Thursday, November 19, 2015

Continued: Why Colorblindness Needs the No-Racism Axiom

I came up with the title for my last post before I started writing the text. When I finished writing I ended on a different point than the one I had set out to make. I concluded with a description of how "colorblindness" becomes racism. And while the reason that the No-Racism (false) axiom is necessary can be inferred from what I wrote, I never explicitly described why a denial of systemic racism is necessary for colorblindness.

Now that I've established "colorblindness" as racism, I can circle back make my original point. First, I'll note that racism is not accidental nor is it random in its occurrence. Rather, racism has always been used for the purpose of benefitting one racial group at the expense of another through the use of unequal access to political, legal and socioeconomic power. In our country, the group with the power to subjugate is and has always been white. The aim of racism is to maintain this supremacy of the white race at the expense of non-white people, with Blackness and Black people serving as the anti-white, the "fulcrum of white supremacy." 

The flip side of oppression is privilege. Not the privilege that comes from the wages of hard work (although the upper class definitely enjoy their own set of privileges). Rather, it's the set of opportunities, advantages and exemptions from disadvantage that are handed to people by virtue of belonging to the normative group. Through this lens, being of the white race is more than a census category. It becomes Whiteness, a system of beliefs, a specific view of history, an entitlement to justice, and an overwhelming availability of power—the ability to shape the life choices and outcomes of other groups of people. There can, nay, should be no denying that privilege is sweet, and it should be unsurprising that people resist giving it up. The first step of giving up something unearned is admitting that you don't deserve it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Why "Colorblindness" Needs the No-Racism Axiom

In my last post I highlighted the No-Racism "Axiom" of modern "colorblindness." The axiom states that "systemic racism is not a thing," and upon this axiom proponents of colorblindness build a worldview in which the racial ills of our world can be cured by individuals making the decision not to engage in interpersonal racism, or recognizing that race even matters in the world. "I don't see color, I only see people," the colorblind individual asserts.

Colorblind people generally know that race has no biological basis. Perhaps they've read The Myth of Race or The Mismeasure of Man. Since science has proven race irrelevant, colorblindness seems to be an obvious and proper response. This is seemingly in line not only with a general sense of morality and personal goodness, but it also appears to echo the famous line from Martin Luther King Jr's I Have A Dream speech in which he envisions a day when "[people] will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." What could be more admirable than living by the words of the American hero MLK?!

I'll admit that this view seems, at first glance, very appealing. However, the No-Racism Axiom is demonstrably false. And as I'll argue here, without this false axiom colorblindness not only proves to be useless in solving racial problems, it actually becomes a form of racism.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Yale Protests and the No-Racism Axiom

Yale is one of several universities in the US currently being forced to deal with racism on its campus. Sadly, it is also one of several universities completely ill-equipped to do so, due to an apparent willful ignorance of its history, and also because of the effects of modern "colorblindness." I've written about this before in the context of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but it's important to take a look at it now that Yale's and Mizzou's race problems are out in the open.

Calhoun College at Yale, named after John C. Calhoun, an outspoken advocate of slavery.

The Protection of Certain Speech

If you'd like to get a clear view of how modern racism in the US works, just read the various think pieces, op-eds and blog posts about the protests at Yale. Take for instance this one by a free-speech advocate in the Washington Post, who writes 
Readers may not realize that Halloween has become a season of campus controversy. For years, college administrators have been issuing stern warnings to students not to wear “offensive” costumes. I’d always assumed students were privately rolling their eyes at these often overbearing instructions from authority figures on how to dress.
Silly PC police, always meddling in the affairs of good people who are just trying to enjoy a holiday! Of course WaPo is far from a progressive publication, but this take on the Yale controversy is not dissimilar to this piece at Slate, in which the author writes 
I was shocked to watch students treat their professors and administrators with such disrespect. But horrified emotional responses aside, it’s troubling to see the Christakises scapegoated for defending the crucial liberal tradition of free speech.
Or check out this piece at The Atlantic, with a title and subtitle that say it all: "The New Intolerance of Student Activism: A fight over Halloween costumes at Yale has devolved into an effort to censor dissenting views." 

Freedom of speech, censoring dissenting views, students treating administrators with disrespect—surely this is all a sign of spoiled kids at an Ivy League institution running amok with political correctness, right? Shouldn't people have the freedom to express themselves however they see fit? Shouldn't there be an open marketplace of ideas? 

The problem is that these authors present a perspective that ignores societal power dynamics. They and many others like them ignore the history of race in this country, and the actual circumstances faced students of color on a predominantly white campus. In other words, we're seeing a clear failure of "colorblindness"—or a key feature, depending on ones vantage point. By ignoring systemic power structures, everyone ends up on an even playing field where all views are valid and should be protected. However, this notion is totally specious. In reality these authors are writing from the perspective of huge racial advantage (see below), and as such they are, perhaps unknowingly, equating "freedom of speech" with "freedom to discriminate." 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

What a just response to oppression can look like

Guest post by Sarah Ballard

“What woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heelprint upon another woman’s face?” – Audre Lorde

I’m writing this piece to say things women of color have already said, and better than I could have. Please read their work. 

Our community has suffered a traumatic upheaval this month. I won’t attempt to link to even a representative sample of the articles, think pieces, and anti-harassment policy documents that circulated among astronomers. Trusted colleagues and friends urged folks to care for themselves. The groundswell gave rise to a “widespread ripple of PTSD (or something close to it) through women in the field,” as Lucianne Walkowicz put it. I saw other male astronomers I deeply esteem publicly grappling with feelings of complicity. Every day brought fresh distress as the extent of harassment, and the secrecy and protection of it, became apparent at every level within our academic institutions. 

Colleagues had urged me to prepare, before the publication of the Buzzfeed story (both emotionally and with respect to my internet presence), for a GamerGate-like backlash.  

I am relieved to report that the number of supportive letters, phone calls, and text messages outnumbered the trolls (whom I did not know personally) by between 2 and 3 orders of magnitude. Even the tiny handful of critical messages I received were toothless (my friends roundly and joyfully mocked a letter I received asking me if I’d “even heard of Susan B. Anthony?!”). I was honored with the most gracious language about my “courage” and “leadership,” some of it from leaders within our field themselves. Many astronomers vowed to support me in their notes, and listed the concrete actions they would take to prevent harassment within their own departments. Other messages contained only the two words: “Thank you.” I was so overwhelmed that I responded to only the tiniest handful. Please know that I read them all, and they often brought me to tears of gratitude and relief.