Personally, few things are more infuriating when you can see that there is a problem and others can also see that there is a problem but the supervisor/teacher/parent/authority figure denies it or just claim not being aware of it. Sometimes, it’s laziness. Sometimes, it’s an “ignorance is bliss” defense but it is indefensible to those who are affected.
This is essentially what color-blind racism is. It boils down the present as to be just being the present with no historical, social or political influences taken into account and looking at an individual as having full agency instead of being one part of many within our society. None of us are truly self-made beings; our values and beliefs are shaped by the society we grow up in, our attitudes and behaviors are modelled by those we deem role models, and punishments and lessons teach us what’s right and wrong. It is not until we are at a significantly ripe age mentally that we are even able to self-reflect and see the effects of our environment and the people around us on our development and what we hold dear. However, these are just values and beliefs and behaviors that everyone is subjected to within a society. Other factors like gender, race, class, sexuality, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, etc. limit us in other ways.
Our societal systems ascribe certain essential attributions to groups of people under each of those categories and these attributions may come in the form of stereotypes but also manifest within our policies, our culture, how employers hire new employees, the production and consumption of media, and similarly pervades every other facet of society. There might be some inclination of guilt if one is privileged by such a system that disadvantages everyone else but again, the individual often has little to do with the power structure already in place so rather than a passive hopelessness and paralysing guilt, there needs to be a proactive effort to seek out the ways how this privilege manifests and to challenge it wherever it is seen in your life. As he does best, here’s James Baldwin on color-blindness in 1968:
Here’s a transcript for some of what he says that are particularly relevant today:
“I don’t know what most white people in this country feel, but I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes or not, but I know we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church that is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.
That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to.
Now, this is the evidence– you want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.”
**If you haven’t read or seen any of his work, I highly suggest checking them out.**
Let’s look at a modern-day example:
There are several examples I would like to look at within the context of this housing crisis. First, there is the invisibility of poverty that is relegating the homeless people of San Francisco to the sidelines and the physical fringes of society because people don’t want to see them and local governments take great pains to keep them out of public spaces. Then, there are the historical processes that started with slavery and continues today with redlining, income inequality and other everyday cases of racism that further push and keep minority populations down the socioeconomic ladder.
Then, there is the circular relationship between reality, perception and discrimination. There is a racist preconception existing in the American psyche that black men (especially those of lower socioeconomic status) are violent and a danger to society and themselves, that black women are nymphos that have kids from multiple men and live off of government welfare.
The perception of black people as being the majority of the homeless and the meritocratic assumption that people are homeless because they’re lazy and/or are drug addicts leads to less effort to support the homeless community and ignores existing racist institutional practices and historical maltreatment which does nothing to alleviate the problem and so the cycle continues.
News footage shows us the homeless population in these urban centers as being predominantly black, which is not reflected in the statistics (over 30% of the homeless population in SF are black while they make up less than 10% of the city’s overall population).
The statistics above show us two things: 1) African-Americans are overrepresented in the homeless population, 2)African-Americans are overrepresented in the media.
People naturally seek out what confirms their preconceptions (confirmation bias) and the media footage proves that. That confirmation strengthens the previous biases and justifies them. Meanwhile, the underlying reasons why this huge population of people are homeless remain untouched.
Why are there so many single mothers caught in the mass evictions in San Francisco? Does it have anything to do with the over-policing of black communities that often land black men in jail? Perhaps the lack of access to adequate education and the school-to-prison pipeline that lock members of the community out of a job market that increasingly sees a college education as a minimal requirement, therefore keeping them poor and uneducated? Is it the lack of good financing options/de facto segregation that pushes minority populations out of desirable housing markets and into situations where they’re more likely to default?
It’s all three and more. What mass incarceration is doing to the men of minority communities, eviction is doing to the women. It pushes the narrative of this dysfunctional community of thugs and loose morals and a regressive lifestyle. But hearing the news stories and seeing the pictures of homeless black women with their children don’t tend to evoke these discussions about how the system has consistently treated them as second-class citizens or why so many of the minority populations have ended up concentrated on the lower rungs of the social ladder.
Color-blindness ignores all context and points at an individual’s shortcomings to blame for their situation in life. Why are there so many single black mothers? Because the men were taken away to be locked in jail. Why were the men committing crimes? Crimes rates are higher in majority-minority communities and also for lower-income communities. Is it because these communities had more criminals or were there just more policing? In these communities and for those targeted as part of the “efforts to crack down on crime”, even (jay)walking can turn into tense, potentially life-threatening encounters.
However, even that is questionable because we’ve seen over and over again how the criminal justice system treats those who pass through it. As far as it goes, fraud and embezzlement are as much stealing as larceny or burglary and the former often involves far greater amounts of money but it’s easy to see how the treatment of those convicted of them differ vastly from each other. The way we see those crimes as a society and how they’re portrayed in the media are certainly different because it’s not that richer people don’t commit crimes, it’s that their crimes and their actions are afforded more privacy and, with more power and better lawyers, they can more often get out of convictions (just look at what’s come into light since #MeToo).
There are so many layers to how our society and its institutions consistently favor some over others and once you start looking, it never ends. It’s hard not to get overwhelmed. For example, social mobility in the US is minimal; very few actually move up the socioeconomic ladder. For a country where social mobility (i.e. The American Dream) is lauded as one of the nation’s great virtues, its social classes are remarkably stable. That’s because social and cultural capital figure into how many and what type of resources people have access to and the ways upwards are increasingly exclusive and hostile to those trying to move up.
Intergenerational wealth is also a huge factor; there is very little an individual can amass against the power and influence of a fortune that’s been accumulating for several centuries; even more so in a country with minorities like African-Americans who literally didn’t have any money for most of American history and were kept from any significant means of supporting themselves even after “liberation”.
Let’s talk about something else. Native American mascots:
I could only find partial clips on YouTube but the entire documentary is worth watching.
There is this notion that everyone is somehow “equal through consumption”. You can see it in how minority cultures are seen as things to be appropriated and gentrified. For example, black culture has long been commercialised to great success by celebrities and artists to be “edgy” and “counterculture” but the people that the cultural symbols came from whether it be the way they speak, the clothes they wear or the music they create, the original creators and holders of this culture are ridiculed and seen as uneducated, “ghetto” and a multitude of other stereotypes and slurs.
It is the same way with Native American mascots. We say, “What? It’s just a mascot. It’s not hurting anyone.” But it is. By commercialising and making a cultural symbol a commodity, a spectacle, it is the erasure of the original purpose and meaning of this symbol. It is the usurpation of what a community holds dear and is part of their identity. But it is not all abstract either. The reactions to abolishing Native American mascots are very real. Activists get attacked, spit on and receive death threats. If it is only a symbol, only for fun, as they say, then why such a hostile reaction to doing away with it?
It’s the sense of entitlement and the interruption of the comfort people had twisting another people’s sacred symbols for their own entertainment. This interruption of their comfort zone, this accusation of racist intent, of insensitivity. How dare they make me uncomfortable in a place I should belong?
Of course, this sort of casual comfort with disregarding the sanctity of others’ culture doesn’t limit itself to thoughts and “harmless” fun for sports games. Something else that Charlene Teters (the Native American woman speaking in the documentary) mentions later on is that the vestiges of Native American culture are doubly precious because its preservation has been fought for through bloodshed and struggle. To diminish that culture is to mock those ancestors who died being ripped from their homes, those that died fighting to protect their people and their lands, those initial Native Americans struck down by foreign disease and the Native children that were “re-educated” through Indian boarding schools.
That is what people don’t think about when talking about political correctness. That is what people don’t think about when they see paraphernalia for sports teams with Native mascots in gift shops. It should be. It’s not some abstract concept about what is an “appropriate” opinion in polite society. It affects real people. Looking at it from a colorblind stance where you only see the mascot as a harmless bit of fun during football halftimes is willful ignorance of a people’s heritage and history. A true understanding of the situation requires knowledge of history and an awareness of others and their perspectives.
Then, there are those like the Yale professor in the James Baldwin video above that was about to say “Not all white people are racist!” and more or less did complain about Baldwin “pulling the race card”. You might complain, “why does everything need to be political?” But you have to remember that politics is what gets to decide if you are counted as a person in this country. It decides your rights and your access to resources and public facilities. It decides whether the law will protect you or hang you out to dry.
Things like the Census are integral to this. For example, the first Census had three categories: free whites, all other free persons, slaves. Since it is a Census year in 2020, this is a reminder to take the Census seriously because it not only determines the distribution of representatives, it also determines the resources allocated to a population and if minorities are undercounted, as they likely will be, then the government funds set aside for our development won’t reach the communities that need it.
Only those who can live comfortably knowing that their government and elected officials will represent them and have their best interests at heart can afford to hold the worldview that the personal, the moral and the political can be separated. For the rest of us, colorblindness makes us invisible and that is deeply problematic where the visibility of a population dictates how kindly we are treated.
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