This piece was shared last week by American writer Courtney Martin and I thought she really nails some important insights into why it can be so hard for white folks to navigate their place and role in the racist systems we live in (and benefit from.)
A word on color blindness
I went to integrated schools and my parents thought nothing of it. They were colorblind. They taught us to see everyone as equal and treat everyone as equal!
I was speaking about my book last week with a group of mostly older progressive White folks, when one of the women in the audience shared this anecdote. At the time, I tried to meet her non-question (during the Q&A, no less) with an optimistic question of my own—And when did you realize that structural racism existed?—but it fell flat.
I don’t know this woman. I don’t know what her understanding of integration is (it sounded very tied up with her proximity to military bases, which is a whole can of worms). But I do know something about White people and how much we cling to the virtue of color blindness. So I wanted to break down a few things about it in case it’s helpful for others.
Believing that there should be no “hierarchy of human life” as historian Aristotle Kallis puts it, is virtuous. But that’s the simplicity on the other side of complexity. We can’t skip over to that and consider ourselves enlightened, as tempting as it may be.
The truth is that we live, as Isabelle Wilkerson has put it, in a contemporary “American caste system.” In our country, and most of the world, the body you are born into (your skin color, your gender identity, even your perceived adherence to dominant norms of beauty or ability) and the family you are born into (it’s past capacity to build wealth, it’s trauma, it’s resilience) have a huge influence on your ability to thrive, fulfill your dreams, live in safety, be well—among so much else. It’s not determinative, but it is predictive. That’s because of past racist policy (like genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, redlining etc.), but also because of contemporary policies that continue to perpetuate the hierarchy (public school funding, sentencing laws, fines and fees, discriminatory bank loans etc.).
In other words, yes, your spiritual or moral belief may be—everyone is equally worthy—and that’s sacred and important. It’s a beautiful way to practice seeing and hearing other humans. The more you can make eye contact with every single person you meet—whether a cashier at the grocery store, an unhoused person asking you for change, or the CEO of a company—the more you will restore your own sense of decency and maybe even make others feel acknowledged. But “everyone is equally worthy” is not a political or social reality right now, so when you invoke it when structural issues—like public education—are being discussed, you erase the lived experiences of many of the people who you claim to see. It’s erasure through contextlessness.
Or as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes in Racism without Racists: “Whereas for most whites racism is prejudice, for most people of color racism is systemic or institutionalized.”
The truth is that racism is systemic for all of us. White and economically stable people, by virtue of our place in that system, have the luxury of not thinking about it in those terms because it’s mostly working for us. When we are asked to think about it, it can bring up guilt, shame, and lots of cognitive dissonance, because many of us have tried hard to live moral lives. We have gone to protests for racial justice; we have been kind to individual people of color whom we know; we have read and listened to and appreciated art by people of color; we may have worked, prayed, parented beside people of color in ways that were very meaningful to us. But that doesn’t mean that the structures that shape our different opportunities and access don’t remain.
I was talking to my dear friend, Garrett Bucks, about this woman’s comment recently. I was explaining how it saddened me to think I had just spent an hour having a searching, complex conversation (with a young, Black teacher, to boot) on stage and this woman in the audience hadn’t absorbed the points we were making about structural issues. Garrett asked, “What does this woman want? What is her dream for herself and her family?”
These are core organizing questions and Garrett, indeed, is an incredible organizer. I was grateful to be reminded to think this way. So many of the people sitting in the audience at this particular speaking engagement were people who think of themselves as Civil Rights activists. That’s a powerful identity to claim, and it can sometimes obscure how much remains unfinished despite the best aspirations of that multi-racial movement most known for its late 60s societal flash points.
This woman, I would guess, wants to feel like she is “on the right side of history.” And that her parents were, too. She probably wants to think of her family as exceptional—as White people who rejected racism at a time when most didn’t. And some of that may be true. They might have rejected a certain strain of racism—prejudice in interpersonal interactions—before their peers. And this is beautiful and forward-thinking, but it was not about erasing another person’s race.
In fact, multi-racial friendship—trustworthy, built over time—involves a layering on; you see someone’s race and it alchemizes over a million stories and testimonies and shared moments into a totally unique part of a much larger whole of who someone is. You never stop seeing it, but it might be foregrounded or backgrounded depending on the moment, and it becomes—not a box on a census card—but a beautiful and entirely original tome. To only see someone’s race is objectification or tokenization. To not see someone’s race is erasure. To understand someone’s racial identity over time and how they relate to it (including your own by the way!) is the root of real understanding and maybe even love.
Kindness doesn’t equal justice.
Kindness also doesn’t interrogate the ways in which white supremacy isn’t good for White people either—how it warps and isolates us, too.
So, yes, let’s all keep working against our biases and our tribal conditioning to see all humans as equally worthy and deserving. And let’s not deny that we are a long way from a system that reflects that sacred belief, and we have to name that reality, and fight like hell, until it’s more true.