Laurie Toby Edison

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Colorblinded

Debbie says:

I’m having the special kind of satisfaction that comes with discovering that someone else has worked out clear language and theory for something I’ve been struggling with on my own …

A few years ago, I clarified for myself a distinction which I called “racism” versus “racialism.” For a long time before that, I’d been aware that there had to be language to separate the folks who (out loud or secretly) are still longing for the days of the lynch mob and the all-white neighborhood from a lot of my friends, colleagues, and peers who are (by my lights) clueless and uneducated about racism but do not hate people of color. More honestly, perhaps, I want to separate the lynch mob types from myself.

The night I came up with the language, I was at a small dinner party where one of the hosts suddenly asked my Caribbean-American friend, “Do you know X?” [X is another woman of color in the subculture we all share. The only reason her name could possibly have come into the conversation was the host's semi-desperate throw to make "the right" kind of conversation with his woman-of-color guest.] I expect he was a) hoping that this would make his guest feel more welcome, and b) wanting to establish some kind of credibility with her–after all, he knows another woman of color! His remark was completely “racialized,” in the sense that he never would have made it to a white guest. At the same time, it was not “racist” in the sense of intending harm or even necessarily thinking less of his guest than he might have otherwise. I know I’ve made similar gaffes.
Tonight, I found Rachel’s piece on “colorblind racism,” closely related to “laissez-faire racism” and “symbolic racism,” and the jigsaw puzzle of these issues falls much much closer to a clear picture.

Colorblind racism is similar. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla Silva argues that colorblind racism involves

  1. increasingly covert racial discourses and practices,
  2. avoidance of racial terminology and claims by whites that they experience “reverse discrimination,”
  3. a racial agenda in the discussion of political matters that avoids direct racial references,
  4. invisibility of the mechanisms of racial inequality, and
  5. the rearticulation of some of the elements of Jim Crow racism (pg. 90).

One of the most important elements of contemporary racism is the emergence of the “colorblind ideology.” The colorblind ideology asserts that color is not important and should not be the basis for social judgments. The key problem with colorblind ideology is that it is an abstract principle that does not hold true in practice (Bonilla Silva 2001).

This is still not precisely what I observed that night at dinner; at the same time, it illuminates what I see all the time. Whether or not my host that night was a colorblind racist, he was “othering” his guest. By doing so, he was opening the door both to colorblind racism, and to the widespread denial of colorblind racism.

Rachel clarifies both methodological and analytical distinctions among laissez-faire, symbolic, and colorblind racism, and gives good reference; read the whole short blog entry. Then read the comments for some object lessons in exactly what she’s talking about (and some further insights).

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3 Responses to “Colorblinded”

  1. Jonathan Korman Says:

    I agree with your fundamental sentiment, but have a lexical quibble.

    The word “racialism” isn’t a good pick of terminology. It is already colonized by the lynch mob people. Google it or “racialist” and you’ll find Klansmen identifying it as their point of view. (“We’re not racist–we don’t hate black people! We’re racialist–we believe that each race has unique talents equally worthy of respect. Black people, for instance are really good at singing and dancing and athletics and hard manual labour.” Ugh.) So that term is poisoned.

    But the attempt is definitely a step in the right direction. We are badly in need of a much more sophisticated language for talking about different racisms.

  2. AmandaP Says:

    As far as what you experienced, check out Barbara Trepagnier’s “Silent Racism.” She interviews white women who think that they are not racist, but still harbor those thoughts. She also puts forth the thesis that everyone is a racist, but we just need to educate ourselves to be as “less racist” as we can.

  3. how to treat genital warts Says:

    I agree with your fundamental sentiment, but have a lexical quibble.

    The word “racialism” isn’t a good pick of terminology. It is already colonized by the lynch mob people. Google it or “racialist” and you’ll find Klansmen identifying it as their point of view. (“We’re not racist–we don’t hate black people! We’re racialist–we believe that each race has unique talents equally worthy of respect. Black people, for instance are really good at singing and dancing and athletics and hard manual labour.” Ugh.) So that term is poisoned.

    But the attempt is definitely a step in the right direction. We are badly in need of a much more sophisticated language for talking about different racisms.

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