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In defence of Colorblindness

October 28, 2016

Colorblindness alone is not sufficient to heal racial wounds on a national or personal level.”

This extract is a piece from Psychology Today. (I’ll use American spelling hereon, it’s an American concept.)

This online article, from its title to its conclusion, was a partisan semi-scientific look at the discourse of self-indentified “colorblindness”, or the tendency to ignore race when interacting with other people.

The article opens with an acknowledgement of the apparent moral worth of this process, so I will acknowledge its counter point; that people who call themselves non-racist are often not correct in this assessment. It is sometimes just a fib, a way of avoiding having to factor racism into one’s understanding of the world.

As with all processes and theories criticising them, there is a danger of going all-or-nothing. Either colorblindness is a universal good, or a universal evil. People are seemingly unwilling to consider that it is different things to different people.

There are indeed individuals who are secretly racist and don’t want to be made to re-examine their preconceptions. There are those who fear they might be racist and won’t think about race too carefully in case they uncover the beast. In some ways, one can sympathise with that; better the beast covered than let loose on the town.

There are also people who genuinely haven’t had any major reason to think about race, and have legitimate grievances with the idea of being forced to acknowledge something they think is unimportant. It is presumptuous to say that these people are unaware of racial issues, current and historical; they may have simply decided that this knowledge should not guide one’s conscious actions, because its level of relevance to everyday life is low.

The implicit thinking behind Psychology Today is that when people ignore cultural and historical context, they make a resurgence of extreme views more likely. There is no good evidence for this claim. Indeed, people who analyse the subject find that once an idea has melted into collective moral consciousness, it is not easy to shift.

As for healing “wounds” on a “national” level. It’s important to note that the nation under discussion here is, of course, America.

America may have an unhealthy obsession with past grievances. I hear a lot less from their major speakers about letting things go and moving on than I do about Taking Action (read: taking revenge, acting out). The idea that perhaps the best way to repair the wrongs of the past is simply to passively not repeat them doesn’t seem to occur as readily to American minds as in other more reserved cultures.

Not repeating behaviour certainly includes being aware of them at the back of your mind. The American approach, however, goes a step further; you must be fully conscious of them all the time. In the case of race, here is the liberal mode of thinking: it is not enough to live your life under the acceptance that things have changed – you must be constantly, acutely aware of exactly how, why and to what extent they have changed, and how far there is still to go.

The problem with focusing on the grievances of the past is that each successive generation comes to the debate with a partially fresh slate. Their parents will impart some of their views, but it is our peers and the media we share with them that carve the most significant road in our understanding of the world. We each notice this when we discover that our parents or grandparents have old-fashioned views. We realise that this is because they weren’t exposed to the same media and peer opinion.

It would be a downright lie for anyone of previous racist generations to say they were “colorblind”. And I rather think they never would. It’s a new concept, reserved for millennials, who were raised with broader representation and do not remember objecting to anyone purely on the basis of the colour of their skin.

I’m a millennial. My own colorblindness I had in childhood was not an unwillingness to see colour (which at so young an age, would have been too politically complex an emotion). It was the result of a successful campaign to get people to, by-and-large, stop judging skin tone.

Some people never grow out of that first-principles colorblindness and do not see why they should. They resent being encouraged to – as they see it – regress, and start judging their peers and society by race once more, just for the sake of acknowledging history.

They may very well be completely disinterested in any and all political thought, and may be primarily concerned with how well they treat their neighbours. In that sense, colorblindness can be helpful because it puts people at ease with their differently cultured neighbours.

They may ask odd questions to these neighbours from a position of ignorance, but do so in a harmlessly curious way, as opposed to letting questions go unspoken, building into unchecked stereotypes and racist suspicions.

People with self-professed colorblindness are sometimes the easiest to get on with for PoC (People of Colour) – they aren’t self-consciously racked with white guilt that shadows their every word, puts them on eggshells and makes them less comfortable hanging out with people of other races, to the extent that they may actually avoid it.

It is accurate to say that colorblind people are not racist in the classical sense. What we’re dealing with is the loose ends of past racism, which like frayed cotton threads are altogether harder to see.

A millennial saying that they are colorblind is so normal as to be unworthy of note. Consequently, the claim admittedly identifies someone who doesn’t think about the continuing problems of race, other than to look at obvious racism abroad or in small circles and regard it as a terrible but ultimately distant problem. The pragmatist’s question must always be: Is this useful?

colorblindness, in some circumstances, may be more useful than overanalysis of race. If you are a well-travelled, critical person engaged in current affairs, colorblindness is useless. Your wish to understand social affairs relies on examining the psychology not just of millennials or people of your home country, but older people who have lingering conservative views, or people from foreign countries where colorblindness has never been a thing; for them, it is a given that you will notice race, because it is inherently noticeable, and determines your social standing.

However, for people who only want to get on with their everyday life, who have no intellectual pretensions, take the world as it comes to them, are easily influenced by popular culture and have no interest in intense discussion and debate, the top-level discussions about colorblindness are irrelevant.

The theory only stands to be oversimplified (as it has already been) and used as a blunt, ineffectual tool for weeding out “racists”. The only people it actually weeds out are simple people, completely alienated by this insistence of a racism they don’t feel. Calling people racist for not consciously caring about race is only going to confuse and aggravate them, which does not stand to improve the situation.

There is not enough acknowledgement of the fact that societies with no perception of colorblindness are universally worse in terms of racial inequality than the societies that adopt the ideology. After all, colorblindness is informed by a wish to be able to ignore race, because it does not render significant enough inherent differences to be on the forefront of your mind when you meet others.

There is a fashion for waxing lyrical about how race relations have scarcely improved. Anyone looking at the evidence knows this to be a gross falsehood. So much has happened that we can afford to quibble things like colorblindness.

To put it another way, anti-racists have time to discuss whether an anti-racist position like colorblindness is, in fact, racist.

If we’re being fair, colorblind people should be low on our list of converts. Personally, I’m much more concerned by the American police forces.

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