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Jun 17 2013

Colour blind, deaf, and dumb

Right now, as you read this, some well-intentioned white kid on the internet is posting a link to this video. In it, the actor Morgan Freeman states that the way to solve racism is to stop talking about it. Specifically, Freeman says that if the host stops seeing him (Freeman) as “a black man”, then he will stop seeing the host as “a white man” and they can presumably just be man-friends and hold hands under a double rainbow or something. Needless to say, I am far from impressed by both the content and the ubiquity of this clip, as it serves more to confirm the “I don’t need to do anything” impulses of white people who haven’t given much thought to the matter beforehand.

For my part, I much prefer John Legend’s response to a very similar question. And I think there’s something to be gleaned from the age difference between Messrs Freeman and Legend. The former is a man who came up in a world where the consequences of anti-black racism were dramatically self-evident: vicious racist slurs coming out of the mouths of police officers and judges, blatantly and unashamedly racist laws and policies, frequent acts of race-motivated physical violence with a blind eye turned toward it by an indifferent society*. The latter is a man who came up in the world of ‘polite’ racism and “post-racial” politicking, where the fashion is to find an endless string of euphemisms to disguise racist attitudes and behaviours that, minus the drama, haven’t changed much.

Which isn’t to say, incidentally, that the kind of racism that Morgan Freeman experienced isn’t still very much alive and well today; it’s just less common.

But I think there is something important in the different prescriptions given by these men from different generations. For the most dramatic examples of racism – the lynchings, the housing discrimination, the Jim Crow laws – it would seem to make sense that ignoring race would have a massive and beneficial effect on the world. Once we are no longer overtly segregating people, holding them up for different treatment, we will see a marked reduction in the amount of hatred and violence, and move toward a more tolerant world.

The problem is, however, that ‘move toward’ doesn’t equal ‘arrive at’. And, somewhat paradoxically, the only way to move on from being blind to race is to explicitly notice race, and how policies and institutions can exhibit racist behaviours even in the absence of malicious intent:

Here is one way to think about this: You are black. You have gotten your college degree and a decent job. But your younger brother isn’t doing so well in school and needs some tutoring. And you’re worried about your grandmother because her neighborhood isn’t safe. And your homeboy, whom you were raised with, just finished a bid for intent to distribute. And your homegirl had a kid when she was 15, but the father is out.

You have made it out of a poor community, but your network is rooted there and shows all the markers of exposure to poverty. Because of a history of American racism, your exposure will be higher than white people of your same income level. Perhaps you would like to build another network. That network, because of a history of racism, will likely be with other black people — black people who, like you, are part of a network that, on average, shows greater exposure to poverty. Meanwhile, white people are building other networks that are significantly less compromised by exposure to poverty.

This is how segregation compromises the power of black community. It takes a societal ill — say a lack of insurance — and then concentrates it one community.

Ignoring race doesn’t solve problems like those inherent in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Indeed, the very problems under discussion are those created by a policy that doesn’t allow for the consideration of how race plays a disproportionate role. If we forcibly shackle our vision to exclude race, out of a perhaps well-meaning but ultimately disastrous impulse, we make ourselves unable to see when problems do actually fall along racial lines.

The issue with colour “blindness” is that it is always accompanied by two handmaidens: colour “deafness” and colour “dumbness”. We become colour “deaf” when our commitment to ignoring race makes us unable to hear the legitimate grievances and problems of communities of colour. If we cannot (or will not) hear about race problems in favour of demanding that we ignore race, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to tailor our policy approaches to the people with the greatest need (or at least different needs than the majority). Further, by maintaining a ‘unseen, unheard’ policy, we make ourselves unable to even talk about race. After all, talking about it is noticing it, and noticing it is the problem. And so we become, by our own actions, unable to see, hear, or speak about racial problems.

This is, to be clear, a different argument from the separate-but-equal point that you cannot will yourself to be ‘non-racist’. Racism is part of the air we breathe, and to suggest that we can, through sheer force of will, simply “not see race” is self-delusional**. There are people who commit racist acts who simply do not allow themselves to see their own racism, but that’s it’s own animal. What I am referring to here is the popular idea that not being an overt, conscious, intentionally-bigoted person is sufficient to qualify as ‘not a racist’.

No, in this case we are asked to consider the harms inherent in the idea that problems that exist along racial lines are specifically caused by noticing the existence of racial groups. The argument would suggest that if black people simply stopped realizing they were black, this kind of segregation would not happen. Or, perhaps more charitably, if white people stopped seeing black people as “black people”, then racial problems would simply disappear.

What the above hypothetical shows is that inequalities that are divided along racial lines persist even in the absence of conscious bigotry. The people in that scenario aren’t the victims of colour-consciousness. They are doing the things people do: looking after their families, being members of their communities, participating in what networks they have available to them. The simple fact of already-extant inequalities between racial groups means that normal human behaviour exaggerates their impact. Put another way, the problem gets worse when you “don’t see race” – it doesn’t get better.

The answer, contrary to the oft-linked advice of Mr. Freeman, is to explicitly consider race. Not in a way that means that we consider people more/less deserving or able, but in a way that recognizes what the consequences and realities of racial inequalities are. They are inequalities in access. They are structural inequalities that do not require bigotry to manifest themselves. They are the consequence of a society that has, at various times throughout its history, had overt policies designed to create inequalities along racial lines.

When you apply a “one size fits all” approach to communities that have different lived experiences and challenges, you’ve set yourself up to fail. And you will fail repeatedly if you demand that you must use such an approach because that will, somehow, fix racism. It took intentional recognition of race to get us into the problem, and simply taking your foot of of the proverbial gas pedal doesn’t reverse the car’s motion.

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I guess some things haven’t changed…

**the title of the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece is “A Religion of Colourblind Policy” – self-delusion is not an accidental word choice on my part

14 comments

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  1. 1
    CaitieCat, in no way a robot nosireebot

    Or, another way, very few arguments are made stronger by hiding one of the premises.

    Coates’ posts about the way creating the ghetto was very much a government and societally-approved policy have been devastatingly good at upending the “polite racism is harmless racism” idea.

  2. 2
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    The answer, contrary to the oft-linked advice of Mr. Freeman, is to explicitly consider race. Not in a way that means that we consider people more/less deserving or able, but in a way that recognizes what the consequences and realities of racial inequalities are. They are inequalities in access. They are structural inequalities that do not require bigotry to manifest themselves. They are the consequence of a society that has, at various times throughout its history, had overt policies designed to create inequalities along racial lines.

    Yes, this.

    …and dumb

    No, this.

  3. 3
    iplon

    I think I’m going to have to redirect everyone I know to this the next time I see them trying that junk.

  4. 4
    brucegee1962

    I recall one time when Freeman was on the Colbert show. Colbert, adopting his standard “Clueless Privileged White Guy” persona, said, “I don’t see race. What race are you, anyway?” And Freeman answered, “I’m the movie star race.” Which was certainly truthful, and pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how clued in he is to the reality of race in America right now.

    BTW, I’m pretty sure Colbert knows exactly what the problems are with the “I don’t see race” attitude, and is subtly trying to undermine it with his persona — I just hope his audience gets it.

  5. 5
    Pen

    @2 Salty Current – I think he means ‘dumb’ as in ‘not speaking’ about race, having decided it doesn’t need to exist any more.

  6. 6
    Pen

    The answer, contrary to the oft-linked advice of Mr. Freeman, is to explicitly consider race.

    I agree with that though I think it needs a lot of knowledge and sensitivity to context. We need to pay attention to how race interrelates with class and regional issues, and also with religion and culture of origin in some cases. In principle you’re not just talking about white/black relations but all races in a society and the relationships that can exist between them. The quote is from an America context and I’m a bit concerned that it’s naive about class and urban/rural differences as they affect white and black people in America. I’ll say for a fact these affects those groups differently but it also really isn’t all about race.

  7. 7
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    @2 Salty Current – I think he means ‘dumb’ as in ‘not speaking’ about race, having decided it doesn’t need to exist any more.

    I know. But see here.

  8. 8
    Pen

    @7 Salty Current

    Ah, I see. I’m with you now. Quite. I feel really bad for going off thread here but… my uncle is… well has always called himself deaf and dumb and (ahem, does this sound like a familiar type of argument?)

    Actually my point is that at 78 maybe my uncle isn’t the best reference, he’s had a lot of other very major issues to deal with in his life, such that what people called him barely figured. That at least ties in a bit with the Freeman/Legend difference. And of course our whole family are wrapped around my uncle’s life, not knowing any other deaf people particularly, so our use of language has apparently got stuck in the 1940s/50s.

    That’s why although your point is well taken, I didn’t much like this bit on the site you linked to:

    Today, anyone using the word “dumb” in such context is …. well … dumb.

    Sorry for going off thread, Ian, but since it’s a related subject to the ones you write about in a different context, I hope you’ll let me off. And thanks Salty for pointing it out.

  9. 9
    jesse

    One thing to remember I think is also that to people of Freeman’s generation and to some extent mine, the “don’t look at race” thing was a bit of a challenge to the established order, in many important ways.

    Think of it this way: he’s saying that if you allow (white) people to define you as black and nothing else, they win. True to a point; but this is partly why this is often a generational thing. I don’t think one is necessarily any better than the other when done right.

    One of the reasons the “I don’t see race” meme has any traction at all — even among some non-whites — is the idea that you won’t let it define everything that you are, and by extension, let white folks do it. (After all, Crom, if your friend introduced you as “my black friend” you’d not be a friend of theirs for long).

    ANyhow, that doesn’t take away from the fact that “race blind” doesn’t mean what a lot of people who say they are think it does.

  10. 10
    double-m

    Very good post. There are areas where colorblindness is helpful. I’ve personally experienced certain forms of subtle, hard-to-prove racism during my childhood in the United States that could be solved simply by neutral treatment. In school for example, whenever “white boy” got his math problem wrong, it was “come on, Jimmy, you can do better, try again”. And then whenever “Middle-Eastern girl” got it wrong, it was “that’s alright”, and the question went to “white boy”. That kind of behavior on the part of adults destroys the confidence of children, and given what an important ingredient confidence is in achievement, it’s disastrous.

    But I do agree that there are many issues where solutions must be tailored to the needs of specific communities, as opposed to having a single solution for all of society (or even for all ethnic minorities). For example, it doesn’t help to point to the fact that an abundance of daycare facilities is available, if those who need them most, e.g. low-income African American single moms, can’t afford them and their children will still hang out in the streets.

    I currently have this issue of ethnicity with white Feminists, who seem to represent something completely different from what I would consider a Feminist agenda, who address things that I would consider symptoms and symbols, not the actual issues that play a role in the oppression of women. It almost appears as if the more “white” you are, the more abstract and less practical your work gets.

    Crommunist, regarding all this, I have an idea that has to do with how the internet can help with intersectionality, and I would need to bounce it off someone more internet savvy than myself. Would you be willing to be that “someone”, and if so where should I post it? Here in your comments section?

  11. 11
    John Horstman

    Indeed. As long as race is a vector along which discrimination occurs (whether direct or indirect, intentional or unintentional; given our cultural history, this is unlikely to ever be completely eliminated, and certainly not any time soon), excluding it as a factor of analysis (not seeing race) or a component of policy or action simply serves to maintain the discriminatory status quo. Put another way, as long as ANY people still “see race” and discriminate on that basis, the rest of us ignoring race as a factor only serves the interests of those engaging in discrimination or bigotry by making us unable to identify or consider race as an element in the discrimination, even when it is in fact the determining factor.

    Or, perhaps more charitably, if white people stopped seeing black people as “black people”, then racial problems would simply disappear.

    An analogy: I have a foot shape that’s pretty much a wedge – thinnest part is the heel and width increases approaching my toes, which splay out. The toe boxes for most shoes (and all soccer and jogging shoes I’ve ever seen) do not splay wider than the heel and end, but instead return to a thinner width. As far as I’m aware, there is no conscious process of discrimination in the shoe industry, but most designers have still settled on similar, normative foot shape for which they design shoes. This makes it far more difficult for me to find comfortable shoes (and impossible in the case of jogging or soccer shoes) than someone whose foot more closely conforms to the normative shape. There’s no intentional discrimination, but the result is still discriminatory. Treating all people as though they are the same necessitates establishing a single hypothetical abstracted default person, and in practice, people will be privileged or disadvantaged based on how closely they conform to the abstracted normative hypothetical; only in explicitly attending to individual difference (and the ways individual features interact with extant social or physical environmental structures) is it possible to treat people fairly, which is almost never the same thing as treating people the same. Ignoring foot shape as a factor of analysis doesn’t make the problem go away, it just makes it impossible for people not directly impacted to even consider that there might be a problem.

  12. 12
    Jacob Schmidt

    BTW, I’m pretty sure Colbert knows exactly what the problems are with the “I don’t see race” attitude, and is subtly trying to undermine it with his persona — I just hope his audience gets it.

    Yeah, they do. Though I’ve seen people ostensibly argue that race always matters, using him as a reference, so maybe he’s oversimplifying it.

  13. 13
    Joe

    Good article, but I think it leans too much on “racism” as a word; “racial oppression” and “white supremacy” are perfectly adequate terms that are much more specific and less loaded (“but but but white people experience racism too!”). For example:

    “Just as the capitalist system is not a capitalist plot, so racial oppression is not the work of “racists.” It is maintained by the principal institutions of society, including the schools (which define “excellence”), the labor market (which defines “employment”), the legal system (which defines “crime”), the welfare system (which defines “poverty”), the medical industry (which defines “health”), and the family (which defines“kinship”). Many of these institutions are administered by people who would be offended if accused of complicity with racial oppression. It is reinforced by reform programs that address problems traditionally of concern to the “left” — for example, federal housing loan guarantees.”
    - Noel Ignatiev

  14. 14
    Joe

    And I forgot the more relevant one:

    “Since the notion that we should all forsake attachment to race and/or cultural identity and be ‘just humans’ within the framework of white supremacy has usually meant that subordinate groups must surrender their identities, beliefs, values, and assimilate by adopting the values and beliefs of privileged-class whites, rather than promoting racial harmony this thinking has created a fierce cultural protectionism.”
    - bell hooks | killing rage: Ending Racism

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