Making colorblind cool again (4 views)

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):

  1. 1960s conservative
  2. 1960s progressive
  3. Today’s conservative
  4. 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
1960s Conservative
1960s Progressive + +
Today’s Conservative +
Today’s Progressive +

x x x

  year-bfly-cover              BookCoverImage     

 (Click images for links)

Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

My blog entry on Two Kinds of Liberals raised for me a philosophical knot to be untied, implicating such formidable dead men as Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

Aristotle’s interest in natural philosophy and classification leads him to distinguish essential traits from accidental traits. Having four legs and a tail are “essential” traits of a cat; having a calico coloring is an “accidental” trait, a trait that applies to the individual but doesn’t define the category.

Wittgenstein makes a point in the Blue Book that at first sounds similar to Aristotle’s but turns out to be different in implication. Wittgenstein is interested in how we use language. E.g., when we read, do we process the meaning of each word and then put the meanings together? That may seem intuitive, but thinkers as far back as Edmund Burke (in his great 18th-century treatise on the sublime) suspected that this is not how the psychological process works. Wittgenstein asks us to picture someone who hasn’t learned the names for colors. Send him out to pick red flowers today, blue flowers tomorrow. At first you give him a color chart and he compares the flowers in the field to the chart, picking the correct ones. But soon he doesn’t need the chart because he “knows” his colors. The color chart is no longer relevant to his completion of the task. Just as the color chart is no longer needed to pick the flowers, the “image” associated with each word is not required for the process of reading and understanding the novel. We don’t stop and picture the meaning or image associated with each word before going on to the next word. Were this so, we would never in a lifetime finish our first Russian novel. Thus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between “a process being in accordance with a rule” and “a process involving a rule.” As when the color chart is no longer needed, we understand the novel “in accordance with” the meanings of words, but the meanings are not “involved” in the process. Wittgenstein concludes: “The rule which has been taught and is subsequently applied interests us only so far as it is involved in the application. A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.” Or, to put it mathematically, if we want to understand a calculation, we are only interested in a rule if “the symbol of the rule forms part of the calculation.”

At first it looks like “a rule involved in a process” corresponds to an “essential” rule in Aristotle’s terms and “a rule in accordance with which” a process takes place would be an “accidental” rule, and there may indeed be contexts wherein the analogy holds true. But Wittgenstein’s point is more radical. Whereas Aristotle is clarifying aspects of the objective world, Wittgenstein is saying that language, once learned, functions without reference to a world outside of itself. The objective world to which the language might refer is irrelevant to (uninvolved in) our processing and understanding the language. “The sign (the sentence) gets its significance … [not from] an object co-existing with the sign … but from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs. Roughly, understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Unlike Aristotle, Wittgenstein points the way to postmodernism, where the ground of meaning is infinitely displaced by a series of signifiers, where there is no ultimate reference point, and where relativism – metaphysical and cultural – becomes hard to shake off.

This theoretical dissonance may seem pointless, but I think it exposes the layering that undergirds the way we think about real world problems. Take the issue of cultural difference. The wing of liberalism I associate with Enlightenment rationalism, as well as with 1960-70s Civil Rights and feminism, is folded on top of an Aristotelian base. The “essential” aspect of human identity is our shared humanness, and we can best resolve such problems as racism through appeal to our universal human capacities for reason and compassion. Race, gender, and cultural identities are, after all, “accidental” traits superimposed upon that shared humanness.

“Identity politics,” together with “multiculturalism,” took hold in academia in the 1980s, and proposed that objectivity is impossible because everyone is a priori “politically situated” by their race, gender, class, etc. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Wittgenstein rather than those of Aristotle. In addressing problems of cultural difference, identity politics does not expressly deny “shared humanness,” but shared humanness is no longer “involved” in the process – it doesn’t form part of the active calculation. The political determinants of race, gender, etc., on the other hand, are “involved” in the process, and need to be respected as such. For example, when the white William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective, the liberals who attacked him for the arrogance of crossing that line would fit my category of multiculturalist liberals. For them, in today’s racial milieu, the black experience, the white experience, are “involved” in social relations, whereas shared humanness is remote; thus, it is presumptuous for a white man to think he can comprehend what a black man such as Nat Turner might have felt. The other branch of liberals – Enlightenment rationalists, 1960s liberals – who bank on the Aristotelian notion of shared humanness, would, quite the contrary, praise Styron for struggling to get beyond the “accidental” features of race and grasp experience from the point of view of our shared humanness.

When I said in my Two Kinds of Liberals blog that I was “with multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls,” I can now say that “identity politics” is an example of multiculturalism “guarding walls.” I see efforts such as Styron’s not as some kind of insidious “cultural appropriation” (an impossible term if one believes in the primacy of shared humanness) but as a heroic attempt to illuminate how our shared humanness is the key to dismantling the prejudice and ill will that can absorb us when we remain trapped within such “accidental” layers of identity as race or gender or cultural groupings. (And remember that “accidental” in Aristotle doesn’t mean trivial or unworthy of celebration, but simply means that it is a feature that does not define the essence.)

One other (unhappy in my opinion) consequence of the rise of “identity politics” within liberalism is the way in which it ceded the high ground that liberals held in the 1960s and 70s. Take the issue of double standards. My Aristotelian liberals (if you’ll permit the conceit) were the outspoken enemies of double standards on race and gender. This includes Wollstonecraft and Equiano in the Enlightenment period as well as the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s/70s. But with the theoretical turn to identity politics in the 1980s – where racial and gender identity displace shared humanness as the operative factor in race and gender struggles – a subset of liberals flip-flopped from being the enemies of double standards to being the champions of double standards. Thus began a liberal regimen of race-specific rules for what language is acceptable and for which practices are “reserved” against cultural appropriation, not to mention the idea, novel at the time but now widely accepted among a new generation of liberals, that a prejudice against someone on purely racial grounds is only “racism” if you are white (i.e., if your race has the upper hand in a power differential). Thus the legitimate effort to address gender inequities can take the illegitimate form of banning the word “bossy” for girls but presumably not for boys. The endgame of “identity politics” liberals is understandable, even noble, but the means – which shifted from the brazenly integrationist platform of the 60s to a kind of trench warfare defending this or that demographic turf, which shifted from a confident rejection of all double standards to an embrace of, or at least an equivocation toward, double standards – to the extent that these means have been deployed, liberals have ceded the moral high ground – not to conservatives, who from my vantage seem even farther aloof from the moral high ground, but to a vacuum waiting to be filled.

OK, I can’t really blame this all on Wittgenstein (from whom I learn more with every reading), although he is implicated in the trajectory towards postmodernism, which I do believe is at least partly responsible for the moral vacuum that developed within liberalism. But writing this has restored my faith in the extraordinary resilience of ancient Greek thought. Thus in this recycling of one of the great questions that absorbed European wits from Boileau to Swift in the 100 years or so leading into the Enlightenment – whether the ancients or the moderns were the greater masters of learning – the laurel wreath goes to … Aristotle and the ancients!