to like… those are all coded into it. It’s worded indirectly, softly, “for your own good.” Don’t name your kid Quanishia or Shaquanda or Aalaiyya if you want her to get ahead. People will think that’s “ghetto,” you know. Make sure you wear your hair just right, so people don’t get the wrong idea. Oh, it’s not about race! Heavens no. It’s about propriety. It’s about class. It’s about presenting your best face to the world.
Never mind that to do that, you have to scrub off all the messy bits and pieces that remind other people that you’re not white. That well-meaning people will denounce your music and its accompanying culture as “worthless,” because some of its prominent figures are unrepentantly misogynist. (Never mind the misogyny in pop, or rock, or jazz, and never mind that it’s not that simple. Never mind that there are white rappers, or that the music is consciously packaged and marketed toward a predominately white audience.)
4) It’s awkward. For people who are invested in their identity markers, it’s really uncomfortable to interact with a person who steadfastly refuses to admit those markers exist.
Going back to the gender parallel, as I said in my short original reply, it’s as if someone decided “I’m going to be gender blind; I’m going to treat everyone like they were men, just like me,” and proceeded to then hold everyone to masculine gender norms, regardless of their preferred, professed, or represented gender.
Or, to flip it, if someone decided they were going to be orientation blind, and went around talking to absolutely everyone as if they were homosexual. If I went around ignoring straight men’s girlfriends and trying to set them up with my male friends, and told them “Oh, I don’t think of you as straight,” the awkward would be the least of my issues.
Atheists – you know how your hackles rise every time someone assumes you’re Christian? And ignores your statements to the contrary? That’s what it feels like to have someone pretend you don’t have a race. It’s awkward at best, and tooth-gnashingly frustrating at worst.
Worse, it makes you the problem.
6) It makes me the problem.
One of the major, oft-repeated tenets of the vocally colorblind is that talking about race is a problem all by itself. If race isn’t explicitly talked about – even when a policy, decision, or act directly and specifically impacts a particular race over others – then obviously, racism isn’t the problem. Anyone who says differently is obviously bringing race in where race oughtn’t tread, and is probably racist themselves.
If, for instance, one wanted to comment about how it was strange that there were so few people of color at a certain elite institution… the conversation would magically shift to wondering why the person was talking about race. That race isn’t a valuable diversity characteristic, being reduced to “the color of their skin.” You don’t want to be fetishizing people for the color of their skin now, do you? Obviously, background was important… so we should be recruiting more poor people, more people from foreign countries, more republicans. Ideological and historical diversity. And if all of those people happened to be white, well… that just goes to show that you don’t need people of color around to be a diverse place.
You have turned your problem (that you think differently of people coded “other”) into my problem (that I am coded “other” in your presence, and making you think about it).
It’s like those boys in the Rebelution survey, talking about how girls and women were the problem because “they keep reminding us that we’re different.” Suddenly, it’s my problem for mentioning it, or looking like it, or reminding them of it.
I get to spend all of my time hearing the whispers “Look, there she goes, that black girl… always playing the race card. Why can’t she just shut up about it and talk about real problems?” And if a white person should mention it, suddenly the whispers shift to “Oh, poor thing… look at all that ‘white guilt’ he’s carrying around. Someone should tell him it’s not his fault.”
It’s not just complaint, of course. Simply being as you are, claiming that you are black, or asian, or what have you, is often enough. Stating that out loud, claiming pride in it… well that’s downright oppressive. White-as-unmarked people don’t get to claim White Pride, so what gives you the right to clam that your Brown is something to be proud of? Why are you dressing so ethnically? Are you trying to make a point? What political statement does your hair make?
7) It can lead to some racist-assed shit. (as if the stuff above wasn’t enough) Because the colorblind schema focuses so heavily on the semantic issues, just about anything goes if you frame it right.
Especially, it seems, within the feminist/progressive community. And once other issues (such as class) enter into it, it becomes that much harder to point out, and deal with. After all, so-and-so is such a good feminist/lefty/blogger/politico/”ally” that they couldn’t possibly be racist (or sexist, ableist, heterosexist, or what have you)
These aren’t issues solely linked to colorblind philosophy, obviously. A lot of this happens in people who think the very concept is silly. But I have seen and heard colorblind rhetoric employed in this manner, over and over and over again. Mentioning race is a problem. Calling attention to your racial differences is a problem. Talking about racial group phenomena is a problem. If we ignore it, then it won’t be a problem any more, right?
I suppose I could have just said: read this. But that would have been too easy.
Tying it all up:
Whew! That was long. Long enough to take me two days, and not nearly as eloquent as Part I… but I think I covered most of my issues with the framework itself. LEt’s see if I can squeeze out a Part III to bring some specificity to this discussion.
 I recognize the specificity of her complaint – the “pimp” culture instead of the “rap” culture or “black” culture. Their steady conflation in that and other threads, however, is part of what I’m talking about. It’s “their culture,” and it is a monolith somehow. As if there weren’t feminist rappers. Or critiques from within. As if all of rap could be reduced to pimp culture, or thug culture, when in fact that’s a subculture… a prominent one, but a subculture nonetheless.