Saturday, March 15, 2008

Is Colorblindness a virtue or a vice?

There are a number of subjects, dozens actually, that come up during the course of our Bridge Builders weeks at Sunshine, that inevitably deserve extended thought and discussion. One of those subjects is the issue of "colorblindness".  
For anyone interested in seriously addressing racism or racial reconciliation, colorblindness is one of those subjects that is incredibly important to consider. It is a topic that is understood entirely differently within the black and white communities.  

For Whites, Colorblindness is viewed as a virtue.  

For many of us in the white community the term colorblindness was defined and experienced in our growing up as a concept that stood in contrast to racism.  It was the movement of a generation (our parents) away from their parents (our grandparents) in which racist jokes and terminology was done away with.  The assumption was that without explicit racist terminology, racism was done away with and colorblindness was its (virtuous) replacement.

For Blacks, Colorblindness is viewed as racism.  

For most within the black (and other non-anglo) community the term colorblindness is a term that whites use to excuse racism.  To suggest that ones race is not seen in the US when one is Black (or other minority) is preposterous  (unless you are literally blind, and even then awareness is VERY apparent to most).  Further, to suggest that one is not treated differently because of one's race is also absurd.  Finally, to not allow the value of one's identity and culture to be an open discussion or expression is to devalue what is different and to lay claim to the idea that that which is dominant is normative and therefore "best".   So colorblindness is not only not a virtue, but is a nice way of holding onto white privilege, racism, vice.  (Did anyone seriously look at the picture of Jesus above and NOT notice race? or did you not realize it was Jesus because of your attribution of what Jesus' race "really" is? and if you are "taken aback" by a black Jesus are you equally offended by a white Jesus?)

"Double Vision" is the only way to continue the discussion.  In Miroslov Volf's book, The End of Memory, the author describes what he says is "double vision"; imaginatively entering the the experience of another before claiming to understand.  While I believe this is crucial for those committed to learning in general, it is also key for anyone committed to reconciliation.  On the topic of colorblindness it is key for blacks to do this to create space for patience for their white brothers and sisters, giving us time in the dialogue to learn.  For whites, this double vision is important because in it they will find out that black folks are right.  

In my personal experience, the importance of my African-American friends giving me space to understand this has been indescribably important.  I have been blessed by these friends in that they have allowed me this benefit of the doubt:  I was genuinely attempting to move away from racism of earlier family members and oblivious to white privilege (this is another entire topic and something that my black friends have helped me to see).   Many, if not most, blacks (in my experience) believe that any white person claiming to be unaware of the racism of colorblindness and the reality of white privilege is disingenuous at best, and -- more likely--  simply lying.  Those who have chosen to enter in to conversation are often worn out by this process of allowing whites this space and even trying to help us.  Ed Gilbreath's book Reconciliation Blues will help with insight on this topic. 

The reality is that this posting shouldn't waste time trying to make the argument to blacks to give us space.  The primary argument that I need to present is this:  Blacks are right, colorblindness is tantamount to ignoring discrimination, racism, prejudice and white privilege.  

So to understand the topic, whites need an entire education.  They need an entire experiential set of lessons that are far removed from daily life.  Race is strictly an optional topic for whites.  Racial privilege is not understood.  

Racism is understood in white community as something that is what one person does to another person.  Since they haven't seen their parents enslave someone, or use the N word, or crack jokes, they assume racism doesn't exist. 

In the white evangelical community this is exacerbated by our understanding of sin in the same way:  we understand sin primarily as something one person does to another (or against God).  We basically ignore the biblical concept that groups of people sin against other groups.  Our individualistic notion of sin makes it all the harder to understand racism as experienced regularly by our non-white brothers and sisters.  

The black (and other "minority") experience is totally unfamiliar to most whites.  We either don't know anyone who personally deals with this regularly, or those we know don't talk about it (often because we don't believe it and are therefore unwilling to really listen).  

As W.E.B. Dubois and others have noted, blacks have almost no need to be educated about the white experience.  But whites know almost nothing of the black experience.  So when coming to the topic of colorblindness I can only ask my black brothers and sisters for patience.  I have to ask my white brothers and sisters to become students.  

For all of us interested in reconciliation be have to apply the wisdom of James in being "quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger".  


Aaron said...

Well said my friend! I really have nothing to add to that. Very kind, very firm, and very engaging. Keep being the voice in the "wilderness":)

JudyBright said...


Followed you here from the Reconciliation Blues blog. Thanks for the response.

A couple of comments

Many, if not most, blacks (in my experience) believe that any white person claiming to be unaware of the racism of colorblindness and the reality of white privilege is disingenuous at best, and -- more likely-- simply lying.

This statement bothers me on a few levels. Partly because I believe for the most part that whites who say this, about no white privilege and colorblindness being a virtue, actually do believe it. Probably because they haven't hardly thought about the subject at all, because like you said, the subject of race is strictly optional for most white people. It also shows how vastly different our perspectives and experiences are. So different that blacks must think that whites are lying to make such a preposterous statement.

With perspectives being different, I think terms such as colorblindness end up meaning different things to different people. I think it's meant different things to me over the years. It probably started as the rather absurd concept of not noticing what color or race another person belonged to while interacting with them. Which would really just make you pretty darn unobservant. Now to me it just means treating people equally when I hear it.

I think the concept of colorblindness is naive, mostly.

I also agree with your statement about whites needing an entire education about the black experience in America.

I will also slightly disagree that blacks don't need to understand the white experience as it relates to racial reconciliation. The only reason I say that is that we're being asked to notice something that we have to go out of our way to notice and is totally foreign to our experience. How do you notice something you don't notice? Know what I mean? That being said, if I was someone like Ed Gilbreath I'd run out of patience from time to time as well.

I hope this is a good spot to end this comment, because I'm really tired and need to go to bed.

Thanks again

hammerdad said...


thanks for the note. . .

"How do you notice something you don't notice?"

Only if once we become aware of it we pursue knowledge and understanding. Scripture is full of admonitions to put others first, love our neighbor and consider the needs of others ahead of our own. It is this fruit-of-the-spirit driven goodness/patience/longsuffering attitude that we (as white Christians) need to develop as we learn about the multifaceted experience and topic of racial reconciliation.

I sense from the tone of your comments both here and on the reconciliation blog that you've taken the initial step which is to allow the natural sense of defensiveness to subisde long enough to learn and consider the perspective of others.

It doesn't mean that one would vote for Obama or things like that but that we might together pursue reconciliation!! SDG.

Shlomo said...


Hi Joel,

Just like Judy, I followed that same trail here from Ed G's Reconciliation Blog. I like what I have read here so far, keep up the good work. Stop by and visit my site if you are able.