Thoughts on Color-Consciousness

Originally published March 17, 2014

The recent literature in social psychology and other disciplines is clear: colorblind racial ideology is a harmful way of viewing the world. By ignoring both the material disadvantages faced by people of color and the implicit racial biases that influence decision-making, subscribing to colorblind racial ideology leads people to ignore the realities of racism in modern America and thus oppose policies that would address racial inequalities.

In a recent class, we discussed how some white people who subscribe to such an ideology will go to any length to avoid mentioning a person of color’s race. This avoidance occurs despite the fact that, in all likelihood, this person is thinking about the person of color’s race. Research has shown that people who practice this kind of avoidance are perceived by many people of color as more racially biased.

The solution to colorblindness, then, is color-consciousness, which involves the active acknowledgment of race. One should not actively ignore the race of a person of color; one should feel free to discuss it. It is this recognition that can lead to an overcoming of system and implicit racial bias.

All of this sounds good, but there is one issue I want to raise. It occurred to me that subscribing to a color-conscious ideology might be problematic if one only recognizes the races of people of color and ignores the race of white people. This reinforces white normativity, the idea that white is the default or normal identity in America. Any other race is different and even less American.

How would this play out in the real world? Interpersonally, it could mean not just refusing to avoid using the race of people of color as a descriptor (granted, it should never be the only descriptor) but also actively using the race of white people as a descriptor. It could mean that one could discuss the effect race has not only on black politicians but also on white politicians.

Do you think this is a good idea? Would such a strategy be able to gradually chip away at the dominance of white normativity? My reasoning is that calling attention to the fact that white Americans are in fact white will reduce the tendency to automatically associate white with American. It could also call attention to white privilege and not just the subordination of people of color.

Originally published March 17, 2014

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on Color-Consciousness”

  1. This is a really interesting point, Chris. On one hand, it seems valid to recognize all races and race as a concept generally. However, the experience that white people have in regards to race is totally different from that of racial minorities. I am really conflicted. One one hand it seems like a great idea and a way to incorporate race into all conversations where it is appropriate, and not just exceptional circumstances. However, I wouldn’t want it to seem like because we talk about people being white AND people being black that everything is now okay in terms of talking about race because there is “equity” in this situation.

    • Good point, Jena. Referring to everyone’s racial may end up hiding the different experiences being members of different racial identities entails. I share your conflict. Perhaps if people are educated about the effects of race in the U.S., then we can avoid conflating the two as having a kind of equal oppression. But that’s a pretty idealistic goal. It’s a tough situation. Thanks for bringing up that point!

  2. I think this is a great point Chris. In the media, especially online journalism, I do see acknowledgement of color more and more. However, color is always the exception: White is normalized and assumed, even when a journalism piece is focusing on issues of racism against people of color.

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