There are many ways to define a “racist.” Some would say society itself is racist, giving all white people racial privileges and hence making them “racists” whether they like it or not. But most white people use the term racist, at least insofar as it applies to white people, to mean a person who consciously identifies as white, understands it to be his or her native culture, and believes that white people are superior to people of color. According to these terms, nearly all white people used to be racist, and even today it’s hardly uncommon to find white people who still are.
The second model for white people is colorblindness. Colorblindness says that race shouldn’t make a difference in people’s lives, and since it shouldn’t, we should all act as if race doesn’t matter. Because race doesn’t matter (or at least shouldn’t matter), we don’t need to mention it at all. In fact mentioning race just creates problems. Thus white people who follow the colorblind model do not particularly see themselves as white in other than a superficial way. They know which box to check on census forms, but do not believe the status of being white has an effect on their lives. If racists are racially conscious, colorblind people might be said to be racially unconscious.
Racist or colorblind. Most of us are taught one or the other. Mainstream society certainly favors the colorblind side. Conventional wisdom says to be colorblind is good. To be racist is bad. If those were those the only two choices, then we might agree. But there’s a third choice at hand.
It’s not a choice that many white people make, or even know exists. White people can consciously identify as white, understand it to be our native culture, and believe — and here is the crux of the matter — that while white people are no better or worse than people of color at heart, we hold an unjustly privileged and dominant position in a racial hierarchy. This model is new, only about 40 years old, compared to 100 years for colorblindness and 400 years for plain old fashioned racism. It’s so new, people haven’t agreed on a name for it. Variously called color consciousness, color awareness, race consciousness, anti-racism, or new white consciousness, it nonetheless is a real alternative to the older models.
Racist white people believe colorblind white people are deluded to think that being white is not important. They fear the pervasiveness of colorblindness and bemoan its refusal to acknowledge white culture. Racists hope someday colorblind people will believe once again their interest lies in being overtly racist. Racist white people have a more difficult time with color conscious whites who know race does matter and being white makes a difference. Color conscious whites do not shy away from discussing white identity and culture, but they frame their interests in creating multiracial structures, and working for racial equality, justice and harmony. We emphatically endorse the color conscious, or anti-racist, model. Able to see the racial structure of society as it is, color conscious white people are the racists’ worst nightmare.
Colorblind white people see racist white people pretty much for what they are, and that “something” is not what colorblind white people want to be. But colorblind white people more often than not are ineffective in working to undo the racist model. Unable to see race, they cannot see racism. Blind to color, they are blind to white culture as well. In a racially structured society they are unable to change a structure they fail to see. Rather, they rely on simplistic rules. To be conscious of race, a colorblind person will say, is to be racist. To the colorblind person the racist and the color conscious person seem to be the same. They both see race after all.
The color conscious white person understands what the colorblind white person does not. Being white makes a difference. Whiteness forms the center of our society and as long as it does, we cannot have a society centered on multiracial values. The irony of colorblindness is that by not seeing whiteness, it keeps whiteness centered. In this the racists might find some small ray of hope.
Color conscious white people are determined not to let that happen. There is and should always be a place for white people in our society, but it should not be one that controls power and resources of the mainstream exclusive of other racial groups. It should not be a place where others are expected, indeed required to come if they want the privileges of the center. Color conscious white people believe we all must change to create a multiracial center. Color conscious white people understand it’s our special role to work with our own people to bring this about.
We ask you once again, what kind of white person are you? Your choices may be a little broader than you imagine.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The foregoing post first appeared as an editorial on the old version of www.euroamerican.org in April 1999. It continues to circulate “out there.” Over the years many people have searched online to locate the source. Because it continues to be relevant and sought out, we are reprinting it here in our blog.