Thursday, November 1, 2012


An online friend recently alerted me to an article in Psychology Today entitled “Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism.” I looked it over, and the author, Monnica Williams, Ph.D., makes a fairly intelligent-sounding case for her proposition. Unfortunately, at further glance the article boils down to an exercise in circular logic. As I commented on the original Facebook share:
[B]asically, the author’s argument is that we shouldn’t work toward a colorblind society because we don’t live in a colorblind society. By that argument, we shouldn’t work for world peace because we don’t live in a peaceful world; we shouldn’t work to feed the hungry because we don’t live in a world without hunger; we shouldn’t work to educate the masses because we don’t live in a world without uneducated people. In short, if we have a goal, we must abandon it immediately because we live in a world where that goal has not yet been achieved.

How does that make even the slightest amount of sense?

Not surprisingly, my criticism was quickly met with an equally well thought-out response, from one Nick Moor:
You should probably read the article closer. The author is not saying to never work towards a post-racial world, but is instead arguing that adopting a colorblind approach in all things means that one ignores how race negatively impacts large swathes of people, which at the most basic level means you'll probably be poorly equipped to actually challenge racism. If you accept that racial inequality still exists, then ignoring how race affects outcomes and experiences is a poor response to said inequality. The author provides the alternative of multiculturalism.

As so often happens in these discussions, my response is really too long for (and ultimately too limited by) inclusion in a simple Facebook discussion. As such, Nick, I hope you’ll indulge me as I respond to you here.

First of all, Nick, I appreciate the clarification. (That’s an honest thank you, by the way, not a snide remark. The written word is so hard, sometimes!) I actually understand the argument you’ve highlighted, but I really don’t think it applies as much as you do, for one reason:

Colorblindness and multiculturalism are not mutually exclusive.

Let‘s take my own family, for example. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, in a firmly middle-class family. My ancestry includes Dutch, Irish, English, and Hungarian (and many more, if you continue back far enough)—a pretty multicultural background, yet one that never breaks out of a single, overarching “race”: Caucasian. So far, multiculturalism has absolutely no bearing on racism nor colorblindness, as neither colloquial race nor colorblindness is involved.

So, let’s move on to my wife. She grew up in an impoverished family of seven children, occasioned by her father’s degree program being terminated halfway through his college career. She was born in West Virginia, then moved to rural Indiana when her father got what would turn out to be a short-lived job. Her ancestry is Scottish, Dutch, Irish, and Cherokee—which obviously overlaps a bit with my own ancestry, but also includes a couple more cultures and even an additional “race” (Native American). Sadly, the Cherokee is so muted by the Scottish that you’d never notice it unless you’re particularly familiar with the tribe and its unique, telltale features. Thus, she remains effectively Caucasian. Again, highly multicultural, but the diminution of her Native-American heritage renders colorblindness fairly moot.

Now, how about our children? Two of our three were adopted, so they don’t share the same biological ancestry as we. As such, we actually know very little about their biological heritage. Yet, we still love and honor the families that gave them life. (Our older daughter’s birthmom is actually coming to visit us, today, and I’m currently chatting with her birthfather’s younger sister.) In short, we embrace their birth families as part of our family, an indelible part of our daughters’ respective stories and heritages. This brings in another layer of multiculturalism. However, as all four birthparents that picked us happened to be Caucasian, the colorblindness/race card still hasn’t even been played.

So, let’s spread out a little farther. Four of my wife’s siblings are married. Two of them married other Caucasians, but two did not. Her brother’s wife happens to be three-quarters Mexican and one-quarter Spanish. In contrast to my wife’s and my fairly suburban upbringing, our sister-in-law grew up in the city and spoke American Spanish in the home—a language she has passed on to both my brother-in-law and their children. Obviously, in this case, both race and culture are significantly different, so we’re finally getting somewhere in terms of our discussion.

My wife’s sister also married a non-Caucasian man. Our brother-in-law is a mix of African nationalities and grew up in poverty, in the deep South. He got into college on a football scholarship and was drafted into the NFL right out of college, but an injury preceded his first season and he wound up back in his college town of Lafayette, Indiana (where he met my sister-in-law). Again: different race, different upbringing, different life experience.

The point I’m trying to make is that we’re a fairly multicultural family, and we do recognize the individual contributions of each family member and his or her cultural upbringing. We love and honor each other, including in-laws and nieces and nephews just as much as anyone else. While we may be of different races, we respect and even, to a certain extent, embrace each other’s culture and their stories, despite their difference from our own. Yet at the same time, we ignore the color of each other’s respective skins, just like we ignore each other’s hair color, eye color, etc.; all are ultimately irrelevant to who we truly are.

Yes, people have different life experiences. Yes, there is a so-called “white privilege” that US society and culture affords to those of us “lucky” enough to be born with less melanin in our skin. But simply embracing a non-colorblind, multicultural attitude doesn’t solve this problem; in some cases, foregoing colorblindness actually compounds it! One only need look at the debate over Affirmative Action to see that many “white” people are a lot more aware of “black privilege” than they are, their own. This awareness leads to increased anti-“black” racism and, by extension, increases the preponderance of attitudes that led to “white privilege” in the first place. While the long-term benefits of so-called “reverse discrimination” may be desirable, the short-term drawbacks often undermine its effectiveness. In short, ignoring race often does much more good than attempting to compensate for it.

Dr. Williams cites Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous “dream that [his] four little children not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” a dream that I suspect to be shared by everyone involved in this discussion. The problem is that while multiculturalism does help us understand one another, multiculturalism, by itself, does nothing to accomplish this goal. It is only by pairing that multiculturalism with the very colorblindness Dr. Williams eschews, that we can truly create lasting change in our society’s racial relations.

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