Colorblind Racism: Why Anti-Racists Insist We Look At Skin Color

by Christopher Paslay

The concept of colorblindness has been hijacked and redefined by anti-racists, so much so that its meaning has literally been inverted and turned on its head — going from a positive that society should strive to attain to a negative that it should guard against.

A major part of anti-racism is challenging a white person’s belief in colorblindness, and how this belief serves to both obscure and perpetuate white privilege and institutional racism. Traditionally, colorblindness is a positive — a way of viewing the world not through the superficial lens of race and skin color, but through a deeper perspective, one centered on universal human values like love, compassion, tolerance, honesty, and friendship. Often times, the concept of colorblindness is associated with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he famously stated that he dreamt of a time when his children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

But today, the concept of colorblindness has been hijacked and redefined by anti-racists, so much so that its meaning has literally been inverted and turned on its head — going from a positive that society should strive to attain to a negative that it should guard against. Within the field of whiteness studies, the concept is now known as “colorblind racism,” and anti-racist educators now call for people not to be colorblind, but to be “colorbold.” According to DiAngelo, colorblind racism is “pretending that we don’t notice race or that race has no meaning. This pretense denies racism and thus holds it in place.”  DiAngelo’s definition ties in directly with the essential question of her book on white racial literacy What Does It Mean To Be White?, which asks, “What does it mean to be white in a society that proclaims race meaningless, yet is deeply divided by race?” 

But there’s a fundamental problem with both the essential question of DiAngelo’s book and with her definition of colorblind racism. According to “An Empirical Assessment of Whiteness Theory: Hidden from How Many?”, which used data from the American Mosaic Project to test the hypotheses developed in the paper, race does matter to white people, as 74 percent of white Americans surveyed — almost three-fourths — said that their racial identity was either “very important” or “somewhat important.” 

And according to a 2016 Pew Research study on America’s views on race and inequality, 31 percent of whites admitted that being white made it easier for them to succeed, while 53 percent of whites said more must be done to bring about racial equality in America. 

It’s not that the majority of whites think race doesn’t matter, it’s that they think it shouldn’t matter; there’s a major difference between these two concepts. Nearly all Americans are aware of race, especially in light of the news media’s obsession with race and racism on television, in newspapers, and on the internet. Granted, some whites may not always be aware of the advantages race gives them in their daily life, or the ways in which race may disadvantage people of color in certain situations. But the notion that whites believe race doesn’t matter is misrepresented and overblown.

True colorblindness isn’t “pretending we don’t notice race or that race has no meaning” as DiAngelo claims. Traditional colorblindness is the filtering out of the superficial characteristics of eye shape, hair texture, and skin tone, and of connecting and interacting with others via the universal human values of love, kindness, honesty, tolerance, respect, and compassion. If all people learned to do as much, not just casually but with the very core of their beings, the world would be a different place. Racism, prejudice, discrimination, and all manner of social injustice would begin to subside. 

A major goal of anti-racist educators within the field of whiteness studies is to level the playing field and end systemic racial disparities. The purpose behind creating the term “colorblind racism” is clearly to make whites as equally aware of race and racism as nonwhites are, which will in effect “bear witness” to injustice, and help bring an end to it. But what happens then? Once everybody’s sufficiently aware of the ugly consequences of race, then what? 

Logic would suggest the next step would entail teaching people not to judge people by the color of their skin, and to connect and interact with them as fellow humans instead of treating them as “others.” In other words, it would be time to circle back and employ colorblindness. As T.S. Eliot said, We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.

At its core, whiteness studies is really a battle to define and control whiteness itself.  By redefining “racism” to mean inherent white privilege and oppression, all whites become guilty by default, even those whites who are caring people free from discrimination. Thus “whiteness” becomes “racism,” which ultimately transforms the property of whiteness into the commodity of racism, and enables the politically oriented whiteness studies movement to usurp whiteness to use and redistribute as it sees fit.

Which is exactly why the field of whiteness studies doesn’t take the direct path and preach traditional colorblindness, and that’s because indoctrinating society to be hyper-aware of race is helping keep race at the forefront — right where anti-racists need it to be. Race and skin color are indeed invaluable when it comes to identity politics, so teaching Americans to be “blind” to it makes no sense politically, and would negatively impact race as a commodity and source of power.

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