Saturday, April 19, 2008

Uprooting Colorblind Racism

I was raised a colorblind racist.

I say this without any particular shame or anger. Colorblind racism was an honest effort on the part of white liberals who wanted to support people of all skin-tones and histories but who clearly Did Not Get It (tm).

And what they did not get was that racism was systemic, not personal, and that all the "be proud of yourself" messages in the world wouldn't do anything so long as people of color (henceforth PoC*) faced regular objectification and bias due to the color of their skin. All of the "our race is human" does nothing against people who appear Latin@ (whether they are or not) needing to wear their birth certificate as protection against being deported for their skin tone and accent despite their birthplace. None of the "I don't see color" helps the thousands of PoC given less advantageous mortgages despite having the same financial situation as whites who got the good mortgages. The world is made of color, the world sees color, and people of color are regularly and routinely discriminated against in the present, as well as inherently disadvantaged due to hundreds of years of degradation and racism which kept them from the best jobs, education, and homes.

Colorblind racism is the well meaning attempt of privileged people to wite-out history and call us even, who then don't notice the people with most of the advantages are white because there is no color anymore. Colorblind racism is the person who immediately brings up "the race card" as something that should be talked about more, who when challenged to describe examples of this "race card" describe a situation where the person in question very likely was discriminated against because of his race, because bosses 'worse' then him were promoted. Colorblind racism is the systematic listing of examples of times when one was racially enlightened in some way without noticing the myriad examples of privilege which smoothed one's path. Colorblind racism is using "ghetto" instead of "black" and not liking it when the blacks outnumber you, but saying you're not racist.

Colorblind racism makes being named a racist worse than racist acts.

Colorblind racism is gaining merit badges on diversity and sewing them onto a dress inspired by Native Tribes who were destroyed by the country I live in, and not even noticing that it might be wrong to take a phrasebook of Native words to pick an "Indian Name" as a part of the same program.

That is what colorblind racism is. I'm going to indulge in one of the more self-indulgent leavings of my liberalism with some quality navel-gazing in the hopes that it will help others to give up their colorblind racism, or at the very least stop precursing racist statements with, "I'm not racist, but..." This form of navel-gazing can be seen as, and used as, an insulation against actually doing the hard things, but I'm hoping here it will serve as something educational in addition. We all know white people LOVE to be educational. ;)

My road from colorblind racism to what I am now (whatever that is; I don't consider myself an ally yet) began with what seems like a simple act, but which in retrospect seems to be a surprisingly rare one for liberals to mention. I approached black women as my superiors.

The seed for this was set in my teens, when many of my wisest supervisors were black women, and some of my wisest friends were Latinas. In watching white liberals hit the shoals of Angry Black Bitch (my gateway drug to the feminists blog-o-sphere), Angry Black Woman, or Having Read the Fine Print and disintegrate into waves of denial, shame, rage, and suddenly pathetic logic, I think I've found that the pattern in general seems to be that they all approach these women as if they were neophytes to their own life experiences - that is, as if the white liberals were the experts, and the women who lived the lives were ignorant of the deeper implications of their lives.

In contrast, I had developed a pattern with presumed whites which I continued into a non-white context; when you are the visitor, your host is the expert. I may eventually disagree with them, but the assumption is that they are the experts and I am the neophyte, so the cues should be taken from them not from my life experiences up until that point. So I would read articles about dumb white people, or racism, or how bias played out in the media, and my ground floor assumption would be that they were accurate.

It helped, I think, that Angry Black Bitch types exactly as my supervisor and peers had spoken when I was a teenager; I found how she turned a phrase and the language she used to be familiar, and I could hear the voice in my head as an echo of those days where I wasn't once of the group, but I was tolerated and possibly even liked. It also helped that Angry Black Woman uses an intellectual language I was comfortable with, and regularly indulges in one of my favorite pastimes - analysis of media - and that she likes many of the same shows I do. Both of these facts eased me into weighing their other statements, the ones I was not aware of or comfortable with, more heavily than I might have otherwise. Because it's all about me. (Actually, I think that both of them were explicitly not writing for me was a feature, not a bug.)

By the time I hit the wider blog-o-sphere and such challenging and brilliant minds of Sydette on Having Read the Fine Print, Donna on The Silence of Our Friends, Nezua at Unapologetic Mexican and Field at The Field Negro, I was well primed to see things which made me defensive as a necessary suffering for the purpose of being able to hear their voices clearly, instead of through a fog of racist assumptions about them (a topic Nezua covers explicitly and extensively in his La Lente Blanca (The White Lens) Series).**

A lot of my assumptions, both about myself and about the world, had to be rethunk. One of the places where I have felt these shifts the hardest were in the media I preferred to consume. Most, if not all, of my favorite books, tv shows, movies, and music are racially problematic (a euphemism for fucking racist). As someone who develops extreme attachment to these things, and who uses them for self-soothing***, this has been the most life changing aspect of this process so far (like I said, I'm not an ally yet), and the part which provided the largest incentive to embrace my privilege and let all of my new knowledge unexist somehow.

Obviously, I haven't done that, but I couldn't be completely honest if I didn't say the thought crossed my mind more than once, especially at 3am when I couldn't sleep and every book I tried to read screamed 'racism, racism, racism' in my face.

More recently, though, the initial wash of guilt and rage and inarticulate stress, I found my brain doing something new. Reading one of my longtime favorite books, one of the millions set in a future that is implied to be all white despite the minority reality of whites worldwide, I began consciously shifting races for each of the characters. Very few had their skin color actually specified (one reference to guards - one light, one dark - and a mention of alabaster which seemed tied to the skin of one of the main characters), and I found it was surprisingly easy to imagine the calm, career cop Director of the largest, space-floating prison as a calm, unflappable, intuitive, Asian man and the narrow, grieving, top class cop as a wiry black man. The remarkable musician who played a piano in an age when most of the instruments will be unknown to us now, who was psychic, and who skillfully entered the Labyrinth and exited again changed but unscathed, could easily be an Australian Aborigine, and the French-speaking gutter-rat singer in the band could, through the magic of imagination, be Latina.

I ran each character through a kaleidoscope, noting where aspects of their character sparked resonances with my internalized biases about what "each race" was like, and which ran contrary to it, and the why wasn't far behind, and suddenly this story I loved so much for it's representation of mystical symbolism became at once more realistic and more rich - suddenly my favorite book didn't have the whitewash of my own brain.

And in my own writing, I notice the shifts. Even when a series I'm basing my stories off of ignore entire continents of the planet Earth, I can re-introduce them. When creating my own worlds, I can make them complex with racial and societal tensions. When thinking about the psychology I love, I can include a wider range of people - I can stop trying to treat me in all of my individual peculiarity, and try to treat us with the plurality of methods needed to actually meet the needs of a wide variety of people. When meeting people, I can try to understand their racial and cultural backgrounds as a part of getting to know them instead of ignoring it as a distraction.

And I find myself increasingly impatient with people who say, "I'm not racist, but..." or who bring up 'reverse racism' as a serious problem that not enough people talk about as their first response to me saying that I want to help create a psychology that is multicultural and anti-racist. And when I notice the fucked-upness of privilege lurking, I speak up about it, I point it out, I teach Racism 101, and frequently I drive people to change the subject or leave altogether. I'm also seeing more on my own, instead of waiting for a member of the group being discriminated against to point out the problems. I've noticed this awareness spreading out from racial awareness to awareness of how disabled people are discriminated against, or the mentally ill, or lesbigaytrans individuals. An increased sensitivity in one area has made me a better person overall in terms of my own ethics, even while those ethics remain essentially unchanged.

Someone recently (if anyone remembers whom, I would love the name, my sieve-like brain is unhelpful Two people who touched on this are Ilyka in this comment thread at Creek Running North about being an ally and Donna at The Silence of Our Friends) brought up the problem that by portraying becoming an ally as something difficult or painful, it gives privileged people (by any of the measures, not just racially) an excuse to not be allies and to justify it. I think that it can be used that way, and will be used by people who want to have their ethical cake and eat it to - i.e. who want to say they are anti-racist without internalizing any of the awareness of racism or changing their world-orientation and actions in accord with their ethics. But I would argue that those kinds of people would find excuses one way or another to avoid walking the walk that they talk.

The pain of becoming aware of how unjust and wrong the world is, how skewed and unnatural, how powerful people have twisted everything good for their own ends, is a true and honest pain, I think. The ability to ignore reality is a gift that is given to very few people, and those few people can do an enormous amount of damage in their blindness, but there is pleasure to be found in ignorance and giving up that pleasure, however unearned and world-damaging, is painful. I personally think the warning that it will be painful may help the honest ones of us, the ignorant and privileged, to keep going even at 3 AM when all the knowledge of the world we ignored for decades is beating down our bedroom doors.

I'm only a few steps outside, though; my ability to be wrong is legion.

* I am aware this term is somewhat problematic depending on the individuals who I would place under this umbrella term, but I find the phrase "non-white" even more problematic. If anyone has a better turn of phrase, I'd love to learn about it.

** The rest of my link list came later, in some cases much later; this is mostly chronological, so some of my best links, like brownfemipower (whose blog has been removed due to it not serving the community in the manner she wished it to) came much later.

*** For those who haven't gotten psychological phrasing bone deep like I have, self-soothing is the process of diminishing one's anxiety through tasks which bring one pleasure or comfort. In my case, this was often reading a particular section of abook, or watching a movie which was deeply meaningful.


CrackerLilo said...

This is awesome. Thank you.

I only recognized the problem in myself a few years ago.

Ravenmn said...

I recognize myself in your post. This is the training I got from white liberals who hadn't spent any time among people of color. Fortunately, a couple of black women gently disabused me of those notions when I got to college.

"Colorblind racism makes being named a racist worse than racist acts."

Yeah. Right there. And it's another detour to concentrate on disproving the "racism" label as applied to a person while ignoring the racist behavior the person is engaging in.


Daisy said...

Awesome post.

I didn't realize you had TWO blogs, duh, so I just linked this one today (instead of the other one!)...

Deoridhe said...

I've edited in some links, including linking to Nezua's White Lens series as I should have before.

Thank you guys for the kind comments. I appreciate it. This is a little more self-revealing then I usually get, so I'm a little twitchy about it. <3

Stina said...

Holy carp Dio! I saw this post linked as part of the Racism 101 links on macon's Stuff White People Do commenting guidelines post, and recently linked it to a guy who was having a violent reaction to Tatum's book "Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?" Only after reading the comments did I notice it was your blog! Damn, mad props to you.

Deoridhe said...

Wow, teach me to not check my blog. I totally missed this. I had no idea it was being linked to! I hope it's helping people.