When overlooking difference for the sake of inclusion isn’t based in equal human worth
By Lisa Colón DeLay
Have you heard about the problems and harms of colorblindness lately?
I’m hearing that we’ve been thinking about differences all wrong. Differences help us solve complex problems and make the world interesting. Having a unique heritage, culture, or customs (other than mainstream white American ones) is something many people want to celebrate and enjoy.
The number of people in the U.S. who have claimed their indigenous heritage in the last ten years is a testament to a significant shift. The eagerness to identify with nonwhiteness pushes against the bankruptcy of white power plays. Clearly, claiming Native American ethnicity does not carry the shame many people used to feel about being associated with a disparaged people that were conquered to make the land of the free and the brave. At the same time, we can hear very vocal people literally tossing away nonwhite material from school curricula and libraries. What happened to colorblindness? Is it gone? Where did it come from, and is it a problem?
I haven’t heard too many people offering up ideas for what went wrong from the beginning. But that’s what I’d like to offer as well as confront that rot that has given us the fascist-adjacent environment with have today that thwarts the basic principles of justice and democracy.
First, a trip to the last Century: After the horrors of slavery, Jim Crows laws, and racism, many protests, hard work, sacrifices, and murders of civil rights leaders in the mid 20th Century came concerted efforts in some sectors of mainstream white American society to improve race relations.
What went long unrecognized—mainly among whites—was the faulty way this was conceived and attempted. It was called “colorblindness,” but fundamentality, it was thoroughly a white solution. White solutions may do something to comfort the white conscience, but do they move us all toward equality and justice? I don’t think so., and how could they ever? What happened?
In America, many hidden (and not hidden) beliefs of white superiority are baked in. This does not surprise nonwhites, but it is a terrible shock to white folks. This is especially so for white folks who think they are good people and can recall speaking to a black person in the recent past.
These beliefs of white superiority appear as conceptions of varying sorts that play out in ordinary ways. One such conception is that outsiders to white culture should assimilate into white ways of being; otherwise, something has gone wrong. Rewards and punishments coerce assimilation. In a “white-centered world,” there is normal, and then there is “nonwhiteness.” How these conceptions play out are legion, but for white people reading this, these ways usually include looking, behaving, speaking, creating, living, and showing up in the world in all kinds of ways that are comfortable and unfamiliar to primarily the mainstream middle and upper-class white America of the mid and late 20th Century.
In reality, America’s demographics of middle-class whiteness have been and are a rarity and a temporary blip in the continent’s history and, obviously, in human history. It is one of the most rare things in the world to be middle class and white; making this a standard for a country in a modern world full of population displacement, a global economy, remote employment, mass world travel, and relocation is laughable. This doesn’t stop the myth from being widely accepted and perpetuated. We are in great debt to corporate advertising, powerful interests, government officials, and agencies for that. But I digress.
What many well-intentioned whites didn’t predict when “making things right with the races” was that it would actually cause harm. (Some would say this was the whole point, but I’m trying to be charitable.) Conditional inclusion guarantees that it will never work. The erasure of individuals and groups will be the cost of colorblindness efforts. I will get back to this. Now that some whites are feeling a modicum of disturbance in their dominance, we see their abject panic. Even a whiff of erasure of some cultural power is causing them enormous misery. We are awash in their outpouring of hate. Shooting up shopping centers where they see nonwhites is no anomaly but a possibility.
Efforts to improve race relations with “colorblindness” occurred largely in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s as moderate and liberal whites tried to take a stand against long-held laws and norms of racial segregation. This post-Civil War apartheid wasn’t just a disgrace; it ensured injustice and inequality in horrifying ways for generations.
Colorblindness was remedy whites selected. With it, whites tried to convey to nonwhites:
“You can be included now.” But since whiteness is so thoroughly ingrained and normative, it went sideways. When whiteness is understood internally as a superior way to be and behave, it could only lead to awful outcomes. What was baked into all these attempts of inclusion was also many repeated and disparaging signals that sent a message that could not create healing and wholeness for communities or our nation.
Colorblindness said again and again: “You are not preferred, but I won’t let your difference offend me. I will overlook what I don’t like about you so you can begin to participate in a way I will allow you to now. I will pretend that your otherness isn’t a problem. I will act blind to the difference between us. I will overlook that and also overlook my ongoing belief that your inferiority always exists in your unchanged state.”
Colorblindness said again and again: “You are not preferred but I won’t let your difference offend me. . . I will overlook my ongoing belief that your inferiority always exists in your unchanged state.”Lisa Colón DeLay
This is not the message that believes or affirms that one is valued and wanted; far from it. This does not tell someone they are now connected and a genuine part of the whole. No. This colorblindness works as erasure. Potently. Consistently. Over time stronger and stronger. It is the bleeding out of lives, rich histories, cherished traditions, and cultural particularities. It also smothers the ways of being in the world that offer comfort, hope, joy, and identity.
Was there pushback to this colorblindness tact? Of course, but the efforts of colorblindness were usually accepted because what choice was there? One will need to take these colorblindness crumbs to be able to participate in the white-dominated world, or one will continue to be locked out from it. Gatekeepers can make the way easy or hard.
Sometimes right away, and sometimes over time, the consequences for nonwhites were a great sense of alienation, unease, disconnection, and many times far worse and more complex than that. Contorting and code-switching to assimilate to white societal expectations is no small feat.
To speak and be unlike yourself, or you will be societally punished; who wants that? You must change to white ways, dress, and act differently, or you will miss out on all of the ways success is defined. The colorblind society must subsume all into whiteness. And remember that you—if you look brown or black—will never be white enough no matter how much money you make, how many accomplishments you achieve, how many degrees you get, or how perfectly Oxford standard your English sounds. And do not forget the gaslighting happening for decades as whites told nonwhites that race relations were progressing through these colorblind measures. “Look at the new jobs and the new achievements for your kind. You should be grateful!”
Nonwhites were shoehorned into this pressure cooker of stress. The weight of colorblindness does not abate except in nonwhite spaces. It can and does cause mental and, therefore, physical health conditions. Obviously, such things play into higher rates of ill health, disease, and earlier deaths among nonwhites.
And now, for the ultimate irony, today we see a backlash. Instead of the mood being to make adjustments and right the wrongs of colorblindness, whites seem more threatened than ever. Attacks are coming from the white homogeny political machine and white supremest interests as they steamroll through school curriculums and libraries to cut material, ban books, and fire teachers who include actual American history that provides for nonwhite stories and people.
In addition, language is leveraged to uphold whiteness and power. Whites purposefully manipulate words that began with positive attributes. “Woke” was a term for a person who awakened to understand the systematic unfairness of a society that protects white interests. This situation is self-evident. Predictably, whites damn the word “woke” into a slur as they go about creating more harmful situations. They vilify those working toward equality to maintain the status quo where only they dictate who is protected, preferred, and acceptable.
For nonwhites diversity and difference are assets and things to enjoy and be proud of. For too many whites, these same things represent something gone wrong. Otherness is met with annoyance at best and disgust and malice at worst. We should not be surprised when black people are criticized or punished for things that white people get away with. What we can do is be unshaken and be ourselves. There is nothing to repent of. There is nothing wrong with us except that we have sometimes believed the lie that we were not just as worthy. Here we stand our ground.
It just may be that colorblindness got us here. Assimilation didn’t work as planned. Nonwhites were not homogenized into white America. What whites envisioned was a subsuming situation where the repugnance of nonwhite inferiority could be tolerated. What is repugnant is the sickness of the soul that would cause them to think themselves better and the foolishness to think they would always be on top calling the shots. The deep rot that is the delusion of white superiority did indeed fester. It putrified until they became unashamed to brandish their detestation nakedly. I will call it out when I see it. We all must. Justice awaits us when we tolerate evil no more.
It just may may that colorblindness got us here. . . where (whites) are unashamed to brandish their detestation nakedly.Lisa Colón DeLay
A modern, wealthy country like America which is also a civil and just society must continually create conditions for people to learn to be mature. This means valuing humans equally. This kind of country also puts in place the conditions that demand dignity, respect, and equal treatment for every human being despite their physical ability, their appearance, their ancestry, their education, their access to money or resources, or their position of power. With that comes, obviously, access to freedom and justice. In living justly we don’t overlook differences. We celebrate it without devaluing the person or group who possesses it.
By Lisa Colón DeLay