Questioning Colorblindness

Some of our best friends are colorblind, but we’re not. We’re not colorblind because we believe colorblindness holds us back from building a multiracial society. If you want to help build a multiracial society too, we hope you’ll consider where colorblindness fits in the picture. Please let us explain.

It’s about ideology. An ideology “is a comprehensive set of normative beliefs, conscious and unconscious ideas, that an individual, group or society has.” [see Wikipedia]  Colorblindness is a racial ideology. Having a shared ideology is not the same as saying that all individuals in the group, or society, will have their needs met equally. It simply means that those in power stay in power, relationships are not in turmoil, the work gets done, and conflict does not rise to the level of widespread murder and mayhem. When a shared ideology begins to fall apart, either on its own accord or through challenge by a competing ideology, then the social order becomes tenuous, sometimes resulting in revolution. Social order is the prime function an ideology serves.

A racial ideology has to do with managing race relations. It answers questions such as: What does race mean? How do people of different races interact? What about race can be discussed and what is taboo? Like any normative system, a racial ideology allows groups to function smoothly and retain the status quo. Things like racial justice, equality and equity are secondary to this smooth functioning and support of the status quo. From a humanist point of view some racial ideologies are clearly better than others. At worst, a racial ideology gives total control to a single empowered racial group.

Colorblindness arose in contrast to white supremacy, a historically older racial ideology which still exists today. Colorblindness says that race should not matter, and because of that, we should not talk about race or base any of our decisions and actions upon racial considerations. White supremacy says simply that white people are superior in every way, and thus entitled to be in charge and to allocate power and resources as white people think best.

Since the time of the modern civil rights movement, following WWII, colorblindness has ascended to become the mainstream racial ideology in the United States, displacing white supremacy as an overt ideology. People across the political spectrum, from liberal to conservative, espouse colorblindness as the way to be. Our legal system applies colorblindness as a basic principle. This does not mean that white supremacy no longer operates, but it changes the nature of the operation. It’s no longer acceptable to talk explicitly about the superiority of white people and white culture. In fact, any talk about race at all is discouraged. Colorblindness, in refusing to acknowledge race, still allows white people and white culture to retain their power and privilege at the expense of people of color.

A growing number of people now criticize colorblindness. They include scholars, social scientists, and racial justice activists, along with many people of color and some white people. Our society is still rooted in white supremacy, they say. Colorblindness is an overlay that hides and obscures some of the damaging and ongoing effects of white supremacy. Tangible evidence and their lived experience support this view. Often they condemn colorblindness as simply a new form of racism. Instead of being colorblind, they say we should be color conscious. 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.

Proponents of colorblindness hold to colorblindness as a moral stance. It seems fair, and just, and right, and it openly condemns white supremacy. It’s what we’ve been taught all our lives.

Many share a simple belief that Dr. King endorsed colorblind ideology when he spoke about the content of our character overriding the color of our skin. A careful reading of Dr. King’s views will show he was fully aware of race, and colorblindness, as it is practiced today, has little to do with his views of how racial justice and equity can be achieved.

Colorblindness, as a racial ideology, is a means of managing racial conflict and it does this by suppressing recognition of the unfair and ongoing impact of a racially structured society that continues to privilege white people and harm people of color. Basically, this blindness to racial structure allows white people to be comfortable while retaining our privilege. It’s impossible to unmask this arrangement without talking about race. And when someone brings race into the discussion, they violate colorblind norms. They are condemned, accused of playing the race card, and effectively discredited as a social agent in a setting where colorblind norms prevail.

If not colorblindness, then what? Rather than ignoring race, we need to be fully aware of how it operates. Being conscious of how race (or color) operates allows us to work effectively toward building a multiracial society. Color consciousness invites us to take a more accurate view of what is, and open ourselves to what can be. For many white people who have been steeped in colorblindness, this means learning a new way of seeing things. People of color, often out of necessity, have been color conscious for much longer, and thus are more familiar and practiced in how it operates.

The ways in which colorblindness and colorblind ideologies structure our lives will be a major theme of this blog. Not all is bad about colorblindness. It often opposes the more direct and explicit forms of white supremacy. It can instill fairness in allocating power, resources, and opportunity when equity is truly present. And it can simply be a means of setting aside race for a time. Always living in the presence of racialized experience can be tiring. But it won’t take us to the Promised Land. Acquiring a color conscious understanding of our society, and being able to function with others who share a color conscious ideology, will put us on that path.