November 4, 2013

How Colorblindness Blinds Us

When will we (finally) become a colorblind society? The pursuit of colorblindness makes people impatient. With courage, we should respond: Hopefully never.

— Michelle Alexander

In her excellent book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander makes an argument that the notion of colorblindness is a deeply flawed principle that has proved catastrophic for African Americans in the post-civil rights era.

This is a notion that I find confusing, and I don’t claim to fully understand Alexander’s argument. One aspect I can relate, to, however, are the effects that occur when we set unreasonable expectations for our own inevitable prejudices.

I was particularly struck by two seemingly trivial racially-charged faux pas that occurred earlier this year. The first occurred when Lisa Lampanelli, a celebrity I’ve never heard of, posted the following Tweet:

The other was when actress Julianne Hough decided to wear blackface as part of her Halloween costume.

What surprised me wasn’t the incidents themselves, but the public’s response to them, which was to inundate the celebrities with scorn and derision. No discussions were had, and no rationales were given: the actions of these celebrities were instantaneously judged vile and offensive, and everyone was told never to repeat the same mistakes:

Race isn’t brought up very often in today’s public discourse; when it is, it usually follows this familiar pattern of a faux pas followed by scorn and a hasty apology. This is partly due to the colorblind principle, which polarizes the notion of prejudice: we’re supposed to be colorblind, and if we’re not, we’re a racist bigot. Therefore, it’s safest to never, ever mention race, at the risk of being labeled.

In 2008, a study at Northwestern University’s Department of Social Psychology found that “white subjects [are] so afraid of being branded as racist, they indicated a preference for avoiding all contact with black people.” This is something I’ve felt personally, despite not being white. And it’s no surprise, given the outcome of the aforementioned incidents and countless others like them.

The net effect of our reaction to race in public discourse—that is, the instinct to brand anyone who isn’t colorblind as racist—blinds us to everything important in our culture that is actually race-based, such as the multitude of issues surrounding the school-to-prison pipeline that Alexander addresses in her book.

In today’s world, I’d argue that racism actually has very little to do with calling a friend “my nigga” or wearing blackface. It has everything to do with the sense of fear I feel when I realize a black man is walking behind me on my way home. But until we stop pretending that we’re colorblind and building a culture of fear around conversations about race, we won’t even realize this kind of racism exists, let alone have a truthful dialogue about it.

© Atul Varma 2020