Last week, I was once again reminded about why we need continuous conversations about race. I sat in a bus and listened as some women muttered under their breath that ‘everything is always race with those people,’ when they chose to go into a fuller bus rather than the one the tout was trying to put them in. Apparently, the tout felt slighted and had some words to say about how race influenced their decision.
It was an interesting conversation to listen to because it showed how the women were embracing “colour-blindness” philosophy while simultaneously laying bare their internal biases about other races and the stereotypes attributed to them.
I have always found the philosophy of colour-blindness to be much like the philosophy of communism. At heart, I want to be a colour-blind socialist, but realism gets in the way of that. These two things are both rooted in ideological beliefs that too often do not take human agency into consideration.
In theory and at face value, colour-blindness is great. It posits that persons, regardless of race,should be treated equally but how exactly do we begin to do that without first dismantling the systems of oppression the coloured are subjected to? It is this ‘ideological-ness’ of colour-blind philosophy that is dangerous as it fails to take the reality of the world into consideration. Race, I know is too often something we brush off. It is something we are afraid to speak about in polite company because it might just offend someone. I grew up being acutely aware of race although it was not talked about. I would listen and live through the experiences of cousins from other ethnicities because they gave me an understanding of race relations and what it meant in our social context.
Colour-blindness I believe is a half-measure which is largely insufficient to heal racial wounds. It is akin to throwing a wet blanket over racism and pretending it does not exist. This in turn tends to encourage internalised racism and also discourages the learning of race issues and how we may be a part of the problem. While it is all well and good to tout race-neutral solutions to some of our problems, too often we fail to realise that what we in some instances need are race-specific remedies.
We don’t need to stop talking about race, we need to be more conscious of it and examine our privilege or lack thereof and how we are stymieing the conversation on it. Colour-blindness can fall victim to rejecting and invalidating cultural heritages and unique experiences as race affects not only the perceptions one has when they look at you but also the opportunities that may be available to one throughout their lives. The approach tends to individualize conflicts pertaining to race rather than addressing the systemic problem.
We can’t put a muzzle on race conversations because it is uncomfortable, we need to create an environment where these stories are heard and addressed. If you can’t find such an environment then create it and encourage others to create it too. While it is good to strive for ideals, it is not always the best strategy even if you feel that you are not contributing to the inequality. Refusing to talk about a powerful social reality does not make it disappear and I may be wrong but whenever I hear the narrative that race no longer matters, I automatically think they are saying that minorities now have equal rights, treatment and opportunities when that is not the case.
We need to get pass this belief that seeing race is a problem because it isn’t. What is the problem is when one makes decisions and assumptions based solely on one’s ethnicity or shade of colour.
I would like to think that I myself am not racist. I recognise that it exists and it is wrong but often I wonder and I try to combat years of socialization by talking about it. Whenever my daughter asks about something pertaining to race, I talk about it and the facts surrounding it because that matters.
She needs to know that seeing one’s race or culture is not bad, but judging them solely on that is. She needs to know that it is perfectly okay to ask questions about it because not addressing the elephant in the room can see it subtly continuing to divide us. As Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun famously wrote, “To overcome racism, one must first take race into account.”