CSWAC Blog

Lifting Up Color Consciousness

A color conscious ideology holds that our society is structured by race in a way that benefits white people at the expense of people of color, and awareness of this fact is necessary to build a more equitable arrangement. Color consciousness is one of the “big three” racial ideologies* operating in our society. The other two are white supremacy and colorblindness. At CSWAC, we believe a color conscious perspective is essential to work against racism and for racial equity.

To be color conscious is first to be aware of race and how it impacts you, your family and community, and affairs of the state. Second, it means a readiness to push back against the racial status quo for something that is free of white supremacy.

We call it color consciousness. It might also be called race cognizance, race consciousness, anti-racism, racial justice, and race literacy. These terms overlap and differ in many ways, but they all name an emerging racial ideology. For the sake of simplicity, we are using “color consciousness,” which compares and contrasts with the term “colorblindness.” Good arguments are made for the other terms, and we are informed by points of view that use these terms.

Color consciousness entered mainstream thought through the work of Ruth Frankenberg, who identified and named it race cognizance. Frankenberg saw this view as emerging around the 1960s in the lives of the progressive white women she studied. There was an upwelling of awareness among a segment of the white community that opened it to recognizing the possibility of a multiracial community. Some lessons were learned.

David Walker, black Bostonian, famously wrote An Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World in 1829. Set in writing, it reminds us today that black people have held a color conscious view for a long time. David Walker’s writings are not where a fragile white person should begin reading. Other racial groups have a pre-1960s history of color consciousness as well.

Color consciousness is an ideology, and ideologies are learned. Everyone in the United States has entered into a process of racialized living. Those of us born here have been enmeshed in that process for our entire lives. Many of us have been raised to see white supremacy, and at the same time, hide and obscure it and uphold the social order by using norms of colorblindness. Simply put, many, many of us are imbued in colorblind ideology. We’ve learned and absorbed it well.

To the person imbued in colorblindness, a color conscious approach can look like a false path at best, and like white supremacy at worst. Color consciousness names race, believes race has an impact on peoples’ lives, believes white culture exists, believes white people have a race (not just people of color), and sees whiteness as a valuable social status. These are common understandings between color consciousness and white supremacy. This can be confusing to colorblind people who generally do not believe or accept any of those things.

But color consciousness also shares some things with colorblindness. They both believe race should not impact peoples’ wellbeing. They each support racial equality, and each approach is an effort to see that all people benefit. That being said, color consciousness takes things a little further. While colorblindness supports racial equality, it’s a little shy about supporting racial equity. Color consciousness sees racial equity and racial justice as a central part of the work.

And to be completely fair, colorblindness also shares some features with white supremacy. Both would hold that anyone can be racist. Color consciousness limits that status to those who benefit from a racist system. Both white supremacy and colorblindness were developed, essentially, by white people who today continue to be the major proponents of each ideology. Finally, each prefers a social system rooted in white cultural values. The only difference is that colorblind people, unlike white supremacists, fail to acknowledge this. Often, they universalize their experience instead, i.e. misapply white norms as the natural, universal way for people to be.

CSWAC has developed a simple chart listing the similarities and differences of these three ideologies on several features. You can find it here.

Learning a new approach like color consciousness means learning, among other things, new skills. There are many ways to do this. One is by reading, and all the similar modes of learning, such as attending classes and workshops, viewing public discussions, sharing information among social networks. Another is by joining informed educational and activist communities. One question, which might serve as a guide, is “What will it take for myself and others to live in a multiracial community?”

CSWAC lists eight skills a color conscious person should acquire. They are:

  • Learn about race and racism
  • Don’t “explain away” or ignore race
  • Understand racism as a social system, not just individual acts
  • Learn and understand how colorblindness operates
  • Be conscious of racial composition and structure
  • Learn and understand how white culture operates
  • Develop an active concern for racial justice
  • Learn about being a white ally to people of color

This is not the only list to be made. It’s just a starting point. Learn these skills, we are saying, and you are off to a good start.


*For more on what comprises a racial ideology, see Questioning Colorblindness