Colorblindness is not enough

They were taught by their elders, Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, about how to think about race and racism. The lessons Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers gleaned from the Civil Rights era is that racism is matter of personal bigotry — racists hate people because of the color of their skin, or because they believe stereotypes about groups of people they’ve never met — not one of institutional discrimination and exploitation. The history Millennials have been taught is through that lens, with a specific focus on misunderstanding the message of Martin Luther King, Jr. Certainly, a world where we all loved one another would be ideal, where each person is seen as equal, where “the dream” of children of all different racial backgrounds holding hands with one another without prejudice is a reality. But Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers generally decided to ignore King’s diagnosis of the problem — white supremacy — and opted to make him a poster-child for a colorblind society, in which we simply ignore construct of race altogether and pray that it will disappear on its own.

via White Millennials are products of a failed lesson in colorblindness.

This rings very, very true for me. I was brought up believing that racism was bad (duh), but that racism was a simple matter of hatred. That simply being colorblind and “treating everyone equally” would be sufficient to eventually erase racism.

This belief carried through as I began to leave the conservatism of my upbringing and lean more and more libertarian. I still thought that so long as we weren’t teaching kids to hate, and so long as everyone was equal under the law, racism would fade away.

What I didn’t understand was that inequitable systems can perpetuate themselves indefinitely even if no one involved in the system hates other races. Systems are robust that way.

What I didn’t understand is that society can be racist even without hate. A big eye-opener for me was being confronted with the science of implicit bias. The experimentally-demonstrable fact that the vast majority of people have subtle biases they aren’t even aware of, biases that go against their conscious beliefs. That these biases extend even to members of the biased-against group. And that these biases are born out in real-world consequences.

This has been shown time and time again in e.g. hiring studies where the same resume is submitted with different racial or gender markers. Or in quick-reflex tests of whether someone is perceived as “threatening”. And again, this doesn’t require conscious, intentional racism or sexism to still have real effects on real people.

If course, we still do have actual, honest-to-gosh hate. But its existence almost makes it easier for these systems of inequity to persist, because it makes it possible for us to say “See, that’s what racism looks like. I’m not a racist!”.

And this fantasy of equality makes space for all kinds of victim blaming: there must be some good reason she didn’t get the job. There must be some good reason he got shot.

Which is another experimentally-proven human bias: we reliably blame victims.  It is wired into our brains to do so. If someone is in a bad situation, we unconsciously and automatically start looking for a moral explanation of it.

I no longer believe colorblindness (or gender-blindness, etc.) is enough. I might think it’s “logical” for it to be enough, but the science is in and the science says I’m wrong. You can’t correct a systemic bias or an unconscious bias by pretending it doesn’t exist. Even more depressingly, you also can’t correct for biases simply by being aware of them. In order to neutralize a bias, you have to consciously, deliberately counter the effects of a bias, making the assumption that you have the bias even if you don’t feel like you do. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more on this.)

Which means we have to talk about race, and gender, and orientation. And that’s difficult for me, because I was raised not to do it.

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One Comment

  1. Good stuff. My only quibble would be that the growing awareness of the systemic nature of racism–the way it’s built into systems and then plays upon our natural biases–that was pointed out by a few boomer academics–and it became the majority view amongs gen-x academics–and that’s how the talk about it today now exists… and hopefully this means that it will be seen as a obvious truth by the time millenials are running the scene–and that they and their kids will actually begin dismantling it as best as they can..

    There are ecological-type cycles going on here–evolution of culture–but it takes time, work, and thought to reshape reality…

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