I See Color

Five reasons whites shouldn’t colorblind themselves.


Tuesday night, CNN (for reasons I still don’t understand) decided to devote an hour of evening air time to billionaire Howard Schultz (a.k.a. Daddy Starbucks) answering questions in a town hall format. While answering a question about a racial incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Schultz said this:

As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of a statement like that, or how to respond to it. It’s far from the first time I’ve heard another white person (it’s always a white person) say that he or she “doesn’t see color”. Typically, people who make this statement think they’re saying something virtuous — that they’re not prejudiced against non-whites, that they try to see each person as an individual rather than through the lens of a racial stereotype, or that they treat people of all races the same. If you question them, you’re likely to hear the famous Martin Luther King quote:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

By “not seeing color”, then, a white person is trying to live Dr. King’s dream: I’m not judging your children by the color of their skin; in fact, I’m not even noticing it.

So what’s wrong with that? Many of the people who say they don’t see color really do mean well — though some don’t; we’ll get to that — so I think they deserve a clear and honest answer.

1. It’s probably not literally true. I’ve occasionally been surprised to find out that someone I’ve known for a while has Jewish ancestry, or was born in another country and speaks English as a second language, or was brought up in a family very much richer or poorer than mine. Apparently, I really don’t “see” those things, at least not all the time. But I’ve never, ever been surprised to discover that somebody is black. I’ve never, ever had anyone say to me, “Did you realize Marcus is black? I never noticed before.”

I know that mixed-race people are sometimes hard to classify. So “Do you think of yourself as black?” can be a meaningful question. But even then I have usually spotted the uncertainty. Because I see color. I believe just about everybody does.

So “I don’t see color” has an element of willfulness to it. At best, it’s not about perception, it’s about habits of thought. Probably the more literal statement would be, “I don’t think about race.” Or maybe: “I try not to think about race.”

But even when we try not to take race into account, we often do. I try not to be prejudiced or to act in any way that promotes bigotry. But I also score badly on the implicit racism test. Like most people, I see color even when I think I don’t.

2. That’s not how dreams work. But what about the dream of a colorblind society? I mean, the one where people might notice each other’s skin color in the literal sense I just talked about, but it just doesn’t matter, because all people are judged “by the content of their character”. Race might still be part of your heritage, but in the here and now, it would only matter to the extent you want it to.

A lot of white identities are like that now. I come from German stock, while somebody else might have Polish ancestors. Germans and Poles have been at each other’s throats for centuries, but in America today none of that matters any more. Maybe we’ll trade mock-hostile barbs when Germany plays Poland in the World Cup. Maybe your grandmother taught you how to prepare kielbasa while mine taught me schnitzel. (Actually she didn’t, unfortunately.) But in all the ways that count, the ones that might re-ignite the conflicts of our ancestors, neither of us cares.

We can imagine a society where race is like that. “Your people came over from Africa? That’s interesting. Have you traced what part?” But when employers are deciding whether to hire you, police are deciding whether to arrest you (or just shoot you), or Starbucks managers are deciding whether to call 911, your race wouldn’t play any role. The percentage of the population that is in poverty or in prison or in management or prematurely in the grave wouldn’t depend on race in anything but a round-off-error sort of way.

Is that a worthy dream? I believe it is.

But I’m not trying to pretend it’s true now, because dreams don’t work that way.

If you dream about being a billionaire like Howard Schultz, the way to get there isn’t to start living like a billionaire in all the ways you can. Quite the opposite: Every time you go to the kind of restaurant a billionaire might frequent — or as close to one as your credit cards will allow — you get a little farther away from actual wealth.

I dream of a society where all people have access to health care, but I don’t bring that day closer by pretending that they already do. I dream of a world where refugees aren’t desperate to get into the United States, because their home countries are doing fine and they have lots of other good places to live. But having that dream doesn’t make me any less callous when I ignore those refugees.

I dream of a world where everyone is honest, and I can leave my laptop sitting unattended on my table at Starbucks when I go off to the bathroom. But I never do that, because dreams don’t work that way.

A colorblind teacher in a white neighborhood school would see the new black kid being picked on and think, “I wonder what that’s about.” A colorblind warden would be oblivious to the racially segregated gangs in his prison.

In American society today, race matters. You can’t deal with that reality unless you see it.

3. Having a choice about whether or not you’ll notice race today is an element of white privilege. As I write this sentence, I’m sitting in the breakfast area of a La Quinta somewhere in Maryland. A couple of hotel employees are responsible for keeping the coffee urns full and the steam tables stocked with scrambled eggs and sausages. None of them are in my line of sight right now, and I realize I don’t know what race they are. To that extent, at least, I’ve been colorblind this morning.

I can do that, because whether they’re white or black or something else, they’re here to serve me.

Similarly, when Howard Schultz sits down with a stack of resumes, thinking about who Starbucks’ next CFO should be, he can decide to ignore race if he wants to. (But given that Philadelphia incident and the bad publicity that came with it, he probably shouldn’t. Some highly visible black face would do Starbucks some good right now.)

But think about what happened to John Crawford III. He was shopping in a Wal-Mart near Dayton, Ohio, when he picked a pellet gun off a shelf and began carrying it with him while he shopped (and talked on the phone). A white customer saw him and called 911, telling police that a black man was waving a gun around at Wal-Mart. (He wasn’t.) A few minutes later, a white policeman barked orders at a very confused Crawford, and then shot him dead when he didn’t respond fast enough, because the cop believed Crawford “was about to” raise the gun. (The officer wasn’t charged with any crime, kept his job, and went back to full field duty after the investigation was complete.)

Now imagine that you’re a black parent trying to raise a son. What will you tell him that Crawford did wrong there? What do you want your boy to do differently if he’s in a similar situation? I think you warn him that Crawford didn’t see color that day. He didn’t think: “There are white people in this store who expect black men to be dangerous.” He didn’t notice when white police walked into the store, and immediately assume they might be looking for him.

The white people in the Wal-Mart could choose to be colorblind if they wanted (though the guy who called 911 clearly wasn’t). John Crawford III couldn’t get away with making that choice.

Of course, you also tell your black son about Martin’s Dream. But you’re very careful to teach him not to lose sight of the difference between the Dream and the Reality. Confusing the two could get him killed.

4. Colorblind whites make bad allies. Think about the teacher and the warden I mentioned above. Racism is real in America, and you’re not going to be much use in mitigating it if you refuse to see it.

Most racism in America today tries not to draw attention to itself. It often pretends to be something else, and has a semi-plausible explanation of its actions. If you’re not paying close attention, you might not see through that explanation.

For example, during the Obama administration, the First Family was often faulted for doing things that white First Families had done without drawing criticism. Barack was photographed putting his feet up on a historic desk. Family vacations cost the taxpayers a lot of money because of the entourage that had to come along. The White House Christmas card didn’t display any religious themes. The White House is equipped and staffed to provide a posh lifestyle, as it has for decades.

Lots of people objected to this stuff without consciously thinking about race. It wasn’t that the Obamas were black, it’s that they were living wastefully or disrespecting some important American value. But somehow that disrespect didn’t register in the same way when the president was white.

In order to notice that kind of thing and address it appropriately, you need to see color. You need to be sensitive to the idea that racism constantly lurks in the background of American society, even when the foreground looks fine.

A lot of today’s racism is baked into the system, and doesn’t depend on any individual’s prejudice. The pipeline that sends black children to mostly segregated schools, funds those schools inadequately, criminalizes discipline, and channels students in the direction of prison — it operates with or without the racism of any particular teacher or principal or policeman or judge. If they all suddenly became colorblind, the system would continue to function.

5. Idealizing colorblindness gives cover to people who invoke it in bad faith. Trump has often claimed to be “the least racist person” — the least racist person you’ve met, ever interviewed, and so on. He has made that claim while trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, building a wall to keep out Hispanics, saying that neo-Nazis are “very fine people”, and pushing the baseless theory that the first black president wasn’t really an American.

He gets away with that, at least among certain segments of the electorate, because he doesn’t explicitly invoke color. This is a constant theme in conservative circles: If I don’t explicitly mention color, I’m not racist. On paper, the law has explicitly been colorblind since the 1960s. So racism effectively ended then — except for the affirmative action programs that disadvantage whites. Non-whites are still much poorer than whites, and are under-represented in elite schools, corporate boardrooms, and high-paying professions, while over-represented in prisons and poverty programs. But any attempt to remedy those problems can’t be colorblind, so they get tarred as “reverse racism”.

 

I’ll give the last word to Khalil Gibran Muhammad author of The Condemnation of Blackness,

If we’re going to do something differently in the 21st century than what was done in the 20th century, it’s going to take a whole lot more white people in everyday experiences to be anti-racist and to stand up for racial justice.

Not non-racist, anti-racist. And you can’t fight what you can’t see.

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Comments

  • Peter Olson  On February 18, 2019 at 11:08 am

    And I see nothing at all! — re-send?

    >

  • Jeff R.  On February 18, 2019 at 11:15 am

    And I’m sure that Tomi L. in your leading picture with Trevor N., I presume, would say that her success has nothing to do with her APPEARANCE including the color yellow hair. [snark] My intention is not to offend individuals of any particular appearance. There are studies, however, strongly suggesting that one’s physical “attractiveness” matters.

    • Paul Bradford  On February 18, 2019 at 11:39 am

      I don’t see attractiveness.

      • Eric L  On February 22, 2019 at 12:22 pm

        I know you’re kidding here but this is analogous in many ways including ways you don’t mean it to be. There are a lot of situations where we are expected to maintain the polite fiction that we don’t see attractiveness. This is one of those situations. While it is fine to note in general that attractiveness affects your chance at success in life, especially for women, in any other context suggesting a particular woman’s success is due to her looks is considered sexist.

  • Eric L  On February 22, 2019 at 10:25 am

    I’m skeptical of #3. Colorblindness isn’t some default state of being that white people never have the misprint of being forced out of — our culture in many ways socializes white people to not see race, or at least not see their own race, for anti-racist reasons.

    You give a good discussion of the reasons here: https://weeklysift.com/2016/11/28/should-i-have-white-pride/

    But forget the reasons and just look at the end result. You identify as an English speaking German American, but your race doesn’t play much of a role in how you see yourself or how you relate to other white people. You don’t think about your own race except grudgingly when you clearly need to. You’re not as colorblind as Schultz claims to be, but you are quite colorblind in ways Trevor Noah isn’t, and it’s not just because of your privilege, it’s because it is expected of you as a white person for reasons you are quite well aware of!

    So it’s not hard to see how someone learning what is expected of upper middle class white people who doesn’t put the same thought into the reasons behind the expectations would learn to simply pretend race doesn’t exist, as this rule will help you avoid all sorts of mistakes that will make you look racist. Granted if you make the mistake of claiming you actually don’t see it, you will look naive or more likely just full of shit. But in most situations the social expectation for a white person is to act how you would if you didn’t see race. And this is probably for the best. White people who are hyperaware of race are not in general better.

Trackbacks

  • By Defending the Constitution | The Weekly Sift on February 18, 2019 at 11:33 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “A Fishy Emergency Threatens the Republic” and “I See Color“. […]

  • […] “Years after his retirement from WRGB-TV after 38 years of telling stories that touched everyone, reporter Ken Screven remains a fixture in his community, from his Albany Times Union blogs to his active social media following. This Black History Month, we take an in-depth look at the trails he blazed to become the first black on-air reporter in the Capital Region.” *** Weekly Sift: I See Color […]

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