“Color-Blindness” and the “Us-Them” Dialogue

So, for a variety of reasons, race has been a pretty major topic of conversation in the media right now. There’s a lot of controversy here I don’t want to dig into, largely because I’m too ignorant to really have a cohesive, well-constructed opinion. But there is a sub-topic I want to explore. Let’s start with this video.

really appreciated this video, because the question of “color-blindness” is one that I’ve returned to quite a few times over the years. And no matter how many times people have talked to me about the issue, I kept feeling frustrated by the way they talked about race as if it was more than a social construct. It was really helpful for me to have this video bring up the constructed nature of race, but complicate it from there and tie it into culture. A lot just clicked into place for me.

So I wanted to talk about that.

Who’s Color-Blind? Not Me.

Now, this isn’t an idea I’ve returned to because I consider myself to be racially blind. Here’s the honest truth: I don’t see race—except for black people. There have been times where conversations with friends have led me to realize, “Oh, this person is Native American. How did I not notice that?” Or similar, with a wide variety of backgrounds, except for those who are black. I notice black people right away. Why?

Because they are other to me. Isn’t that terrible? It’s not fair or good, but I feel like the best thing I can do in response is acknowledge my own tendency. How else can I combat it?

If I didn’t have this tendency, maybe I would say I was color-blind when it came to race. Maybe. It’s popular, after all, among CEOs, politicians, and leaders of charitable organizations. More often than not, it’s said as a way to opt out of discussion on racism or opt out of responsibility for racial insensitivity. For example, in response to this controversial ad …

the Save a Child charity put out this video …

where the CEO claims that “like a child, I don’t see color.”

The Privelege and Idealism of Color-Blindness

I see immediately how problematic many functions of the color-blindness claim are. I see how problematic it is to argue that we need to  “stop talking about race.” Racism is alive and well …

and we can’t combat that until we acknowledge it. But the claim to color-blindness also has a certain idealism.

If I’m giving people the benefit of the doubt, we can translate “color-blind” into a statement that there should be no fundamental difference between people. We should see people only as people, as members of the human race, and not as a group substantially other than ourselves.

This, of course, fails to acknowledge some realities. The reality of white privilege. The reality of the continued prejudice ingrained in the system—which may go unnoticed by white people but which are regular and substantial occurrences for members of minority groups. Saying “I’m color-blind” is a way of saying “I choose to behave as if we already live in a color-blind world,” but that’s just not the case. Those who aren’t hindered by the way the world currently works are privileged in being able to behave as if we live in that idealized world; members of minority groups are not so lucky.

Us-Them

For all that, I don’t know that a color-blind future is necessarily one that requires an idealistic utopia. In thinking about how those in the U.S. may move toward more equality, I think of the history of Irish-Americans. I am not thought of as an Irish-American, but for some of my ancestors, that was thought of as their “race.” They were discriminated against for it, were in socio-economic positions that were systematically disadvantaged, and so on. They were part of an us-them dichotomy.

And I have no idea how we moved from being Irish-American to just-Americans, but that happened somewhere. And I wonder how the same thing can happen across other racial divides. When faced with socially constructed but nonetheless significant differences, how can we stop drawing these dividing lines between an “us” and “not-us,” and start seeing cultural heritage as making up different sub-groups of a broader “us”?

I feel like the idea of “not talking about race” is trying to push toward having this non-differentiation of the “us” group. I don’t think that strategy works, but I think that’s what it’s going for—and I think it may be a response to a very real problem.

How We Talk About Race

The truth is, the way we talk about racism often reinforces the us-them dichotomy, whatever our intentions and concerns. For example, the popular and controversial Band Aid 30 song …

where all of Africa is depicted as being uniform, tragic, and “other.” Perhaps the best commentary on this comes from a response video from Radi-Aid …

where the Radi-Aid charity asks a question that’s made explicit on their about page: “Imagine if every person in Africa saw the ‘Africa for Norway’ video and this was the only information they ever got about Norway. What would they think about Norway? If we say Africa, what do you think about? Hunger, poverty, crime, or AIDS? No wonder, because in fundraising campaigns and media that’s mainly what you hear about.”

Even in our charitable efforts, we’re using extreme stereotypes. We’re reinforcing an us-them paradigm even as we claim we’re trying to make things better. We do so by telling people that “we” should feel guilty for what “they” are going through, that “we” need to help “them.” And, on the other side of the fence, with many racial issues, we express the same polarized mentality: These struggles are what “they” did to “us.”

I don’t think not talking about the issues will make them go away, but I do think we need to learn to talk about them better. I believe we need to define ourselves as part of a group working to resolve its own problems—problems we collectively own, even if they’ve impacted different sub-groups of our “us” disproportionately. And I worry about the way the dialogue of racism, as it currently stands, reinforces this division.

How Do We Fix This?

Honestly, I don’t know. One thing that really got me thinking was this particular advertisement:

The thing about this ad is that it’s definitely not color-blind. Its main strategy, in fact, is to use a young white girl because the target audience will,  by default, see that young girl as part of “us.” And it’s fascinating to me that (at least for me) this was so effective. It makes a situation personal, and then really hits the nail on the head by reminding us that “Just because it isn’t happening here doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.”

There’s emotional resonance there, and while it’s not saying it outright, it does seem to make the central claim quite strongly: It doesn’t matter any less when it’s happening to black people than when it’s happening to white people. The important thing is that it’s happening.

And really … it’s happening to us. Not the U.S. us or the U.K. us or the western world us, but to us nevertheless, in the most important sense. Do we have to play to our existing standpoint to move there? Do we have to remind people how it feels when it’s someone who’s already part of our “us” group before we can expand what that “us” really means?

I don’t know. It’s complex, and difficult, and I don’t have any solid answers. Only a few small notions: That we must honest about our own bias before we can confront it; that we can’t simply be blind to and mute about race, whether it’s socially constructed or not; that we must avoid reinforcing this us-them dichotomy in how we talk about race; and that the problems we face are not issues that only belong to one group. The problems that damage any group damage all of us. And we must all respond.

 

I’m still mulling it around my head, trying to get all the pieces into place. And I would love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to share them in the comments, below.

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