At the start of the colorblindness talk last Tuesday, the audience was asked to define colorblindness in laymen’s terms. I was ready to recite the textbook definitions I’d learned in previous classes, but I realized I was having trouble defining colorblindness in simple and relatable terms. I think this automatic pause speaks to the nature of colorblindness; it’s as detrimental as “classic” racism, but its insidious nature makes it more difficult to confront.
Through a hypothetical situation, which takes place in a classroom, colorblindness was explained as an ideology that challenges racism by ignoring it. The situation illustrates how individuals at an early age begin to see obvious differences between individuals of different races and instead of acknowledging and appreciating these differences, they are not only told to ignore these differences, but conditioned to believe that seeing these differences makes us racist.
This ideology reminds me of an exercise where the participant is taught to visualize an elephant and then are told they must do everything in their power to not think of the elephant. Once being told not to think of something, the individual experiences significant difficulty trying to push the thought of the elephant out of their mind because the harder they try not to visualize it, the more the elephant permeates their thoughts. The same ideology is reflected in how White individuals avoided describing a photograph of a Black individual by their race, awkwardly dancing around an obvious characteristic because society has told them not to see race (“Seeing Race and Seeming Racist,” 2008). I too have evaded describing someone by their race, rationalizing that I did not want to define them by their race. Why? It’s a part of their identity and isn’t shameful. By deliberately ignoring someone’s race it seems to insinuate that any race that deviates from the White norm is undesirable, therefore should not be pointed out—the same way you would not describe an individual in the picture has having large ears or acne. Being polite about not pointing out someone’s acne and not pointing out someone’s race should not be considered in the same category.
When looking closely, it’s easy to see the damaging implications of colorblindness; while it isn’t as easy to spot as overt racism, it has the same effect of undermining someone’s identity. However, colorblindness takes racism a step further: it conveys the same racist sentiment, but masks racism with good intentioned remarks—usually coming from a place of honest ignorance. This makes it all the more difficult to point out and challenge, especially when society has told individuals to not recognize race. Even when you can recognize colorblindness, how do you confront it?
I’ve found sometimes even when I see it, I have trouble articulating why it’s offensive. Fear may be a component. I agree with Rothenberg’s (2008) explanation for fear, fearing “isolation from friends and family, ostracism for speaking of things that generate discomfort, rejection by those who may be offended by what we say,” but more specifically I think we fear being labeled “oversensitive.” I’m not sure why this is something to fear, but that’s what stops me from always questioning people about what they say.
Last week in a different class I witnessed what Rothenberg (2008) describes White racial bonding, where individuals use specific language that creates an “us” “them” mentality. We were assigned into small groups and asked to discuss about our upbringings; I was in a group with three White women and two Black women. When one of the Black women was midway through talking about her upbringing, the other two White women deliberately turned their bodies away from the group and started talking about sorority life, using coded language that created a barrier. I then noticed the two Black women look at each other and acknowledge what had just happened. I sat there silently wondering what to do; Being in a sorority, I knew exactly what the other white Women were talking about and understood what had just happened, so why didn’t I do anything? I knew that by doing this they had clearly created this problematic dynamic, but I couldn’t articulate why this was wrong. How can we confront instances when racism isn’t cut and dry but is clearly there? What is the real reason we hesitate or fear?