People love to tell me that they often forget that I’m black. They say this with a sort of “a-ha!” look on their faces, as if their dawning ability to see my blackness was a gift to us both.
When I point out that their eyesight had never left them, that my skin has never changed colors, and that they probably did not really forget that I am black, they inevitably get defensive. First, they try to argue that it was a compliment; the smart ones quickly realize that complimenting someone on not being black is actually pretty racist, so they switch gears.
I don’t see race! is usually their next tactic, followed by I am colorblind, though they never give credit to Stephen Colbert. By “colorblind” they don’t actually mean that they can’t see green or red; rather, they are suggesting that they can’t ever be racist, because they don’t register skin color at all.
This ideology is very popular – like a racial utopic version of the Golden Rule – but it’s actually quite racist. “Colorblindness” doesn’t acknowledge the very real ways in which racism has existed and continues to exist, both in individuals and systemically. By professing not to see race, you’re just ignoring racism, not solving it.
Still, the idea of “colorblindness” is incredibly popular, especially with young people who believe racism is a problem for the older generation and will soon die out. According to a 2014 study done in partnership with MTV and David Binder Research, almost three-fourths of millennials believe that we should not see the color of someone’s skin, as though it’s a choice. Nearly 70% believe they have achieved this and are now actually colorblind; and the same percentage shockingly believe that we make society better by not seeing race or ethnicity.
But that ideology does present a very interesting question: If you were truly unable to see people’s skin color, could you still be racist?
Dr Osagie Obasogie, a professor at the University of California’s Hasting College of Law and the author of Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, wondered the same thing after seeing the biopic “Ray,” about legendary blind musician Ray Charles. While watching the film, he found that Ray Charles seemed acutely aware of race, despite not having sight. He left the theater thinking about blindness and racism, and then spent the next eight years exploring it in his research.
What he found is that even people who have never had sight still use visual representations of people – including a person’s perceived racial or ethnic identity – as a major marker for how they interact with them.
In Obasogie’s interviews, he found that blind people use non-visual cues to determine race when meeting a new person. They combine evidence from their other senses – hair texture, accent and other markers (with varying degrees of reliability) – to create an understanding of someone’s racial identity. And once a blind person figured out a new acquaintance’s race, they would treat that person accordingly.
In one interview, Obasogie told me, a woman told a story from her childhood in which she walked in on her mother aggressively cleaning the kitchen. When she asked why, her mother responded that her black babysitter had been in the kitchen and black people had a smell, which she needed to wash away. The next day, the woman remembers going to smell her babysitter, finding she did have a smell and from then on always associated that smell with black people, despite never having noticed it before.
Racism – both the personal kind and the systemic kind– isn’t necessarily triggered by the visual cue of another person’s skin color. Racism is about the social value we assign to people and their actions based on their physical attributes, and neither blind nor colorblind people avoid that acculturation just because they lack the visual cues.
According to Obasogie, there’s not much other research on the relationship of blindness and racism. But one important modern scholar has investigated the question: Dave Chappelle. His “Blind Supremacy” skit from 2003 – a year before Raypremiered in theaters – comes to the same conclusions as Obasogie’s research.
In the skit, Clayton Bigsby, played by Chappelle, is a blind black man who is also a white supremacist because he has never been told that he is black. Bigsby makes constant racist remarks in the sketch, and even goes to a KKK meeting.
Like most of Chappelle’s sketches, this one skewers multiple targets. But one of the points it makes – and Dr. Obasogie’s research confirms this – is that race and racism aren’t about what you see, but what you perceive and how you’re told to behave.
Our justice system is built on the idea that being blind is the same thing as being fair; our courts use portray justice as a blindfolded goddess, to symbolize the objectivity we equate with being unaware of appearances. She, too, is supposed to be colorblind – but, given the disproportionate number of men of color in our prisons, and the tendency to prosecute them at disproportional rates, that’s not exactly true, either.
The idea that justice is colorblind (in addition to blindfolded) can be traced at least as far back as 1896. The US supreme court justice John Marshall Harlan argued in his dissent to Plessy v Ferguson (the landmark case that allowed racial segregation in public facilities)that, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. All citizens are equal before the law.”
But we are not, and never have been. And thanks to Dr. Obasagie’s research, we also know that even if justice had never been able to see, she could still be complicit in a racist system. If she truly could not see skin color, she would just find some other excuse.
1. You should know about ... Peggy McIntosh's 'Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack'
In 1988, Academic and Feminist, Peggy McIntosh wrote a 50-point essay, identifying and noting down some of the daily effects of privilege in her life as a white person living in the U.S.
Although the underlying concepts date back at least as far as to the work of W.E.B Du Bois in the 1930s, it was McIntosh's essay in the 1980s that made 'white privilege' gain popularity in social discourse. (It is well worth noting, and with no small amount of irony, that it took the work of a white person to gain notoriety for a concept that many prominent black academics and intellectuals had been identifying and 'unpacking' for decades already.)
Some of 'Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack' is here,
- 'I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race'.
- 'I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.'
- 'I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.'
2. You should know that ... White privilege is not class privilege
As the word 'privilege' is often associated with the upper classes; people who went to private schools, those who got a car for their sweet 16th, those who have hired 'help' or people whose parents paid their rent throughout university, many white people who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds negate the concept of white privilege.
White privilege doesn't mean that you are born into money, that's class privilege.
White privilege means that you are born into the racial 'norm', another kind of privilege. A privilege where you can;
- Turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of your race widely represented.
- If you wish, you can arrange to be in the company of people of your race most of the time.
- If you buy “flesh” coloured items like band-aids or stockings, they will more or less match your skin tone.
- If you were able to use the original suite of emoji's, the 'thumbs up' or 'peace sign' hand gestures represented your race.
- You can easily can find picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and magazines featuring people of your race.
Being born white means that you were born into a system that validates and reaffirms that you are socially included - and being socially included, is a very valuable privilege.
And lastly, unlike class, a person cannot hide their race.
3. You should know about ... Jane Elliott's brown-eyed-blue-eyed experiment
A school teacher named Jane Elliott was living and working in segregated 1960s America where black citizens' civil rights were perpetually denied. She became so affected by the widespread prejudice, particularly after the racially motivated assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, that she made an effort to teach her students - the future generation - how illogical it is to discriminate a person purely because of the way they look.
Like skin colour, eye colour is determined by pigmentation and Elliott's classroom became a 'society' where brown-eyed students were privileged over blue-eyed students, and then after time, reversed this blue-eyed children to feel superior. By creating a microcosm of power and prejudice, where children were briefly exposed to both, Elliot was able to impart on them a life long lesson about the absurdity of racism and of white privilege.
Since then she has replicated this exercise for adults around the world.
4. You should know that ... It's not about what white people do get, it's about what they don't get
You should know that the opposite of privilege is disadvantage. While a person might not feel like significant opportunity (like the private schooling or the car) has been handed to them on account of their whiteness, on the flip side - and more importantly - disadvantages haven't either.
White privilege doesn't mean that you get to walk into a supermarket, shoplift and not be reprimanded. Instead, it means that you are less likely to be racially profiled and followed around by store security with the assumption you're going to steal, because you're not white.
When you are white, you are less likely to,
- Have been called racial slurs
- Have been the victim of racially motivated abuse
- Be asked 'where you're from' in a way that is not polite
- To have marched in a protest in order to demand equal rights for, or call out the suffering of, your race.
- See your cultural ethnicity hanging on shelves of party stores as a costume
Do you have the privilege to avoid having your race, religion and cultural identity made into a costume and worn by a group who have oppressed your people for hundreds of years?
To understand privilege, you need to understand disadvantage. What disadvantages does a person avoid by being white?
5. You should know that ... "You have white privilege" does not automatically translate as 'you are a racist'.
In the words of Peggy McIntosh, “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group”.
Having your white privilege mentioned doesn't mean that you are being labelled as someone who is actively prejudice toward non-white people. Instead, it is making the point that as a white person, you receive benefits from being the dominant ethnicity in society. Also admitting that you have white privilege doesn't conflict with your own acceptance of diversity.
6. You should know that ... The greatest trick white privilege ever pulled was convincing the world it doesn't exist.
The myth of the meritocracy, and the fallacy that at some magical point in the last few decades, is that racism was not only abolished, but was slowly replaced with 'reverse racism' and that white people are now the disadvantaged group. This has made the realities of white privilege more elusive than ever before.
This can be seen in levels of representation in all of our institutions, both in terms of under representation of non-white people in positions of power and influence, and in the over representation of non-white people in prisons, in poverty, in unemployment and in all of the areas that - in an Indigenous context - create the 'gap' that we are forever trying to close.
7. You should know that ... Acknowledging white privilege isn't enough to end it.
Because so few people acknowledge the existence of white privilege, and because it can feel like such an overwhelming awakening to finally see it, many people feel that the work is done simply by acknowledging it. While this is an important first step, it doesn't actually do much to reduce it, or to eventually end it.
Privilege should be distributed in order to actually spread the social, policitical and economic opportunities and advantages to other groups. For example, rather than just acknowledging the existence of Indigenous arts organisations, using the resources of Indigenous peak bodies and the skills of their artists will be active in making change. The same principle goes for actively using Indigenous run businesses and distributing the wealth of employment. Also, having equal representation in the media and advertising. And distributing the wealth of policy and decision making.
8. You should know about ... The role of white privilege in 'reverse racism'.
9. You should know that ... It's not the job of those who are disadvantaged by white privilege to calmly educate white people about it.
10. You should know that ... Pretending that colour doesn't exist is not the solution to abolishing white privilege.
Race may be a social construct, but that doesn't change the fact that racism is real; that people are different colours, or that the consequences of this history have not been redressed or removed from the society we still live in.
Taking the "I don't see colour" approach may sound like a great idea in theory, but it doesn't undo the impacts of racism.
At best, what it does do is allow you to wipe your hands of playing an active part in the work that needs to be done to eradicate racism, and at worst it means you are perpetuating the existing status quo by denying the identity and the very real experiences of people who live with the realities of racism every day.
Also, isn't it funny how many white people are 'colourblind' compared to non-white people? Having the opportunity to pretend that race doesn't exist the epitome of white privilege.
Like the content? Follow the authors; @sophieverass and @LukeLPearson
Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.
Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).
Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand.