Post 2 of a 2-part series
Colorblindness, liberal multiculturalism, race-mixing, and diluting monoracial identities of oppressed people are failed approaches to racial justice and equity. So, what works? What more of the Latin American experience can inform our work in the United States? This post draws upon an article by Warren and Sue (2011), and two articles by Warren alone (2014 & 2016).
RACIAL LITERACY IS LEARNED
Racial literacy is emerging now as a concept in conversations about race among educators, trainers, consultants, and racial justice organizers. The term can be traced to a 2004 article by France Winddance Twine. It roughly means understanding how race works, and being able to engage in discussions about it (See Note 1).
Today “racial literacy” is coming into broader usage through the work of professors and social change activists. For example, see the recent books, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools by Howard C. Stevenson and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo.
In the United States there is a common understanding and expectation that black and brown people are racially literate and white people are not. There are exceptions, but this generalization is both what is observed and what is believed to be part of the position of the oppressed. Those who are subject to racial oppression, it is widely held, know more about the system of racism because of their position or social location as oppressed. Correspondingly, it’s also held that those who oppress, the privileged group, know less by virtue of their privilege.
It doesn’t work like that in Brazil and Latin America. When Warren arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 and began doing his ethnological studies of the region, he found,
…that everyone on TV was White; all the local and national political and economic elite were White; that many physical spaces associated with status, such as private clubs and malls, were White only; and that crudely racist comments circulated widely (e.g., “Bananas are the favorite food of Blacks”), non-Whites , most of whom were the descendants of slaves, saw themselves and their world through the same lens that Whites did. (2016)
Compared to the United States, Warren & Sue found a low level of racial literacy among people of color in Latin America. Examples drawn from their research and that of others include an Afro-Brazilian man who believed racism was gone since people mixed in locations where formerly only white people were present; and a black Brazilian woman who believed racism had no impact on her providing for her family, attending university, or getting a job. Of course, single examples do not prove a regional trend. See Part 1 of this 2-part series for a broader discussion of this topic.
From this Warren and Sue draw the conclusion that racial literacy is learned. It does not arise purely from occupying a state of oppression, otherwise the level of racial literacy among people of color in Brazil specifically, and the rest of Latin America generally, would be as high as here in the United States. This begs the question, “How do you become racially literate?”
You learn as you are exposed — as a learner and not a cynic — to a counterpublic. Using an earlier definition from Fraser (1990), Warren says a counterpublic is:
The political space where “subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses” and “formulate oppositional interpretations of their needs, identities and interests.” (2016)
Warren gives an example, the black counterpublic in the United States:
Black men and women could avoid such a fate because a vibrant Black counterpublic existed…Over the centuries, Black churches, songs, schools, abolitionists, poets, journalists, activists, artists, educators, and essayists had managed to forge a Black country against great odds…In this world, one heard a different story about nation, Blackness, and Whiteness. Here Blackness was celebrated rather than pathologized, Whites criticized and pitied, racism named and discussed, and American myths of fairness, individualism, exceptionalism, and freedom conditionalized, if not exploded. (2016)
Whereas, In Brazil
…the absence of counterpublics among African and indigenous descent Brazilians immediately captured my attention when I began conducting research on race in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 1992. (2016)
Warren goes on to say that some counterpublics do exist in Latin America, but they are small in number, lack institutional roots, and do not yet play a significant role in the awareness of people. Of those that do exist, some are newly emerging. (2016)
Warren explores several reasons why there is a vibrant black counterpublic in the United States and none in Latin America. Slavery in Brazil was abolished “before industrialization or democratization.” Social and historical forces in the United States created a “White” working class. In Brazil, this never happened. The racial order was still hierarchical, but people mixed a little more freely. The grim facts of slavery in Brazil led to people being more immediately in touch with their family history from Africa, and thus ethnic distinctions “worked against the formation of race-based communitarian identities.” Finally, the enslaved population in the United States shared, in great part, an agrarian background, while in Brazil, enslaved workers were located throughout many economic sectors. Again, a factor in which a diversity of experience made the development of a shared perspective more unlikely.
In the United States, the belief that racial literacy arises automatically from a position of oppression has a bearing upon how people see, or fail to see, counterpublics:
If one has to be “of color” to understand racism, then what is the point of studying racism? This belief also renders invisible the tremendous amount of labor and struggle that has gone and continues to go into the production of antiracist counterpublics. Such knowledge is reduced to a mechanistic response to racism. Insight about the process of racial literacy, a wisdom that could be gleaned from these communities, is not even considered, let alone consulted. Scrutiny is directed away from the true culprits: the families, schools, media, and communities, which are actively producing racial illiteracy. (2014)
That’s illiteracy, as in “not literate.” Colorblind ideology is the prime driving force maintaining racial illiteracy. Colorblindness also stands in opposition to anti-racist counterpublics and seeks to eradicate them.
The notion that counterpublics form along racial lines, as seen in the United States, is consistent with CSWAC’s approach to decentering whiteness, which acknowledges that racial/cultural groups each develop their own “center.”
Warren tells us,
There is, in fact, an emerging consensus among critical race scholars that these counterpublics, or at least facets of them, should be expanded. Moreover…there is broad agreement that the mainstream mode of race talk – namely, racial color blindness – needs to be superseded by color consciousness. (2016)
Counterpublics serve as a source of knowledge for people, both within, and without. This includes white people, who characteristically have less contact with anti-racist counterpublics. These anti-racist counterpublics are a source of knowledge that white people must expose themselves to in order to become racially literate. However this is done, it must be respectful.
Warren allows that there are many people and organizations who already are working in this direction. We, at CSWAC, are actively engaged in building the antiracist, multiracial counterpublic (See Note 2). To our mind, there are many implications of Warren (and Sue)’s work. Some of these implications Warren points to, and some are of our own making.
First, the care, maintenance, and expansion of anti-racist counterpublics should be a strategic goal of all anti-racists. In our experience, anti-racist counterpublics are a source of leadership, past, present and future. Second, anti-racist counterpublics and the communities that sustain them have always created and channeled the intensity and passion needed for removing white supremacy from our lives. Hence their strength as incubators for authenic leadership. White people must acquire the skills to respectfully interact with and learn from these counterpublics. Part of this skill development is learning the value and importance of authentic and accountable relationship.
Second, CSWAC has long supported the development of a white anti-racist counterpublic. White anti-racists do not form an oppressed group, but they do occupy a “subordinated” status in relation to the mainstream. Mainstream norms against publicly discussing whiteness, white identity, and white culture are strong, and even stronger against publicly proclaiming a white anti-racist identity. One transgresses against society to be a white anti-racist at the present time. The good news is, there is a rich and growing white anti-racist counterpublic.
One of the implications of racial literacy being learned is that whites can learn, too. It is possible to address the state of illiteracy among whites in the United States today. Warren has a few things to say about this. First, as a project, increasing the racial literacy of white people is not likely to garner much in the way of attention and resources from mainstream culture and the central apparatus of the state. He poses a realistic framework as color-conscious approaches raise a challenge to racial colorblindness:
The next phase of antiracism in the United States and Brazil will likely bump up against the epistemological limits of multiculturalism. To move closer toward full emancipation, cultures will have to be violated rather than respected. In the United States, the task is to expand on Black and other antiracist counterpublics that exist in the United States. This will inevitably entail upending White identities and worldviews to move a larger percentage of mainstream America from racial color blindness to racial color consciousness. (2016)
Unfortunately, this is not a project that universities, funding entities and public school systems in the United States are keen to support at present. In my experience, it is copacetic to seek and gain monies to enable White teachers to build color consciousness if done in the name of establishing rapport with black students or out of respect for racial diversity. But administrators and publics, even in more progressive cities such as Seattle, do not want to hear that white students should be disabused of racial color blindness and schooled in race cognizance as part of a standard curriculum. This is politically beyond the pale at present. (2016)
This reality should not inhibit us from pushing forward in those arenas in which we have more influence and say: scholarship, workshops, and in the classroom. (2016)
Within the arenas Warren identifies, much work is already underway. A recent trend has been online workshops. Old-school, face-to-face workshops have been a staple of the anti-racist community since the get go.
Another point Warren (2014) makes is that white people resist change because it will require them to reconfigure their social surround, identity, and core beliefs. So, it’s not simply, and only, the preservation of power and privilege. This lesson has been understood by some anti-racists (CSWAC included) who are educating white people about racism. Part of the process is developing an alternative support network as one leaves behind older roles rooted in colorblindness and an uncritical white supremacy. It’s not easy work, but many are engaged in doing it. So, if we are calling white people in on the condition that they move from colorblindness to an anti-racist color consciousness, we need to take into account their loss of their old support system.
Warren’s work also raises the larger question, How do we create a middle ground where everyone can meet? Warren’s work is profound in many ways. By helping us see the underlying racial structure of the United States more clearly, he opens new questions, extends our vision, and points to new avenues for action.
There is much more to it, of course. France Winddance Twine (2010) lists six criteria for racial literacy:
- The definition of racism as a contemporary problem rather than a historical legacy;
- An understanding of ways that experiences of racism are mediated by class, gender inequality and heterosexuality;
- A recognition of the cultural and symbolic value of whiteness;
- An understanding that racial identities are learned and are an outcome of social practices;
- The possession of a racial grammar and vocabulary to discuss race, racism, and antiracism;
- The ability to interpret racial codes and racial practices.
See Twine, F. W. (2010). A white side of black Britain: Interracial intimacy and racial literacy. Duke University Press.
By multiracial, we mean CSWAC is a multiracial group of people (as an organization, we look at a topic: white American culture). Individuals in CSWAC are also informed to varying degrees, by anti-racist counterpublics rooted in monoracial identities (black, Native American, white anti-racist, etc.).
Twine, F. W. (2004). A white side of black Britain: The concept of racial literacy. Ethnic and Racial Studies (Vol. 27).
Warren, J. (2014). After colorblindness: Teaching antiracism to white progressives in the U.S. In Teaching Race and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America: Adding Context to Colorblindness.
Warren, J. (2016). An international perspective on color consciousness: Brazil and the universalization of antiracist counter-publics. In H. A. Neville, M. E. Gallardo, & D. W. Sue (Eds.), The myth of racial color blindness: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Warren, J., & Sue, C. A. (2011). Comparative racisms: What anti-racists can learn from Latin America. Ethnicities, 11(1), 32–58.