In today’s discourse on race, charged terms like “colorblind” typically elicit a knee-jerk reaction unmediated by critical thinking. Indeed, a call to critical thinking is itself often considered de facto allegiance to white supremacy. For the sake of those who would write me off in knee-jerk fashion, I intend to analyze the meaning and uses of “colorblind” with an eye open to both the good and bad implications, so — trigger warning — write me off now. For others, I recommend you read through, pick and choose what you agree or disagree with based on your own critical thinking and not on what your friends or teachers want you to think, and then feel free to chime in with a comment.
The term attained its modern relevance in the 1960s (Civil Rights and hippies) era, so I will stake out four viewpoints relative to that baseline (and thus relevant to pushing the dialectic forward):
- 1960s conservative
- 1960s progressive
- Today’s conservative
- Today’s progressive
Note: The two 1960s-based angles are not obsolete, as both still have some currency and both could experience future surges – although this is likelier for 1960s progressive ideas, which are more resilient than 1960s conservative ideas – but for our purposes the tags mean not obsolete but merely indicate a position grounded in ideas that reached critical mass in the 60s.
1960s conservatives on colorblindness
1960s conservatives on race rejected the colorblind approach. They were the segregationists fighting against Civil Rights. They thought whites and blacks were fundamentally different, and we need to recognize those fundamental differences. Thus, their slogan was “separate but equal” cultures, schools, neighborhoods, etc.
1960s progressives on colorblindness
1960s progressives from Civil Rights to hippies initiated the modern call for colorblindness. The idea was that legal structures should be immediately made colorblind (no legal segregation, colorblind enforcement of laws, of rights, etc.), and we should work toward (since social mores cannot be changed as immediately as written laws) colorblindness in other social formations, so people can date and marry and live with whom they want without limitations of color, etc. The push was to judge people always and everywhere not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
Today’s conservatives on colorblindness
In the wake of the 1960s, racism, although still practiced, rapidly became ideologically taboo. No one, especially no one in public life, wanted to be tagged as a racist. Even supporters of racist policies would often begin with, “I’m not a racist, but….” Thus, it is no surprise that conservatives gradually came on board with Martin Luther King, who is now idolized across the political spectrum. Today’s conservatives by and large do not deny the founding truth that all are created equal, regardless of color, and do not deny racial equality as a valid goal. But they tend to assume that, since equal rights are codified in law, the goal has been reached. Thus, their colorblindness places them a step ahead of the 1960s conservatives, but it also leaves them refusing to acknowledge historical disparities based on race that are very much still with us.
Today’s progressives on colorblindness
Progressives today are most vociferous in rejecting colorblindness, and they include phrases like “I don’t see color when I meet people” as racist microaggressions in written standards at many universities. The advantage of this position is it highlights the continuing inequities experienced by blacks. A disadvantage is that it reifies race into a fixed category with solid walls around it. Race becomes the essential feature of identity. If you are black, you are different than non-blacks. Black culture and black identity are in effect hermetically sealed, one type of experience inside the bubble and another outside. Whites cannot know what it feels like to be black, and thus should not teach or create artworks about black history, adopt cultural trends that begin in black culture, etc.
Summary and recommendations
The 1960s conservative position I dismiss out of hand. I assume that none of my readers share the orientation of those segregationists fighting against Civil Rights.
Today’s conservatives score well in theory for advocating equality for all, but fare less well in practice, as their disregard for continuing disparities leaves their position untenable for me.
The dispute between 1960s and today’s progressives is more interesting to me. Today’s progressives have the advantage over either conservative group in that they acknowledge continuing disparities to be addressed. But they fare poorly in that they reify black and white experience, judge people accordingly, and leave no easy road toward harmony. If white and black experiences are fundamentally different, there is little hope of mutual empathy and heart-to-heart connection and the kind of integration that 1960s Civil Rights advocates had envisioned as the path to a more ideal society.
The 1960s progressive vision has some key advantages in this regard. First, they are more in line with the historical struggle for equality. From Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King and James Baldwin, the dominant post-Enlightenment theme of racial struggle has been shared humanness. We need to recognize that “they” love their children, they laugh and cry, they struggle with all the same things “we” struggle with. Although racial identity is a relevant layer of identity – sometimes an intensely relevant layer – it is the recognition of our shared humanness that is the best antidote to the toxins of prejudice and distrust across racial lines. The fallacy of today’s progressives is that they see racial identity not as a supplement to, but as a substitute for, shared humanness. In contrast, the shared humanness line of reasoning, with racial, gender, etc., layers of identity superadded, which was embraced by 1960s progressives as well as their antecessors, seems intuitively correct. The only risk is that an overemphasis on shared humanness might cause one to overlook persistent race-based inequities. I believe this is what drives today’s progressives’ distrust of shared humanness. But they throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, there is that risk, and per my sketch above, I find today’s conservatives in the aggregate succumb to that risk. But 1960s progressives had always recognized racial disparities and the unique experience brought to the table by different racial backgrounds. They just thought that the best way to combat inequities was not to put battle lines and walls between races (as today’s progressives arguably do) but to recognize our shared humanness and join together, black and white, male and female, gay and straight, to address continuing inequities, knowing that we CAN see into each other’s hearts across racial lines, we can join together as brothers and sisters.
The second advantage of the 1960s vision, then, is practical applicability. Joining together across racial lines, in a spirit of mutual celebration, and not in a spirit of shaming or leveraging against one another, will get you more cross-cultural alliance, more spirit, and more snowballing social power than the more divisive (indeed one could say the more segregationist) approach of drawing lines between races and having each guard its own turf against exploitation.
The third and final advantage is the endgame vision. I do believe three of my four groups (excluding the 1960s segregationists) would accept a long-term ideal of a society that is open, uninhibited, comfortable with diversity, and rich in human contact. Of the four, though, the 1960s progressive vision is best poised to get us there. Today’s conservative vision has the impediment of failing to acknowledge continuing race-based inequity. Today’s progressive vision has the impediment of reifying (one might even say fetishizing) race, building walls instead of bridges between races, encouraging turf wars and blocking off porosity between races. The 1960s progressive, on the other hand, was unreservedly integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and progressives alike. Indeed, the 1960s progressive might favor every form of cultural appropriation in every direction. Break down all the walls, everyone share everyone else’s stuff, willy-nilly, regardless of race or gender, in a frenzy of mutual celebration across all demographic lines. It is colorblind not because it ignores race-based cultural contributions or race-based disparities. It is colorblind because, in a concerted effort to address those disparities, it refuses to judge brother and sister allies based on race, it refuses to say that I cannot know your heart inside and out, and you know mine, because of our different skin color. It is a vision much more radical than any variant we see today coming out of the self-preserving corridors of Left/Right think tanks and university critical race theory departments – more radical than any of these and probably much better suited to grease the flow toward that shared long-term social ideal.
We need to make 1960s colorblindness cool again.
x x x
Table: Strengths (+) and weaknesses (-) of colorblind orientation per ideological grouping
|Reject judgments or battle lines based on race||Acknowledge continuing racial disparity|
x x x
(Click images for links)
This is such an in-depth + profound post!
As someone who took part in the push for Civil Rights in the late 60s + early 70s, I can attest to the powerful nature of the liberal movement back then. In 1968 I agreed as an 8 yr old white boy to be bussed voluntarily to an all-black inner city school. My Dad, who was a big city editor at a newspaper, was proud of the fact I was open to being bussed. In looking back on the experience, I’m glad to note my experience with integration was largely positive.
As you talk of, during the 60s, 70s, + 80s, there was desire to integrate on many levels. In those days, there was an understanding that races + cultures could benefit from a certain amount of intermingling. Hence, the color-blind concept that Dr. King talked of became accepted during that time. I remember in the 1970’s being exposed to this concept when my parents became members of an anti-poverty program.
When one looks at the broad sweep of human history one realizes that concepts of culture + even race somewhat, are not static. Indeed, as many say, there has been a constant intermingling + integration of disparate people from the day one. Therefore, I whole-heartedly agree with you that the concept of cultural appropriation can be viewed as potentially limiting to human potential. After all…as an Italian-American who believes in the concept of a melting-pot, I tend to support + find some joy in those non-Italians who celebrate my Italian heritage by borrowing or enjoying certain aspects of my culture. Likewise, I have on occasion found certain aspects of other cultures + races quite interesting.
In the late 60s + 70s + 80s there were many musical groups that intermingled different cultures into their music in an attempt to synthesize elements together into something new. When one thinks of this, obviously the multi-faceted music of The Beatles comes to mind since they drew upon many cultural + musical sources in creating new music. To me, one of the songs that strongly hints at the need for people to integrate was “Everyday People” by the group Sly & The Family Stone.
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I love Sly’s “Everyday People” (appropriately sung at Woodstock), but alas, I suspect that its quintessential 60s theme of “all brothers and sisters under the skin,” had he released it today, would face more call-out shaming from our color-conscious progressives than from our young conservatives. A sad state. We could sure use a voice like Sly’s today! Thanks as always for enriching the discussion with the depth of personal experience. (Your personal experience always amazes me. You are the Forrest Gump of my followers list.)
Thx so much Gary! I’m listening to Sly & The Family Stone as I type this 🙂
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Interesting post DL, thanks. We’ve just been travelling around Asia for the last year and have to comment that Institutionalised inequality is universal and not restricted to any particular race, colour or culture.
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Thanks, Kristen and Billy. Always nice to get feedback from the front lines.
This is such a worthy effort to tackle a profoundly difficult and important topic that I hasten to say I emphatically agree with your conclusion, though my reaction is “If only…” I do have some questions and areas of disagreement, however.
First, it sounds as though all your categories are drawn from the perspectives of white people. Even your conclusion alludes to getting “back to color-blindness again.” But that negates the Black Nationalist Movement, Black Power, and the Black Panthers, all so disgusted with American society that they sought self-empowerment and self-identification–definitely not color-blindness. But since you’re concerned about self-identity, you’re clearly covering African Americans now. So I’m confused about this point.
Second, though I acknowledge we’re talking about broad strokes, and many individuals don’t fit into the categories, I emphatically disagree with your contention that conservatives today “gradually came on board with Martin Luther King, who is now idolized across the political spectrum.” I guess it depends upon how one defines “conservative.” I see us in a time of heightened racism prompted by fear: that the once-white majority is being replaced by a multi-racial, multi-ethnic majority. Thus, support for extreme views re: immigration, efforts to suppress minority votes through gerrymandering and other quasi-legal or blatantly illegal tactics, and the possibility that Americans may reelect a President who said after Charlottesville: “There are good people on both sides.” Of course, these extremists don’t represent most people, but if there were sufficient condemnation of them, perhaps their ascent wouldn’t be so dramatic. If I am misunderstanding your sense here, I welcome your clarification. (I’m assuming you made a deliberate decision not to talk about political actions, but I cannot fathom how Republicans can be silent in the presence of such anti-American extremism.)
Third, I see today’s progressives as a very mixed bag, but I think what you refer to as “reifying race” stems in part from the blatant steps backward and the existence of so many questionable police killings of unarmed black people. That was the origin of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. I have written about race in my blog, a two-part series (which became three when I saw a great Op-Art in The New York Times) on “How Do We Talk About Race in America?,” and one of my points was that when people respond to “Black Lives Matter” by saying “All Lives Matter,” my response is of course all lives matter, and if the larger society were acting as if they took that expression to heart, there would be no need for “Black Lives Matter.”
I got some fascinating comments on those posts, and they showed that to some extent both black and white people who have been involved in “talking about race” are simply exhausted. I ran an anonymous comment from an African-American friend, an extraordinary woman who has risen to prominence in the business world despite never having graduated from college (and is a terrific writer) who essentially said, “You white people broke it; you fix it.”
I really hope you and perhaps your interested readers will read “Part 2: Meet Doug Glanville.” Doug, a former major league baseball player who is a friend of my daughter’s, has turned racial microagressions against him into positive action and was responsible for changing Connecticut law when he was profiled by a police officer in his own driveway (which probably counts as more than a microaggression). His is a sane, thoughtful voice, and he gives me hope. He is now teaching a course on social justice at Yale.
Although I think it’s essential to continue to discuss race on an intellectual and philosophical level, the main problem is that it is still a visceral issue. Often, people’s verbal statements and actions are justifications for feelings they probably aren’t even aware they have (and I don’t exempt myself here; I think it’s impossible to grow up “color-blind” in America and other countries as well).
…Except for this new generation, and here’s where my optimism arises. For the most part, despite the growing fringe elements, this generation really seems to have it together in terms of seeing people as people–regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or any other category. They truly give me hope that “color-blindness” may not be that far off in America.
Thank you for your stimulating post. I hope I haven’t overstayed my welcome here!
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Hi Annie. We do have some disagreements, but this does not mean you’ve overstayed your welcome. Differing points of view push the dialectic forward (although I cannot seem to convince my friends on the Right or the Left of this).
I am a white person, so yes, this probably colors to some extent my orientation to racial politics – not necessarily a bad thing but just a fact of life in human culture as we’ve known it to date. Note that, unlike my woke friends, I do not think my whiteness is relevant in all discussions – I believe shared humanness is more operative most of the time – but my white background is probably relevant in discussions of race.
From my perspective, I think of all those white and black people marching together in the 1960s (some of which I was too young to see other than on TV), of Woodstock where 30% of the bands were black (including the headliner) in a country with about 10% black population, of all pro-integration spirit expressed by both white and black people among my friends on the street in those days. I think of how clearly they showed us that the progressive spirit need not be “white” or “black,” and then it saddens me to see us all these years later going back to that old way of boxing things up into “white” and “black” perspectives. It especially saddens me to see progressives so invested in sharpening that binary, as I had always expected more of them than I did of my conservative friends.
Also, I would agree that some conservatives are still racist in the 1960s sense, and many are willing to leverage racist policies to shore up their electoral power. I have less sympathy for them than I do for the progressives that I think are inadvertently tearing us apart. But, having lived and worked in conservative areas near New Orleans, most of my average conservative friends on the street were, I believe, sincere about believing in the principle of equality but refused to see how policies they advocated vitiated that principle. I suppose I have too many friends and family who vote conservative (though note again that I never have done so) to write them off as evil when they seem fair and square when dealing with people of all races and simply clueless on the political end.
Back to a note on perspective. I honestly do not believe there is a “white” or “black” perspective (that, to me, is still a reification and one that keeps dragging back the gains in consciousness we had made in the first few decades after the 60s). In most of our daily interactions – certainly in most of mine in living in a city nearly 50/50 white/black – in most all our interactions with friends and neighbors, our shared humanness is the operative layer of identity. Sure, sometime race is the operative factor, sometimes gender, sometimes regional, sometimes career, sometimes …. But most interactions (outside of the ivory tower of today’s liberal arts colleges and what has become an identity-fetish Establishment devoted to those theories that will best secure funding in perpetuity) are in a spirit of human camaraderie. Even where race is an operative factor – say in discussions of racial conditions – there is STILL not a black and a white perspective. There is a scattergraph of perspectives with a general (but by no means universal) tendency for the white dots to bunch up in one general area and black dots in one general area, with much overlap and deviation. And it’s the deviants in this case, not the people who insist on sharp lines between white and black perspectives, who give us hope.
Thanks for juicing up the discussion!
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I certainly agree with you that there are no “white” or “black” perspectives–there are as many differing perspectives as there are people–and I like the graphic description you’ve drawn. But I don’t think most of us realize how exhausting it is in so many ways–large and small–for people of color simply to go through their daily lives.
I also realize there are many conservatives who don’t fit the stereotype. Some of them have become among my favorite blogging correspondents. (Now that sounds like a reworking of an old cliche, true though it is!) But it’s hard for me not to see some scary trends in this country among a number of people who self-identify as conservatives, though they don’t seem to fit the classical definition.
Like you, I seek to emphasize our shared humanity above all; I often write about my hopes for finding common ground. When asked to tell 7 things about myself for a recent blogging award, I concluded that while I’m deeply concerned about the apparent fragility of our democracy and the polarization that divides us, I continue to believe that deep down–beyond the fear and anger–we humans all have similar needs and wants. And I fervently hope we find leadership that will inspire us and focus on the things that unite us: that vast area of common ground.
Back to your scattergraph: as a writer, I am enamored of your ability to make the case that “it’s the deviants…who give us hope.”
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Hahaha. Cheers to the deviants! It’s always the deviants who save us, isn’t it? That’s how evolution has worked since the first mutation in the primal slime. I agree with everything you’ve said here about our human perspectives and the tiring difficulties POC often face and your concern about certain trends on the conservative side (for God’s sake, we’ve elected Trump). I just add a layer on top of that of equal concern about certain trends among so-called progressives (“so-called” because I find them far less radical that their 60s counterparts and indeed quite regressive in more ways than one).
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I have heard a similar view expressed by weary people of color. At one point, I thought it was a topic worth pursuing for a blog post, but I got sidetracked.
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Go for it! One of the weirder things the woke folks seem to think is that white people should not weigh on on racial matters. All of the great liberating voices I’ve mentioned — from Equiano and Douglass to MLK and James Baldwin — ALL say that we ALL have a stake in getting this right — the idea that we can get through this without bringing all voices to the table is, again, one of the weirder woke things to me. Even in my personal life in a 50/50 city, though I did not face the unique pressures POC faced, getting racial harmony right was so clearly part of getting my city right, my community right, my neighborhood right, that it would have been bizarre for me to shut down and say, “No, that’s not something I need to think about or speak about,” and VERY bizarre for me to say, “It will offend POC if I show some concern or that I too have some thoughts about how we can work together to get this right” … unless I say my voice on the matter should count more than a POC’s, which, as far as I know, has never been said by anyone.
That was my premise in my blog series in race: that it’s everyone’s responsibility to get it right. But hearing hearing from several Black people I respect a lot the point you are making about progressives was new to me. I have no qualms about exploring it; I just have to reach the point where I feel compelled to do so.
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Take your time 🙂
(Btw, Annie, you might like my new post on immigration.)
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I mentioned that I’d had a blog post in which I talked about race with Doug Glanville, who’s a terrific guy (Part Two of my look at race.) I don’t know if you see The NY Times, but Doug had this OpEd today, which I think will interest you.
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Thanks, Annie. Good food for thought.
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Such an interesting and educational post!
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Thanks! I thought so too 🙂