Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality

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Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness
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Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality
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Module 12: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion

After working through this module, you will be able to:

  • Explain why the concepts of “color-blindness” and “neutrality” are harmful to anti-racist work, including anti-racist work in libraries.

Introduction

The terms “color-blind” and “neutral” both have generally positive connotations in the United States today. All of us have probably heard someone say that they “don’t see color,” or that they “stay out of political debates,” or that “it would be great if we could all just stop noticing race.” You may have even said something like this yourself. While these statements might be well-intentioned, they can also be counterproductive to anti-racist work. In this module, we will explore why this is the case, both in general and in libraries specifically.


Part One: Color-Blindness

The idea that individuals and systems could or should simply “not see race” is a relatively new one in American history, and can be traced back to conservative efforts in the 1960s through the 1980s to counter the economic and political advancement of people of color during that time period (Hartman, 2013; Mazzocco, 2017). The term “color-blind” itself can be traced back to 1896 when Supreme Court Justice Marshall Harlan used the term in his dissent to the majority ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson:

The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country.  And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power.  So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.  But in the view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens… Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. (Plessy, 1896)

In this dissent, Justice Harlan argued that racial segregation should not be tolerated in the United States. However, the quote above and the concept of “color-blindness” are now used by some to argue against affirmative action and other diversity and inclusion initiatives. What happened?

Color-blindness did not really take hold as a national buzzword until the late 1960s. During the tumult of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, conservatives – especially in the South – began co-opting the language of civil rights leaders as a way to make their own racist rhetoric more publically palatable. One of the leaders in this conservative movement was James Kilpatrick, a Southern journalist. In his biography of Kilpatrick, historian William P. Hustwit (2013) showed how Kilpatrick twisted the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to argue that color-blindness should be an American ideal. In Kilpatrick’s version of color-blindness, Americans shouldn’t be judged on their race, but only on their merits and qualifications. Of course, because of the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, the qualifications of white people at the time were, on the whole, significantly higher than those of People of Color. In other words, Kilpatrick believed that color-blindness would only benefit white people and work to further consolidate their social, political, and economic power.

Kilpatrick’s ideas became a foundational element of conservative opposition to affirmative action initiatives in the 1970s (Hartman, 2013; Mazzocco, 2017). In an influential book titled Affirmative Discrimination: Ethnic Inequality and Public Policy, sociologist Nathan Glazer used the idea of color-blindness in 1975 to argue that affirmative action was in fact “reverse racism.” Similar objections are commonly used today to oppose diversity and inclusion initiatives of all kinds. For example, the recently-released Marvel superhero film Black Panther, which had a nearly all-Black cast, was attacked on the film review site Rotten Tomatoes and on Twitter by people calling the film racist for its “exclusion” of white actors. The screenshotted tweets below are typical of this phenomenon, and show how the ideology of color-blindness is still being used to argue in favor of white supremacy:

Screencaptures of four tweets responding to the film Black Panther. Kurt Schlichter: Um, can Black Panther just be a movie and not a "black movie?" That's kind of racist and condescending toward the makers of waht comic book movie fans seem to think is a great flick regardless of labels. [thinking emoji[ Mike: It's amazing, I'm being called a racist for criticizing the Black Panther movie, yet the left is literally advocating for an all black cast superhero movie, excluding whites & others, while judging it based on the race of the actors, and they haven't even seen it yet.. Yup. Sean Shannon Collier: The makers of Black Panther didn't want anybody white in their movie. They are not racist though because they want white people at the ticket counter. #BlackPanther[Black Panther emoji] is the epitome of #Racism. Make Oregon Red Again: pretty sure there are lots of black leads in superhero movies. so not having many white people in movies in some kind o famazing thing for black people? how bizarre [eye-rolling emoji] who cares what the skin color is. just shows the people who support black panther are racist against whites

In addition to the historical use of color-blindness as a rhetorical tool to prop up white supremacist ideals, aiming for color-blindness is also problematic because it ignores both the persistent racial discrimination and inequities faced by people of color and the value of their ethnic and racial cultures and identities. Christian hip hop artist Jason Petty, better known as Propaganda, summarizes this eloquently:

[Color-blindness] communicates that my distinctions don’t matter, right, which would mean that my identity doesn’t matter… and that’s confusing to a young Black man, because you’re telling me my identity doesn’t matter, yet I’m being treated a certain way because of this identity. (VergeNetwork, 2016)

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2018) calls this phenomenon “color-blind racism”: a form of racism in which white people minimize or deny the extent of racial inequality and discrimination, or try to explain racial inequality as resulting from factors unrelated to race.

Note: In addition to the issues discussed above, the term “color-blind” when used to talk about race can also be considered a form of ableist language – language that devalues or is prejudiced against people with disabilities. For more about ableist language, see the Introduction to Disability Terminology article from Disability in Kidlit and “Doing social justice: 10 reasons to give up ableist language” by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg. Some disability advocates have suggested replacement terms like “color-evasiveness” to describe this phenomenon instead.


Color-Blindness in Schools and Libraries

In her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum (2017) addresses the issue of color-blindness as it relates to children and teens. Tatum cites research showing that children as young as age three notice race. Even more recent research – published after the new edition of Tatum’s book was released – shows that beginning at six months of age, infants associate own-race faces with happy music and other-race faces with sad music, and that infants prefer learning from an own-race adult versus an other-race adult (Xiao et al. 2017). It’s clear that children and teens see racial differences. The question, then, is how should we as educators respond when they make race-based observations?

Tatum relates anecdotes that illustrate how the race-based observations made by preschool-age children often cause embarrassment and discomfort for their parents, who may attempt to “shush” the child rather than engaging in a conversation about racial differences. Tatum asserts that rather than living in a color-blind society, “we may be living in a color-silent society, where we have learned to avoid talking about racial difference. But even if we refrain from mentioning race, the evidence is clear that we still notice racial categories and that our behaviors are guided by what we notice” (Tatum, 2017, p.24). Tatum recommends that rather than avoiding the conversation or shushing the child – and thus teaching children that race is a taboo subject – parents and other caregivers should become comfortable engaging in honest, age-appropriate conversations about race.

At a very young age, these conversations may involve simply affirming that physical differences exist, celebrating the diversity and beauty of different skin and hair types, and explaining why some people have darker skin than others. For an example of how one first- and second-grade teacher accomplished these goals in her classroom, check out this Rethinking Schools article titled “Celebrating Skin Tone: The Science and Poetry of Skin Color.” As children get older, teachers and librarians can and should have deeper conversations with them about race and racism, and should openly address any race-based incidents that occur in the classroom or school.

Many white people, especially those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s at the peak of color-blindness rhetoric, were explicitly taught that color-blindness is a positive goal. However, true color-blindness is not only impossible (see Module 4 on Implicit Bias), but actively harmful toward anti-racist work. The goal of anti-racist work is not to make race invisible, but rather to make systems of inequity based on race apparent to all so they can be dismantled. For that to happen, we need to see race. Watch the two videos below and respond to the journal prompt to explore color-blindness further.


Icon_watchWatch

Watch this brief clip from PBS’s Colorblind: ReThinking Race.

 

 

Then, watch this episode of MTV’s Decoded with Franchesca Ramsey. Decoded is a weekly segment produced by MTV News that tackles race issues using a production style aimed at teens and young adults. In this episode, Ramsey reviews definitions of race and racism before discussing why the idea of color-blindness is harmful to anti-racist work.

 


Connect

In your journal, respond to the following prompt: Think about your personal history with the concept of color-blindness. At what age do you remember being introduced to this concept? How was it presented to you and by whom? How has your understanding of this concept changed over time?


Part Two: Neutrality

Similar to the concept of color-blindness, “neutrality” is often discussed as a positive ideal, both in society at large and in libraries in particular. The Oxford English Dictionary defines neutrality as “the state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, etc.; impartiality.” On its surface, neutrality can seem attractive: just stay in the middle, and you can opt out of heated debates on either side. In practice, however, opting out of the debate is often equivalent in its effects to actively supporting the status quo. This is particularly true for anti-racist work. The materials below will help you explore this idea further.


Read

Read the Teaching Tolerance article “Shifting Out of Neutral” by Jonathan Gold.

Read this School Library Journal article by Cory Eckert, the founder of Storytime Underground: Libraries Are Not Neutral.

Read Emily Drabinski’s prepared comments for the 2018 ALA President’s Program, presented in Denver, Colorado, on the topic of library neutrality.


Reflect

In your journal, respond to the following prompt: In the article “Shifting Out of Neutral,” history teacher Jonathan Gold poses the question “What’s worse for students: the acknowledgment of subjectivity or the pretense of objectivity?” Reflect on this quote in relation to your own work with children and/or teens.


But Wait!

In this section, we address common questions and concerns related to the material presented in each module. You may have these questions yourself, or someone you’re sharing this information with might raise them. We recommend that for each question below, you spend a few minutes thinking about your own response before clicking the arrow to the left of the question to see our response.

As a white person, I try to treat everyone equally regardless of race. Is that color-blindness, and if so, why is that a bad thing?

Treating everyone with respect and decency is a goal that everyone should strive toward. That goal, however, is different from the goal of “not seeing” a person’s race. Truly treating all individuals with respect requires seeing and affirming them for who they are – and that includes seeing and affirming their racial identities. Also, keep in mind that treating everyone equally is not the same as treating them equitably. People of color continue to face systemic inequity and discrimination in the United States, which puts them at a disadvantage compared to whites. “Treating everyone equally” is often used as a justification for perpetuating these unjust systems. For example, if I were a school principal comparing job applications for an open position at my school, adopting a race-blind policy toward that process (perhaps by hiding applicants’ names during the initial application review period) would likely benefit white applicants. That is because inequitable systems of education and hiring result in whites having, on average, “better” qualifications for many jobs compared to people of color. If instead I were to take an equitable approach toward the hiring process, I would consider the race of my applicants, along with other aspects, in light of what I know about systems of discrimination and oppression in the United States.

 

As a white person, I feel like talking about race will be seen as racist. How can I start talking about skin color without being racist?


The most important thing you can do is learn more about the topic of race and equity and listen when BIPOC tell their stories. When you feel comfortable enough with your knowledge and understanding to start having conversations, it’s important to remain in the learner mindset and allow BIPOC to lead the conversations. They are the experts and will give you insight into vocabulary and what makes them feel comfortable. 

 

 


Resources

You can check out more episodes of MTV’s Decoded series here.

This article in The Atlantic summarizes the arguments of sociologists related to the counterproductiveness of “color-blindness.”

Color Blind or Color Brave TED Talk

Wenzler, John (2019). Neutrality and its discontent: An essay on the ethics of librarianship. portal: Libraries & the Academy, 19(1), 55-78.


References

Glazer, N. (1975). Affirmative discrimination: Ethnic inequality and public policy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hartman, A. (2013). A history of color-blindness and memory of civil rights. Society for U.S. Intellectual History. Retrieved from https://s-usih.org/2013/06/a-history-of-color-blindness-and-memory-of-civil-rights/

Hustwit, W. P. (2013). James J. Kilpatrick: Salesman for segregation. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books.

Mazzocco P.J. (2017). Race and colorblindness: A historical overview. In The psychology of racial colorblindness. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Plessy vs. Ferguson, Judgement, Decided May 18, 1896; Records of the Supreme Court of the United States; Record Group 267; Plessy v. Ferguson, 163, #15248, National Archives. Retrieved from https://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=false&doc=52&page=transcript

VergeNetwork. (2016). Why ‘colorblindness’ is toxic. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IKTBRw4ml2c&t=2s

 

Go Back:
Module 10: Unpacking Whiteness
You Are Here:
Module 11: Confronting Colorblindness and Neutrality
Next:
Module 12: Equity vs. Equality, Diversity vs. Inclusion