Deconstructing The Myth of Race-Blindness

July 15, 2013

I am not a person of color.

I cannot speak to the experience of people of color, since I am not a person of color.

I cannot tell you how institutionalized racism works, or how it affects me (outside of very, very limited spaces where my Romani heritage is recognized and, once, when someone insulted me for being part Finnish – but these aren’t institutional or regular for me).

I cannot tell you, outside of studies and statistics, how the United States continues to be racist in how it deals with people of color. How it continues to judge them and consider them as lesser. Continues to make the hurdles they must climb higher than their white peers. Continues to enforce systems that unfairly punish people of color.

What I can talk about, however, is how white people act. How those without the odious burden of race interact with me and other white people about race. About the myths surrounding liberal, white culture and the arguments fielded against people of color who do try to discuss racism.

I cannot talk about the experience of people of color, but I can talk about what it’s like to be white around a bunch of white racist arguments and poorly examined presumptions.

The first presumption that I notice, and one that I’ve talked about before (and is the greatest crime perpetuated by many in the Atheist/Skeptical movements and every political movement) is the obfuscation of context. It seems like in order to create a “default” person for an argument, we must make them a heteronormative middle class white individual with one difference. Look at the friendliest portrayals of people of color on TV – they’re “normal families”. It’s rare that a family of color will be portrayed in a similar context to real life with any sense of friendliness or care, and that normally happens in movies that are written and/or directed by people of color. The most saccharine I can think of is the portrayal of Tiana’s family in The Princess and the Frog – they are a family of color, in a neighborhood of color, in a life that reflects the time period the movie is set in, and they are not individually treated like a zoo of mistreated animals. They are human beings making the best of a context that has left them poorer and more destitute than those around them.

That last part is the most important part about this – when we treat people of color as heteronormative white people from the middle class except for that one difference then we ignore and erase both that person’s history and the history of their family. We ignore that person’s context, and we also ignore our own. It is not by any accident that our families are in the positions that they’re in. These are decisions spanning lifetimes, people for generations striving to make the world a better place for their children. Families that stretch back eons even if those filial lines cannot be recorded. When you hit a certain point in American history, however, some of our families took away the ability for other families to make a better world for their children. When we ignore the context – historical, social, economic, political – of people of color, we ignore the history that our families had a hand in that created the context that people of color are in today. We are the inheritors of a world of racism, and we must be caretakers of that world. If we ignore it, it will only continue to fester and grow. It must be actively diminished.

The second big problem in these debates is the paucity of evidence for the claims of the post-racist world supporters. There are two competing claims at issue here – that there is still institutional racism and that we live in a society free of racism. There is no null hypothesis in these two positions, as our culture is (as I stated before) the inheritors of a racist culture. The null hypothesis would, therefor, be that there are still racists among us. Now, the two claims are only at odds as the second claim tries to undermine the voracity of the first by waving away all problems yet it does not support its claim with evidence. However, the first claim is filled with the stories of people of color, of studies done showing institutional race bias, of critical examinations of the media around us, and of legal and social justice comparisons that show that racism, overt and covert, continues to be a problem. Claiming that “civil rights were achieved” was the end of racism is a fantastical claim not supported by the evidence. Our fathers and mothers were racist, as theirs before them were, and we ourselves are (in some fashion) racist ourselves, and our children will still be racist. This is because the world we live in is racist, and was so for hundreds of years. All we can do is teach ourselves, and our children, how to examine and dismantle the problem of race and how we approach it. That requires two big things; listening to people of color, and talking about race.

Speaking of talking about race, this is the third problem that I want to say something on. As a white person, in America, it is our privilege to be able to ignore race. We can socialize as white people and never have a problem with race in our every day lives or our conversations. However, people of color do not have this luxury. It is not racist to point out race when examining social conditions, it is racist to ignore the factor that race is and not be honest about it. Why? Again, white people can ignore race, but people of color cannot. At some point in the conversation, someone will either overtly or covertly remind the person of color that they are not white. That they are not “average.” That they are not “normal.” It could be something about how straight hair is prettier. It could be something about how pale people are prettier. It could be something about how people of certain body sizes or builds are better, builds that are predominately associated with white culture in America. It could be something as simple as someone asking what race they are, where they or their family are from, or greeting them in another language that’s associated with their skin color.

Someone who is brown may be greeted with “Namaste!” without prompting, assuming they are Hindu or speak Hindi or are even Indian at all. I will never be greeted with “Hei” because I am white. This is racism. It reminds people of color that they are not white, that they are not part of our cultural context, and that we do not expect them to act like us. The are Not Us. That is racism, because it assumes people should be treated differently because of their race. Just like ignoring their history is racist because it ignores the story of who they are, ignoring the person that they are now is racist because it defines them purely by their past. White culture doesn’t have this problem – we find ways to celebrate our heritage while simultaneously not defining ourselves through it. We re-enact battles of the Civil War to remind ourselves of the pain and suffering wrought when brother fought brother, but we do not feel like the Civil War was the last statement on what it means to be American. We celebrate the Scottish Games and enjoy what it means to be a Celt, but we don’t feel like kilts, beer, and throwing logs are the only things that we enjoy. We are not defined by our pasts, we are deepened by them. People of color do not have that option – they are treated as if they have no depth, either because they are products of their history or because they are individuals with no past.

Both options ignore that they are people, however. In the end, we shouldn’t be treating everyone as if they are white, and this is an insipid argument I have heard before. What we should be doing is being mindful of context. To remember that everyone’s family has a story, and everyone has a place, and everyone has a history that both defines and propels them. To do that, we must constantly work against the social context we find ourselves in where insipid arguments coming from irresponsible leaders who wish to ignore those things that are upsetting or difficult to understand and instead want us all to just pretend to get along and hope that real peace is figured out by their children.

Well, we’re their children. Lets show our parents that, unlike them, we can help actually put a stop to racism.

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