Color-Blindness Is Counterproductive (triple participation)

Jeff Roberson / AP

ADIA HARVEY WINGFIELD

SEP 13, 2015

How many times have you heard someone say that they “don’t see color,” “are colorblind,” or “don’t have a racist bone in their body?” Maybe you’ve even said this yourself. After all, the dominant language around racial issues today is typically one of colorblindness, as it’s often meant to convey distaste for racial practices and attitudes common in an earlier era.

Many sociologists, though, are extremely critical of colorblindness as an ideology. They argue that as the mechanisms that reproduce racial inequality have become more covert and obscure than they were during the era of open, legal segregation, the language of explicit racism has given way to a discourse of colorblindness. But they fear that the refusal to take public note of race actually allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.

For the first half of the 20th century, it was perfectly legal to deny blacks (and other racial minorities) access to housing, jobs, voting, and other rights based explicitly on race. Civil-rights reforms rendered these practices illegal. Laws now bar practices that previously maintained racial inequality, like redlining, segregation, or openly refusing to rent or sell real estate to black Americans. Yet discrimination still persists, operating through a combination of social, economic, and institutional practices.

Concurrently, it is no longer socially acceptable in many quarters to identify oneself as racist. Instead, many Americans purport not to see color. However, their colorblindness comes at a cost. By claiming that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, rely on “soft skills” in ways that disadvantage racial minorities in the job market, and hoard opportunities in ways that reserve access to better jobs for white peers.The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf recently argued that the academic left errs in attacking colorblindness. He suggested that encouraging whites to be color conscious and to think of themselves in racial terms would encourage the nativism embraced by some Donald Trump supporters—that a heightened awareness of whiteness would produce a sense of persecution, and encourage some to rally in defense of white rights. He contends that there is some merit to colorblindness that has been ignored by what he describes as “the academic left,” which spends too much time focused on nitpicking colorblindness rather than drawing attention to “macroaggressions” such as “racially tinged hatred and conspiracy theories directed at the first black president” or the convenience of labeling Mexican immigrants rapists  “despite the fact that first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans.”

As a presumptive member of the “academic left” that Friedersdorf critiques, I read the post with particular interest. I think that Friedersdorf makes some important points worth more detailed attention from both academics and those outside the academy who are familiar with the debates and concepts he references. For instance, academic debates can often become divorced from broader audiences. It is way too easy for academics in many fields to ground their conversations, disputes, and discussions among other like-minded scholars. He’s right to note that, by and large, academics can do a much better job engaging with folks outside of our ivory towers.However, there are some misrepresentations in Fridersdorf’s piece as well. Based on a single statement from one book chapter in an edited volume, Friedersdorf makes the sweeping generalization that “the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve.” I’ve read books and articles by numerous sociologists who critique the colorblind ideology, and while they find problems with the ways this perspective allows individuals to ignore patterns of racial bias, I’ve never seen any studies that broadly categorize advocates of colorblindness in this way. What’s more important to sociologists are the consequences of how this ideology has implications for social inequality.

My colleague Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, for example, has written extensively about the idea of colorblindness, charting the ways that it functions as an ideology that legitimizes specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. His book Racism Without Racists is part of a broad set of sociological research that draws attention to the ways that colorblind ideology undergirds bigger, more problematic social issues.

Yet, in addition to suggesting that the academic left casts all proponents of colorblindness as naïve, Friedersdorf also contends that they waste time picking apart this concept rather than addressing “macroagressions” like police brutality and growing expressions of virulent racist hatred.  But Bonilla-Silva, among others, describes the ways that colorblindness sustains these very macroaggressions that Friedersdorf thinks are ignored. In other words, Friedersdorf suggests the academic left wastes time dissecting the concept of colorblindness, and would be better served focusing on more pressing, systemic processes of inequality. But a careful read of sociological literature in this area finds that there are more than a few members of the “academic left” who argue that colorblindness is problematic precisely because it offers a way to avoid addressing these exact social problems. Other sociologists like Jessie Daniels and David Cort focus explicitly on researching hate speech on the internet and the lower rates of crime among immigrants relative to native born Americans, respectively—the very issues that Friedersdorf, by his own admission, charges are important and believes are overlooked by the academic left. Sociologists are actually very involved in highlighting these macroaggressions—and in underscoring the ways colorblind ideology allows them to go ignored.

Advocates of colorblindness, like Friedersdorf, tend to claim that emphasizing whites’ group identity as whites (rather than as individuals) is counterproductive. Rejecting colorblindness and encouraging whites to see themselves as members of a distinct racial group, they argue, will produce nativism. They will cling to, rather than critique, the privileges that whiteness affords, which are jeopardized by a more multiracial society. Friedersdorf calls it naïve to believe that upon focusing on their status as members of a racial group and the privilege and power that affords them, “masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe.”

There’s a strong emphasis on individualism in American culture. Friedersdorf argues that “race is a pernicious concept that robs people of their individuality … the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity.” But ironically, this focus on individualism is itself a function of group position. Whites, by and large, enjoy the luxury of promoting the importance of the individual, because they benefit from living in a racially stratified society where whiteness is normalized. In most social interactions, whites get to be seen as individuals. Racial minorities, by contrast, become aware from a young age that people will often judge them as members of their group, and treat them in accordance with the (usually negative) stereotypes attached to that group.

Everyone wants to be treated as an individual and recognized for their personal traits and characteristics. But the colorblindness that sociologists critique doesn’t allow for this. Instead, it encourages those who endorse this perspective to ignore the ongoing processes that maintain racial stratification in schools, neighborhoods, health care, and other social institutions. Can color consciousness draw attention to these issues? The research demonstrates that it can lead to more understanding of our racially stratified society and can give rise to a willingness to work for change. So from that perspective, it doesn’t seem worth abandoning just yet.ABOUT THE AUTHOR

ADIA HARVEY WINGFIELD is a contributing writer for The Atlantic and a professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis. She is the author of No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work.

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[Why is this so important and how does it challenge the ways we talk about race in contemporary America?  Can you think of examples from class, from reading, and from films that highlight the dangers of colorblindness in perpetuating inequality, privilege, etc.

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9 comments

  1. Color blindness is really bad way for coexistence with other races people because it’s increasing the meaning of neuronal, also color blindness is a problematic especially it’s creating a way to avoid dressing social problems. Finally, the people how are affected by this sickness feeling nativism.

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  2. Colorblindness, to me, has always seemed like a form of denial. People who claim not to see race usually mean that they don’t discriminate based on race. In other words, everyone will be treated with respect and empathy, a privilege already afforded to Whites. So saying, “I’m colorblind” is like saying, “I treat everyone like they’re White.” Colorblindness is practically impossible because of the way our brains are wired (and trained throughout our lives) to seek out differences and form connections. If you see a black kid on the news being called a thug every day, how can you say that when you look at a black person on the street, you DON’T see him/her as a possible threat, even if just for a moment? We naturally make associations like that. Some associations (specifically those in regards to race and stereotypes) are easier to make because they’re repeatedly imposed on us by the media. Colorblindness implies that people are somehow able to bypass their brains’ AUTOMATIC process of associating people with actions after being repeatedly exposed to the idea that they are connected (e.g., blacks and violence). It’s nonsensical and just allows people to deny contemporary racism’s existence and prevalence in this country.

    Colorblindness seems MORE racist than actually acknowledging/accepting your prejudices because saying that you are able to mentally strip someone of race implies that you’ve connecting their race to something that you think defines them. For example, by saying, “I don’t see him as Black,” what you’re really saying is, “I don’t see you as a criminal” because those “black” and “criminal” are seen as almost being interchangeable. This implicitly perpetuates stereotypes (not only about Blacks, but for non-Whites in general) and allows for privilege to go unchecked while minority groups continue to be mistreated.

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  3. I think colorblindness is a way to say that you are not racist or that you don’t mind other races. In my sociology class I learned about unconscious racism, which explains that humans tend to generalized about other races based on the information or experiences that they have. Even if we think we are not racist our actions or opinions can be seen racist by others.

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  4. I believe this is so important because it not only shows how significant an issue racism truly is in America, but it also shows how much media and news effects the way people look and view things. It’s almost a way of colorblind racism because people don’t know why they look at them differently or why they are afraid of the certain race, they just are because the news tells them to be. It’s a unhealthy never ending cycle.

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  5. Obviously color blindness isn’t the greatest thing in the world. It’s like an easy out for people who don’t want to be seen or thought of as racist so they just prentend that everyone llooks exactly the same. I’ll be honest, I don’t like hearing racist comments and I do have colored friends but like for

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  6. (Continuing from the accidental post! Sorry!) but for me.. Having the colored friends I do, I’m just used to them being around, so maybe that’s my own form of color blindness, who knows. But then you see those posts on Facebook and Twitter the one of all the skeletons and under each one it’s labeled something different like “gay” “straight” “white” black” and so on and so fourth, and the funny thing is.. They are exactly the same! The color blindness has been around for those who don’t want to see that there is racism still occurring and to make themselves look like they are not racist either. But it’s time to be honest with ourselves, everyone has made some sort of racist comment at least once in their life time

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  7. I think Colorblindness is just another excuse for people who are racist but pretend not to be. People who are colorblind usually are racist and treat people like they are “white”. It is extremely hard to be colorblind to the different races because our brains are made in a strange way, also social media constantly feeds us with slandering of another race. Everyday on tv you will see a race getting stereotyped against on social media. How can you not be bias in any way if all your life social media has been stereotyping the different race by there actions and they way they act. So I don’t believe a person can be completely colorblind to a race.

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  8. Colorblindness is an excuse for people to be racist without acknowledging it. You treat people as if the are “white”. So in my opinion being colorblind is a bad thing because you pretend like you dont see race but in reality you are just denying the fact that you do discriminate and treat races differently. How could you not feel bias towards another race when social media slanders and stereotypes the different races everyday. Colorblindness isn’t a good thing in my opinion it is just another way for people to be racist without admitting to it.

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  9. The community of this planet has been forcing an issue for decades which is Color blindness people. those people are just excusing themselves of being a racist person. Treating people by looking to their color is un acceptable action. For example, some people treat others if they are white or not. In my opinion, every one is the same, every color is normal thing. however, ethics are different. in conclusion, color blindness is a way which make life hard for some people and easy for others.

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