C is for Colour-Blindness
I was talking to a friend the other day and he was asking me about the topic of my thesis. I told him it was about colonialism in the classroom. There was a brief stutter and then he told me about the daughter of a friend of his who had come home from school talking about white privilege, which had sent her family into shock. “I just don’t see that kind of thing,” my White friend said. “I treat everyone the same.” And then a series of examples were given to prove his point.
This is a classic case of Colour-blindness. The funny thing about these kinds of encounters is that the Colour-blind person typically justifies his/her own Colour-blindness by telling a bunch of stories about Black people and how they were treated equally. If you truly didn’t “see” colour, it seems odd that you would have a Rolodex of stories about People of Colour being treated equally by you. Presumably, you wouldn’t be coding your stories by colour.
This reminds me of what Mills (1997) has called an “epistemology of ignorance, a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made,” (as cited in Tuanna, 2004, p.195). There is no better example of this “cognitive dysfunction” than our fierce adherence to Colour-blindness.
I have a clear memory from grade 5. We were just leaving the girls’ change room and a small Black boy wearing glasses walked by. My friend asked the group of girls “Did you see that cute Black kid with the glasses?” Immediately a chorus of dismay arose around her. “You can’t say that word!” “That’s racist” “You should have just said ‘Did you see the kid with the glasses?’ !”
She argued back: “What’s wrong with saying Black? He is Black. There’s nothing wrong with being Black.” I remember feeling totally confused. I knew we weren’t supposed to see colour, but I knew we all could see colour. If there was nothing wrong with being Black, what was wrong with being identified as ‘Black”? Talk about cognitive dysfunction.
I see my own children living out the same quandary. Although we live in a small town in southern Saskatchewan, which is predominantly White, they attend a school with a significant, if not overly large, African population. Many of their friends and teachers are Black. When they are telling us a story of what happened at school and are trying to explain who they are talking about, they appear visibly uncomfortable when trying to describe People of Colour. “You know.. it’s umm… that person you know… with the skin.” “With the skin?” “You know, um, the , uh, darker skin?” Already my 6 year-old knows he’s not supposed to see colour, but he does see colour and he’s not sure what that makes him. The “first harm inflicted by colorblindness is the casting of race-related conversations as impolite or even morally wrong” (Tarca, 2010, p.106).
This is a great boost to racism, these semantic contortions. It’s very hard to talk about, and deconstruct racism when we can’t even talk about race.
In book seven of the Harry Potter series, a Taboo curse is placed on the word ‘Voldemort’. When the word for the Dark Lord is spoken, all enchantments around the speaker break, allowing Death Eaters and Snatchers to appear magically in the speaker’s location. This made it difficult to organize against the Dark Forces.
Throughout the Harry Potter saga, the power of words is made evident. In the movie, Harry Potter: The Deathly Hallows, Part 2, Dumbledore tells Harry that “[w]ords are… our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.” Words matter. Words are powerful. Not being able to use words is disabling.
Ironically, we can trace our disabling Colour-blindness back to Martin Luther King’s (1963) ‘I have a dream‘ speech. The dream of children of different racial backgrounds holding hands with one another without prejudice has become an inspirational image for our post-Civil rights era. King’s dream for his own children to be judged “not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character,” continues to haunt us. Instead of responding to King’s calls for justice, freedom and equality for all, we clutch wildly to a fantasy of Colour-blindness. We proclaim that by pretending not to see race, we have erased racism. We righteously declare our Colour-blindness.
Colour-blindness has two main components (Tarca, 2010, p.105). The first is a belief that society today provides equal opportunities for all regardless of race. By pointing to the abolition of racist laws and the reduction in racist speech, we conclude that racism is a thing of the past, that race is no longer relevant. However, we know that this equality does not exist. In Saskatchewan, Indigenous people are 33 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous people—”higher odds than an African American in the U.S., or a black South African at the height of apartheid” (Macdonald, 2016, par.11). And Indigenous offenders are being sentenced to more than twice the jail time of their non-Indigenous counterparts (Macdonald, par.12). In Saskatchewan, Indigenous children are 13 times more likely to be apprehended by child protection services than non-Indigenous children (Macdonald, par.24). Indigenous residents of Saskatchewan are six times more likely to be murdered than the national average (Macdonald, par. 25). In Canada, First Nations youth die by suicide at a rate between five to six times higher than non-aboriginal youth (Shulman, 2016). On nearly every social indicator, statistics demonstrate that race is a substantial factor. Clearly, race is relevant.
The second component of Colour-blindness is a refusal to acknowledge the relevance of race and the structural nature of racial inequality. Problems encountered by a social group are attributed to individual deficiencies. For example, the lack of wealth of People of Colour is attributed to laziness and a lack of work ethic rather than the historical and present barriers that deny economic opportunity. (See Bertrand & Mullainathan, 2003, for a clear exposition of the barriers faced by Black job applicants: ‘Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination‘). Conversely, White economic success is attributed to individual achievement rather than historical and structural factors. Tim Wise (2015) calls this the 400 year head start, which did not magically disappear with the Civil Rights movement. Reducing any discussion of inequality to the isolated actions of select individuals rather than structural problems that affect racialized groups as a whole, is an important piece to Colour-blindness.
George Orwell (1946) wrote that “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs constant struggle.” This certainly applies to seeing race in a Colour-blind world. Many Whites do not see themselves as “belonging to a racial category” (Tarca, 2010, p.106). So that was my goal for the 2015-2016 school year, to teach my students to see race, to talk about race, and to begin to deconstruct racism.
I began by modeling race talk. I identified myself as a White-Settler. I told my class that many of them were also White-Settlers. We talked about how most White people can trace their ancestors back to Europe. I told my students about my own ancestors coming from England, Ireland and Scotland. I told them about how my grandparents were given free land when they came to Canada, land that was the territory of the Cree and the Saulteaux and the Dene. I talked about how it wasn’t useful to feel guilty about what my ancestors have done, but that I still needed to own and be responsible for that legacy. I tried to impress upon my students how important it was to be able to talk about race, to talk about Whiteness.
By February, Black History month, this had got me precisely nowhere.
My students, 6 months into my race talk, still refused to identify as White or be able to talk about race. The linguistic gymnastics they used were impressive. Bonilla-Silva (2002) notes that the language of Colour-blindness is “slippery” and “almost unintelligible” due to a “higher than usual level of incoherence” (p.42). In a written assignment about Rosa Parks, one student wrote about “those people with that skin colour”.
Sitting at my desk, marking paper after paper of incoherence, I admitted failure.
But, I forged on. I read picture book after picture book that modeled the language of Black and White. But nothing changed…
Until I could relate this race talk to something that they perceived as relevant in their lives, my students had zero interest in engaging with me in this conversation. But when I brought up the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, suddenly it made sense to my students why we would need to talk about being White and being Black and the different experiences this entails.
They were fascinated that all the actors who were nominated for awards were White. I told them about this being about not only the lack of recognition of Black actors but also the lack of opportunities for People of Colour more generally in the film industry. We talked about their favourite movies and how few if any featured a main character who was not White. We talked about the Harry Potter series and how People of Colour speak for less than 6 minutes in more than 20 hours of movies. (More on this in the chapter E is for Erasure).
And then, finally, my students were talking about race. The veil of Colour-blindness had been lifted.
In Harry Potter, the Taboo curse remains in place as long as the Dark Forces are powerful. It disintegrates when the Dark Forces fall. This Taboo can therefore be an indication of the strength of Voldemort’s followers. Colour-blind ideologies are a similar canary. As long as we can’t talk about race, we know that racism is alive and well.
Bertrand, M. & Mullainathan, S. (2003). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from: http://www.nber.org/papers/w9873.pdf
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2002). The Linguistics of Color Blind Racism: How to Talk Nasty about Blacks without Sounding “Racist”. Critical Sociology. 28(1-2), 41-64.
King, M. (1963). “I Have a Dream” Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. Retrieved from: https://www.archives.gov/files/press/exhibits/dream-speech.pdf
Macdonald, N. (2016, July 29). Saskatchewan: A special report on race and power. Macleans Magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/saskatchewan-a-special-report-on-race-and-power/
Orwell, G. (1946, March 22). In Front of Your Nose. Tribune. Retrieved from: http://orwell.ru/library/articles/nose/english/e_nose
Shulman, M. & Tahirali, J. (2016, April 11). Suicide among Canada’s First Nations: Key numbers. CTV News. Retrieved from: http://www.ctvnews.ca/health/suicide-among-canada-s-first-nations-key-numbers-1.2854899
Tarca, K. (2010). Colorblind in Control: The Risks of Resisting Difference Amid Demographic Change. Educational Studies. 38(2), 99-120.
Tuana, N. (2004). Coming to Understand: Orgasm and the Epistemology of Ignorance. Hypatia. 19(1), 194-232.
Wise, T. (2005). 400 Years Head Start and How White Wealth Was Created. YouTube. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PV-JqtiQijk
Yates, D., Kloves, S., Heyman, D., Barron, D., Rowling, J. K., Wigram, L., Serra, E., … Warner Home Video (Firm). (2011). Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video.