Skip to main content

"Colorbindness" and the Cruel Non Sequitur "all lives matter"

Dear "colorblind" white people:

Imagine that your house and the houses of your neighbors were broken into repeatedly over the course of a month. Further, imagine that there was no response from law enforcement. If you and your neighbors complained, "Our houses are being broken into and no one is protecting us!" would it be appropriate for the police to respond, "All houses matter" and then do nothing about it?

This is analogous* to responding to #BlackLivesMatter with "all lives matter." It's easy to say when your house isn't being broken into, and saying it reveals a profound lack of empathy for other human beings. So if you're not going to do anything about the destruction of Black lives by the very people sworn to protect those lives, please keep your tin-eared responses to yourself. It's saying nothing, which is literally the least you can do.

Protestors carrying placards at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in New York City (Wikipedia)
This insult of "all lives matter" thinking is another painful example of the abject failure of "colorblindness," the modern approach to race and racism in America. It is undertaken in the false belief that racism is just people of one race being mean to people of another race. Sorry, no, that's what we call prejudice. It's not good, but it's not racism.

Another wishful, yet ignorant view is that naming race and its effects in this country is racist. It almost sounds right, especially if you think about race for a few minutes at a time. But again, no. My pointing out that white people are white and as a result often behave in specific, predictable ways as the normative, dominant group in our society is not racism. It's simple observation by someone who has to think about race all the time because I am not a part of the normative group. (Also, stop with the silliness about "reverse racism." It's not a thing.)

What's worse is that research shows that the "colorblindness" of white parents actually leads to and reinforces racist attitudes in their kids. Children will see racial differences and derive meaning from their parents' attitudes and relationships (75% of white people have no close, Black friends, and no Black or Latina/o people in their professional and social networks). It should therefore be little surprise that even in a liberal city like Austin, TX, among a large group of white children sociology researchers discovered this:
[Researchers] asked all the kids a very blunt question: "Do your parents like black people?" Fourteen percent said outright, "No, my parents don't like black people"; 38 percent of the kids answered, "I don't know." In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions—many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.
Why does it always have to be about race? you ask. Because white people invented race, built a country on it, used it for profit and wealth, and as a result race is a major factor in the lives of non-white people and a powerful aspect of our society. We people of color would rather it not be this way, just like you. But its not that way. Its the other way. Its the way that white people designed it to be. And having set the rules of the game, white people don't get to ignore them without acting truly racist, intentionally or not. Inaction and/or turning a blind eye to race reinforces the status quo that white people designed, implemented through policy, and enforce to this day.

So what is racism? I could give you a definition, but racism is best seen in its results. This chart, for example, illustrates the racism that #BlackLivesMatter tries to bring to the nation's attention:
To put it another way:
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week.
Would you like a better response when seeing something like this, or when someone says #BlackLivesMatter---a response that doesn't make you look like an incurious, simple-minded racist? Try something simple like this:

"It's not right, it's not fair, and I'm sorry you have to experience this sort of injustice in your life."

It's a short, simple expression of empathy for your fellow American citizens, who by virtue of being born into the wrong race must deal with the terror of knowing that an interaction with someone sworn to protect them could end in bodily harm or destruction. As a bonus, the statement contains fewer than 140 characters. I challenge you to try using it as a new response to a #BlackLivesMatter post. You'll manage to appear human to the other person and you may well brighten their life in a small yet significant way on a morning the woke up to find yet another hashtag announcing the extrajudicial destruction of another Black life.

If you'd like to go next level, you could actually attempt to do something about this injustice. Start by promoting and supporting #CampaignZero, learn how to talk to your children about race, find a way to get people of color into your social and professional networks, and read some books. In other words, give up on the myth of colorblindness.

*Actually, the proper analogy would be to have the police doing the burglarizing, which would be particularly terrifying for the homeowners since the protectors are doing the crime. But understanding that takes next-level empathy.


Popular posts from this blog

An annual note to all the (NSF) haters

It's that time of year again: students have recently been notified about whether they received the prestigious NSF Graduate Student Research Fellowship. Known in the STEM community as "The NSF," the fellowship provides a student with three years of graduate school tuition and stipend, with the latter typically 5-10% above the standard institutional support for first- and second-year students. It's a sweet deal, and a real accellerant for young students to get their research career humming along smoothly because they don't need to restrict themselves to only advisors who have funding: the students fund themselves!
This is also the time of year that many a white dude executes what I call the "academic soccer flop." It looks kinda like this:

It typically sounds like this: "Congrats! Of course it's easier for you to win the NSF because you're, you know, the right demographic." Or worse: "She only won because she's Hispanic."…

Culture: Made Fresh Daily

There are two inspirations for this essay worth noting. The first is an impromptu talk I gave to the board of trustees at Thatcher School while I was visiting in October as an Anacapa Fellow. Spending time on this remarkable campus interacting with the students, faculty and staff helped solidify my notions about how culture can be intentionally created. The second source is Beam Times and Lifetimes by Sharon Tarweek, an in-depth exploration of the culture of particle physics told by an anthropologist embedded at SLAC for two decades. It's a fascinating look at the strange practices and norms that scientists take for granted.
One of the stories that scientists tell themselves, whether implicitly or explicitly, is that science exists outside of and independent of society. A corollary of this notion is that if a scientific subfield has a culture, e.g. the culture of astronomy vs. the culture of chemistry, that culture is essential rather than constructed. That is to say, scientific c…

The Bright Line is not Monotonic

The anthology of myths commonly known as America rests upon the notion that history is linear. In the past people in this country ignorantly did bad things to other people. But thanks to the passage of time, we can now "let the past to be the past," because today we live in a time when things have gotten much better. Furthermore, any problem that our society faces in the present will inevitably be solved as "the old guard" dies off and a new generation of better people takes their place. 
Of course this story isn't told so simply or explicitly. But the assumption lurks beneath the other stories we, as Americans, tell ourselves and each other. The myth certainly undergirds the notion that racism is a thing of the past, and that today we inhabit a "post-racial" world in which all people, regardless of race have equal access to betterment, dignity and happiness. We are lulled into beliving that at some point in the mid to late 1960's, a wise reveren…