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I’m not Racist, I’m Colorblind!

In a recent post, Sarah Nell declared that if you are white, you are racist. People – whites in particular – have learned to say (and believe), “I don’t see color when I look at people.” Here, Sarah tells us why we should see color, and how pretending we don’t see color perpetuates racism rather than eliminating or reducing it.

Since the Civil Rights Movement’s slogan “Jim Crow Must Go” became a reality, overt racism has become socially unacceptable. The freedom fighters of the 1950s-1970s challenged that hierarchy of white domination and demanded changes in both law and attitude (though they weren’t the first or the last of such fighters). Some changes were granted, but to think that changing a few laws dismantled the entire centuries-long system of advantage based on race is naïve. As Timothy Tyson remarked in his book Blood Done Sign My Name, it is foolish to think that Southern bar owners and the like said to their black neighbors, “Well, integration done come. Y’all can come on in.” It did not happen this way. In fact, the backlash to these changes was horrifically violent, but that’s another story.

With overt and in your face racism largely a thing of the past, many whites think racism and racial discrimination are behind us too. Sociologists call this the colorblind ideology. The idea of colorblindness supposedly brings Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Dream to fruition: for people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. This ideology is based on the belief that the successes of the Civil Rights Movement have removed all racial barriers to success – that race does not matter anymore.Wait a minute, don’t we live in a post-racial society [1. A post-racial society is a term used to describe the idea that in our modern society race is no longer as important as it once was. In a sense, it is saying that race no longer affects a person’s life chances to the same degree], especially with the election of President Obama? No. Seeing Obama as evidence that we are in a post-racial society is too simple and intellectually dangerous. A better measure is the conditions of minority groups as a whole. Obama is one person who got through the door of opportunity. How many black people are still standing out in the cold, poor, incarcerated, unemployed, and/or poorly educated? When we look at these numbers, including increasing rates of racial segregation, it is clear that race still matters in our society.

Race does exist and it does matter for what happens to people. Pretending not to see race does not make the problems of race go away. Instead, colorblindness maintains these problems because they do not get addressed as racial problems. If we ignore race – particularly the history of race and racism and its long term effects – we bring the wrong tools to the task of solving problems.

King’s Dream was about achieving true racial equality, not racial blindness. To actually remove all racial barriers to success, not to remove some and ignore others.

King’s Dream was about achieving true racial equality, not racial blindness. To actually remove all racial barriers to success, not to remove some and ignore others. In the last speech he gave before he was killed, King rejected the false claim that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had truly or deeply removed racial barriers in any tangible way. “All we say to America is, ‘be true to what you say on paper,’” he said. The colorblind ideology perpetuates the cycle of racism by pretending the problem King and many other freedom fighters died fighting against no longer exists.

Many whites today get uncomfortable even talking about race – especially around non-whites. They are terrified that they will say something that sounds racist. When they do talk, they try to avoid sounding racist by offering caveats such as “I’m not racist, but…” If race and racism are really a thing of the past, why do people give disclaimers before saying certain things?

In a superbly titled study “The Linguistics of Colorblind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding ‘Racist,’” sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva describes several verbal tricks whites use to avoid sounding racist. Yet these cloak profoundly racist ideas and beliefs. For example, have you ever heard someone say, “I’m not racist, but I think affirmative action unfairly benefits minorities?” You’ve probably heard a white person tell how they did not get into some college or get some job but they know some minority– who had lower SAT scores or fewer qualifications– got in or got the job. This white person claims that affirmative action is reverse racism.

If race and racism are really a thing of the past, why do people give disclaimers before saying certain things?

In most situations, from shopping to college professing to serving as President of the United States, whites are given the benefit of the doubt. They are not scrutinized as closely or assumed to want to push a race-based agenda when they problematize issues or experiences. Whites in power have been promoting white domination in this country since its inception, yet most of us don’t worry that whites in power will serve their own race. Whites are advantaged by the colorblind ideology because it serves as a justification for their successes in life. By attributing their successes to hard work, good networking, or even luck, whites deny that white privilege has benefited them throughout their lives in complex ways. The flipside of this is that –assuming (incorrectly) that racial barriers to success have been removed – people who are not successful are to blame (not racism).

When whites continually pretend that racism is a thing of the past they are often baffled when a so-called “regular” white person does something racist. A white first grade teacher in New Jersey, for example, recently referred to her predominately black and Latino students as “future criminals.” While I am disturbed by this, I am not shocked.

Racism is alive and well – it’s just wearing a disguise. In a society where blacks and Latinos are disproportionately economically disadvantaged, poorly educated, and incarcerated, this teacher’s comment should not shock us. She is a product of a racist environment – one that is supported by various institutions. If we lived in a society where the incarceration rate was not a sharp reality of race, this thought would not cross the teacher’s mind.

Don’t be colorblind or even try to be. Don’t hide racist ideas with disclaimers. Talk about race. Deal with race. See race. 

By criticizing whites who break the norm of subtle racism, whites who maintain that norm are off the hook. Along with this shift to subtle racism from overt racism has come the belief that only people who are still overtly racist are racist. Most whites abhor the overt racist beliefs and behaviors of white supremacy groups and easily distinguish themselves from “those” white people. But this contest over who is racist and who is not, obscures how colorblindness perpetuates what racism really is – a system of advantage based on race.

King didn’t mean that we should stop seeing race by becoming colorblind. Instead, he meant that we should make it so that race doesn’t matter. But first, we need to look race square in the face. Don’t be colorblind or even try to be. Don’t hide racist ideas with disclaimers. Talk about race. Deal with race. See race.


Dig Deeper:

  1. Ask a white friend how they feel about some “racial issues” – such as affirmative action, interracial dating/marriage, minority incarceration, and/or welfare usage by minorities. Listening carefully, what do they say and how do they say it? Do they use the linguistic strategies described above? Do they sound racist or try to avoid sounding racist? What ideas about race do they convey?
  2. Racial discrimination continues to be well documented in a variety of social situations (e.g., driving while black, dining while black, shopping while black), yet people of color are often criticized for recognizing some people’s behavior as racist– what many whites call “playing the race card.” Why aren’t minorities’ claims of racism taken seriously? What role does the colorblind ideology play in this?
  3. The year Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, he challenged the failure of the changes made, suggesting that they are not enough. He said: “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?” Using this as a starting point, explain the connection between race and social class in our society. How does the colorblind ideology perpetuate racial economic inequality?