Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Beyond FACTS: “The Fallacy of Colorblind Post-Raciality” by Carmen Van Kerkhove

The Anderson Cooper 360˚ blog ran this post, “The Fallacy of Colorblind Post-Raciality” by Carmen Van Kerkhove yesterday.

I’ve read Carmen’s writings since she co-founded New Demographic, a consulting firm that addresses race and racism in the workplace in unique ways. Also known nationally as a speaker and commentator on the complex issues behind race and racism, Carmen regularly offers thoughtful, blunt opinions backed up with specifics. While I don’t always agree with her, I always find the discussions she instigates well worth my time and attention.

In this column, Carmen addresses the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that stated three in ten Americans admit to having at least some racially prejudiced feelings. “The other seven must be afflicted by ‘colorblindness,’” she writes, “that odd phenomenon that drives people to insist that they ‘just don’t notice race’ and claim that they don’t care whether people are ‘black, brown, green, or purple.’

“All of us,” she continues, “notice variations in skintone, facial features, hair texture, eye color, and the myriad of other phenotypic factors that cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.

“Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color? Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.

“But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.

“When people proclaim that they’re colorblind, what they’re really implying is that race no longer matters in America. [But] race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country.”

This is exactly the argument I make when I talk about my first book, One Sister’s Song. Racism impacts people of varied backgrounds, including those (like my husband and his sisters) of mixed-race heritage. I invite those who consider such assertions regarding racism exaggerated to read more about it through resources like the New Demographic newsletter, to consider the (highly!) intriguing viewpoints of the dozens of people who left comments about Carmen’s post on the AC 360˚ blog, to get to know a person of any race that differs from one’s own and take the time to note what he or she goes through on a daily basis. Race does still matter in this country, and turning any kind of blind eye to such an immense issue—especially during the current, historic election year—doesn’t do anyone any good.

Photo © Associated Press

19 Comments:

OpenID twoblueday said...

I have a hard time accepting the "everyone is a racist" view. So I don't.

6:01 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Gerry, I have a lot of respect for your opinion; your comment leads me to believe I haven't communicated my point well. I do not believe everyone is racist. As Carmen puts it, noticing race does not make one racist. Assumptions based on race (or heritage; Irish and Italian stereotypes used to abound, right?), however, cause problems. The persistence of such assumptions and the attitude of so many folks with misguided intentions (and I've met them) that race doesn't matter, that affirmative action laws are no longer needed, that everyone is treated as equally as they ought to be in our new "post-racial" society...all this contributes to misunderstandings and ought to be addressed. K.

7:43 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

I think the most important point made in the post is that noticing race doesn't make one a racist.

Claiming not to notice race is a delusion. I can no more not notice race when I'm talking to someone than I can remain unaware of someone's age, where someone is from, where they live now, whether or not they have children or what they do for a living.

Every shred of information that I know about a person informs the notions I have about them. I don't think that is necessarily good or bad, unless my notions are preconceived and baseless.

We are all different and we do come from different backgrounds. The pendulum has swung from overt prejudice to one of denial that there are differences.

I think the key is not making not being afraid to recognize and explore differences.

I think where it becomes very uncomfortable for people is in acknowledging history and trying to figure out what it means and how it impacts each person.

Scott and I watched the movie, "The Debaters" the other night (excellent, excellent film) and as I was watching the story of young black people in Texas in 1935 in the days when segregation was still the norm and lynchings were still happening, my stomach was twisting and I felt shame. I don't identify with the white world who perpetrated injustices on a personal level, so why is it that on a cultural level, I feel that guilt? I don't feel that same sense of shame about the holocaust. I wondered what I'd feel about this film if I was black. I wondered how it is that we deal with this kind of giant elephant in the room, when most of us would rather just pretend that it wasn't such a recent part of our history and that there are plenty of Americans who are alive now and were a part of it.

It's pretty easy for me to meet a new person of any race and explore who that person is at this very minute, but the difficulty comes when I think about things in our shared histories.

10:41 AM  
OpenID twoblueday said...

I guess I was attacking a straw man, sorry. I may be a Pollyanna, but I like to think that there are many people of good will in our nation and the world at large.

As for noticing race, I often find it wryly amusing when some crime is reported on the media, and the reporters describe the person while saying the police are asking for the public's help, and they omit information, such as ethnic characteristics, which might make the information actually usable. Does no info at all mean white? Is white the "default" ethnicity?

As for affirmative action, I don't think there is a unanimity of opinion about that even within various ethnicities (or am I wrong?).

11:23 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

You're right, Gerry, affirmative action remains a tricky issue all around. It'll be interesting to see if that comes up in the election at all. As for media reports, the same argument is made for works of fiction that don't clearly identify race, leading readers to guess that characters are white by default.

Lisa, Texas 1935; just the thought gives me the willies. That film sounds troubling yet amazing, thanks for the heads up. And YES to your observations about racial history and the fact it impacts contemporary behaviors. Exploring that history and, as you said, trying to figure out what it all means is a critical step toward increased understanding. K.

1:03 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Oh, definitely see it. It's excellent. It stars Denzel Washington and Forrest Whittaker and it's based on the true story of the debate team from a small private black college in Texas. They made history when they were the first black college to ever debate white colleges and the debate team members all ended up being pioneers in the civil rights movement.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

I hear what you're saying. Great post. For some reason, it reminds me of people who are uncomfortable when I say how old I am. It's that once I say it, then they have to respond in some way. Watching them try to figure out how to respond is interesting. It's all about them, turns out, and nothing about my age.

8:57 PM  
OpenID twoblueday said...

I never wonder about the "race" of people in fiction. I guess if it doesn't matter to the story, it doesn't matter to me.

Unlike with crime reports, I don't need to "identify" fictional characters.

6:27 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Really, Gerry? I enjoy character descriptions so much (call me old-fashioned) and miss them when they're skimmed over, I guess. Good point, though.

Mary Ann, I love your point of view. Ageism is another irritating "ism", isn't it? I remember making a comment about a slow elderly clerk when my parents had just entered the mid-60s; I could tell my dad was biting his tongue! Then again with 11 kids he's always done that a lot. :) K.

3:59 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

You know the comment about ageism has had me thinking about how age also relates to race and how we perceive someone else. The time and place we come from has an indelible impact on our perception of race. It can obviously evolve, but there's no question that there's an impact. When I grew up in Boston in the 60's and 70's, the city was very segregated and there was a lot of racism, but I'd describe it more like racial tension than overt racism. When I joined the Air Force and spent seven months in Mississippi, there was not nearly as much segregation (when I say segregation, I'm really just talking about neighborhoods and parts of town that are predominantly one race or ethnicity), but there was a much more overt and accepted kind of racism. So if I meet someone of a different race, I'll probably begin to make some assumptions -- not even so much about that person -- but about how I think that person is going to perceive me and my assumptions will be based on how old they are and where they are from because I know that the older they are, the more likely it is that they've lived through and experienced much more overt racism. With people who are comparatively younger, I don't think I think as much about it.

10:36 PM  
Blogger debra said...

Very interesting and timely post.
Lisa wrote:
"Claiming not to notice race is a delusion. I can no more not notice race when I'm talking to someone than I can remain unaware of someone's age, where someone is from, where they live now, whether or not they have children or what they do for a living."
I was recently called for jury duty. The defendant had been charged with 2 counts of kidnapping and one count of rape. The county in which we live is mostly Caucasian; the defendant was African-American. Among the pool of prospective jurors, only one was black. The defense attorney asked us (the prospective jurors) what was different about the defendant. One woman said that he was the only one in the room accused of a crime; another said that he was the only one sitting at the defense table. No one mentioned race. I do not believe that these well-intentioned folks did not notice the man's race.

6:02 AM  
OpenID twoblueday said...

Aha! I enjoy character development also. I question whether ethnicity reveals character, and isn't that the whole point of your post originally? Ideally, if one sees, say, a person different-looking than himself strolling down the avenue, one knows no more than, and should make no further assumptions than that the person has a different physical appearance.

I'm thinking here some famous guy who mentioned "content of character."

7:11 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Gerry, I'm using bullet points to help myself keep all this straight!

* Carmen's point: everyone notices race and other attributes, and there's nothing wrong with that.

* Assumptions based on race lead to discrimination.

* Reading a character's description simply provides an accurate picture of the person's physical attributes. Nothing wrong with providing that or enjoying that.

* Assumptions based on a fictional characters' physical appearances (whether she's dark-skinned or a buxom blue-eyed blonde) are often based in deep-rooted socially promoted (but, bottom-line, discriminatory) assumptions.

* Ethnicity or race or religion or gender or (as Lisa notes) region of origin does not reveal character since character is so multi-faceted, but does add to our understanding of where a person comes from (in more ways than one) and helps us anticipate how that person might behave in certain situations. Does behavior reveal character? Yes, I'd say it most certainly does.

Phew! Hope that makes some sense! K.

8:59 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Debra, that story fascinates me since our country's history of racial justice is so complex. I agree most people who choose not to acknowledge differences are well-intentioned, but many are also unaware of the negative impact color-blindness can have. K.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Lisa, you nailed so many points in one comment. Age, experience, assumptions about how YOU'll be perceived depending on the other person's race, age, and place of origin...all this combines, often in the moment of meeting someone new. If only more people would slow down, take all this into consideration, and then take the time to get to know each other. I'm reminded of the terrific book What Are You? about kids from mixed-race families who are confronted with this bizarre question on a regular basis. "I'm human," one boy replies. "What are you?"

9:14 AM  
Blogger paris parfait said...

Hear, hear! We all have our differences, otherwise the world would be very boring. But whether or not we choose to celebrate the differences or denigrate the differences has a lot to do with our background, education and how we view the world. Growing up in the South, I was surrounded by racial prejudice. But I was most impressed by those who considered people's actions, not the colour of their skin. I hope the day comes when more and more people look beyond skin colour. But until people start accepting responsibility for their role in society and their place in the world - until they start reading and paying attention and waking up to the inequities of the world - change won't come soon enough.

3:05 AM  
OpenID twoblueday said...

Hopefully my comments here haven't sounded argumentative, certainly not meant that way, I just enjoy the discussion.

5:54 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

I think I can speak for others who've commented that we all enjoy the discussion too, Gerry! Thanks for starting us off. K.

7:56 AM  
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