Skip to main content

What's all this about colorblind racism?

I've been writing quite a bit about "colorblind" attitudes about race and racism (posts 1, 2, 3 and 4). This focus is more than a simple hobby horse. Rather, it has emerged from my attempts to have discussions about race with people in real life and on social media. I kept running into situations that feel an awful lot like the arguments between atheists and religious people. If you've ever been a part of, or witness to such a conversation, you've probably noticed how the people on either side make no progress and only tend to harden their own beliefs.

The Axiomatic Impasse

Why is this? My friend Prof. Jason Wright wrote the most compelling explanation for the religious-atheist impasse I've ever heard/read. He explains that atheists and religious people start from completely different, yet valid axioms. The person who believes in a personal relationship with God (the theist) adheres to the Miracles Axiom that assumes that God intervenes in the world through supernatural acts. On the other hand, the atheist starts from the No-Miracles Axiom that says that all observable features of the Universe can be explained via natural mechanisms. 

Neither of these axiomatic starting points can be proved or disproved, so they are truly foundational. Indeed, the only way to attempt to disprove the Miracles Axiom is to make use of logic that starts at the No Miracles Axiom. "That was not a miracle, and therefore not evidence of God, because of this natural explanation." As Prof. Wright summarizes it: 
Even if an (atheist) scientist were to have a genuine religious experience — let’s say an apparition of the Blessed Virgin interrupts a dinner party and commands the participants to accept Jesus and receive eternal life — there exist plenty of scientific explanations that would allow them to avoid abandoning this fundamental assumption: it’s all an elaborate prank involving sophisticated holographic equipment, there were psychedelic drugs in the wine, it was mass hysteria, mass hypnosis, or all just a dream. There are almost no limits to this.
So the religious person and the atheist go 'round and 'round, making no progress in advancing their respective arguments. A miracle is proposed as evidence of Jesus' or Mohammed's divinity, and it is struck down by a scientific explanation. Scientific "evidence" against a god's existence is described, only to be shot down by that god existing outside of the natural world that she/he created. Starting from separate, valid axioms, the two people will never find common ground. One side is left praying for the other's soul, while the other side walks away shaking their head about the irrational thought processes of their counterpart. In the worse cases judgements to hell and/or ad hominem attacks follow, leading to blocks and unfriending, both literal and virtual. 

We Need A Conversation About Race

Similar dynamics are very common when US-Americans attempt to heed President Obama's call to have a "conversation about race." One side points out racism in their life or in the world, and the other side explains it away and/or discredits the claim. One side cries #BlackLivesMatter, the other side chants #AllLivesMatter. One side notes that humans cannot be illegal, the other side points out that we live in a "nation of laws." One side points to the ethnic cleansing of American Indians by settler colonists, and the other side talks about how they had it coming and that the past is the past. One side points out how white supremacy is the dominant political philosophy around the globe and has been for the past 400+ years, while the other side laughs at the absurdity of the notion, wondering "what are these nonsense PC words you're using?!"

This is all due to what I call the No-Racism Axiom, which posits that systemic racism is nonexistent. Social justice activists like myself start from a different axiom that assumes that systemic racism is not only real, but actively supports the sociopolitical ideology of white supremacy. Because we start from different axioms, the Twitter Egg and I can find no common ground. Indeed, we can't even settle upon a common lexicon! As a result, Obama's hoped-for conversation devolves into ad hominem and blockage. 
Jay Smooth on the various types of racism and the common
problems of race discussions.

But wait! Is the No-Racism Axiom actually foundational? Or can it be disproven? It rests on a simple statement that there are no systemic mechanisms that elevate the white racial group above non-white groups (it also implicitly denies the existence of a white race, but that's the topic of another post). Is this a claim that can be investigated? Yes, yes it can. Go back through my posts over the past year and you'll find reference after reference, URL after URL, pointing to well-documented, well-studied evidence of systemic and institutional processes that lead to suboptimal outcomes for the health, socioeconomic, political and judicial outcomes for non-white people. 

There is no consequential aspect of US-American social, economic, political or legal power in which white people are not only in charge, but numerically dominant. And in the rare instances in which non-white people outnumber white people and hold power, like, say, the municipal government of Baltimore, you still find entrenched poverty within the institutional infrastructure and non-white populace, and white people firmly in place on the next rung up in the power structure (Maryland state government). 

The only possible explanations for this state of affairs is either A) white people and their products, such as culture, are inherently superior, making them better leaders and power brokers than non-white people, or B) systemic racism is at play. I guess there is a third explanation C) Invisible yet all-powerful aliens are in charge, and prefer white people over non-white people. But this still results in white supremacy, and I don't really hear this argument on Twitter all that often. 

"Colorblindness" Fail

Since race has no biological reality, then only option B is viable.  Thus, the No-Racism Axiom is falsifiable by empirical evidence. Further, this evidence follows an historical trajectory that is traced out in almost innumerable books, articles, lectures, and legal cases. The only way around all of this is to adopt an ideological framework that deftly sidesteps all of this evidence. Such frameworks have existed in the past, and such a framework exists today. The modern framework is known in social science circles as "colorblindness" (Mills 1999Bonilla-Silva & Biacci 2001 (PDF); Cose 2009Bonilla-Silva 2013 summarized here; Haney Lopez 2013). 

You can easily identify "colorblind" people because they say things like
  • "I don't see race."
  • "Racism is in the past, and it's only in the present because you keep talking about it."
  • "All people are a little bit racist."
  • "Why do you say 'white man?' That's racist!"
  • "I believe in fairness, which is why we have to get rid of affirmative action."
  • "It's complicated." (usually at the end of the conversation about race)
Starting from the No-Racism Axiom, colorblind people are able to follow their (flawed) logic and draw the following conclusions:
  • The Myth of Meritocracy. There exists a level playing field, with no racial group receiving advantages (privileges) over others
  • Past events have no effect on present conditions. "The past is in the past, but has nothing to do with me." Note that this is selective, because these people still "honor" war veterans, venerate the "founding fathers," and celebrate things like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and Independence Day, all while claiming that things like slavery, jim crow, and discriminatory housing policies have no relevance for modern social outcomes.
  • Social Non-Copernicanism. The belief that one occupies a special place in history in which racial injustices exist in the distant past and were somehow corrected between then and now. Further, people are inherently good now, whereas in the past it was possible for nearly everyone to be racist. The dividing line between the Racist Past and the Just Present is usually (implicitly) taken to be around 1965. To the extent that people are not good, those people exist far away from oneself, both physically (they're all down in the South) or temporally (my grandfather was kinda racist, but my mother was me!)
  • The only existing racism is interpersonal. The No-Racism Axiom addresses systemic racism, but allows for individual acts of racism. However, this envisioned interpersonal racism exists without a power gradient, such that white and non-white people can be equally "racist." This is a conflation of prejudice and racism. Further, interpersonal racism can only exist with the support of power, which comes systemically. But remember, the No-Racism Axiom isn't a real axiom! Think of it like the Coyote just after he runs off a cliff but before he looks down. 
Note that these features are not independent. Indeed, they derive power and support from one another. For example, Social Non-Copernicanism provides temporal and spacial distance from racism via the past-is-the-past (right now is special in how fair everything is!) and the sui generis nature of interpersonal racism ("I'm not a racist" with the implication that not doing overt racist things absolves one from racism). That racism is only interpersonal not only makes racism a natural, inevitable feature of the landscape, thereby minimizing its impact, but also provides for the existence of a meritocracy in which all is fair for all people no matter their color (Even purple! Especially purple! Seriously, why purple?). 

Why Focus Here?

Having things named and described in this way helps me, as a non-white person, in several important ways. First, it makes my experiences feel less like mayhem. Before understanding systemic racism, I was all (minus Darth Vader):

Now I know that all that stuff is going to happen, so I'm not caught off guard, and that it has a common cause (Darth Vader being a dick). 

Second, it helps me hone my arguments. Instead of assuming my conversation partner and I are working within the same rhetorical framework and using the same vocabulary, I now know that I must A) just walk away and save my energy or B) get the person to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism. The trick is that one must do (B) without using the phrase "systemic racism," but instead with socratic maneuvering and solid examples (e.g. the race-based affermative action program that provided housing and wealth for white people together with de jure and de facto exclusion of non-white people). This is not an easy task, but it's much easier than having an axiom standoff. 

Finally, and related to my previous two points, it gives me a bit of agency over the racist features of the landscape as I move through it. I don't accept white supremacy, but I also don't fool myself into thinking it's not there. So I can devise both rhetorical and practical work-arounds. 

How Can I Help?

For white people seeking to ally-as-a-verb, here's how understanding colorblindness, and the white supremacy it supports, can help you achieve your goals:
  • Educate yourself so you know how to recognize and pull back the colorblind curtain. I didn't come up with this stuff from first principles. It's been written about by non-white people for centuries. You might know about it because white supremacy works to make sure you don't want to.

    For example, check out the resources at Race Forward, as referenced in Jay Smooth's excellent video on the importance of systemic racism and the common failures of race conversations. 
  • Engage in debates with racist people. Practice rather than shying away, blocking and unfriending white people in your life! (Go ahead and block that random Twitter Egg) It's the only way you get good at this. I spent the past year actively engaging white people in order to understand them. Right now I'm off of social media detoxing and recovering. But your whiteness provides you with a powerful radiation shield that I don't have. A little discomfort is worth it if you want social justice, and you can always escape by simply disengaging. Please just remember that I don't have that luxury without taking steps more drastic than just walking away.
  • Don't debate necessarily to convince the opposition. Do it for the silent people on the "sidelines." Don't let racist statements go unchallenged, lest they receive validation through White Silence. Also, sympathetic yet silent people can be educated and emboldened by your actions. 
  • Don't shy away from talking to the non-white people in your life about all of this. They might even think they're colorblind, so strong is the ideology embedded in our society today. But don't for a second think that non-white people are harmed by understanding the racism in the world. My kids have to do lock-down drills teaching them how to hide in case some crazed white dude walks in with an AK-47. This is a necessary step to take in our modern world, even if it might scare them. People of color need to practice their own lock-down drills if they hope to survive working in a white institution while remaining mentally healthy. As I told my Black and Latin@ students this summer: "I can't prevent you from facing racism in your world. If I could, I'd invest my time and effort in doing so. But I can arm and prepare you for when it happens." This is not a drill.
  • Don't shy away from talking about race and racism with your own kids! Kids are observant, and they'll piece together the basics of white supremacy with or without you. Only you can help them see and push against it rather than accepting it.
Thanks for your consideration!


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…