Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race

Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race

by Patricia J. Williams
     
 

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In these five eloquent and passionate pieces (which she gave as the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC) Patricia J. Williams asks how we might achieve a world where "color doesn't matter"--where whiteness is not equated with normalcy and blackness with exoticism and danger. Drawing on her own experience, Williams delineates the great divide between "the poles

Overview

In these five eloquent and passionate pieces (which she gave as the prestigious Reith Lectures for the BBC) Patricia J. Williams asks how we might achieve a world where "color doesn't matter"--where whiteness is not equated with normalcy and blackness with exoticism and danger. Drawing on her own experience, Williams delineates the great divide between "the poles of other people's imagination and the nice calm center of oneself where dignity resides," and discusses how it might be bridged as a first step toward resolving racism. Williams offers us a new starting point--"a sensible and sustained consideration"--from which we might begin to deal honestly with the legacy and current realities of our prejudices.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This powerful text examines the everyday realities of race in such a powerful and poignant way that we can never fall back on the myth of color blindness even as we transcend race in our quest for humane ends and aims.” —Cornel West

Seeing a Color-Blind Future is a slender book that challenges us to dream the biggest dream--a deep democracy in which we see ourselves in each other. Patricia Williams instills it with her gifts of intelligent rage, compassion, and hope.” —Gloria Steinem

“Some forty years ago, James Baldwin informed White America: 'We know more about you than you know about us.' Today, Patricia Williams sets out to repair this failing, this retardedness, that, unless recognized, may become the wound that will not heal. With acerbic wit, easy grace, and telling anecdote, she offers a remedy: our native intelligence.” —Studs Terkel

Kirkus Reviews
These five related essays, originally given as the 1997 BBC Reith Lectures, showcase the subtle thinking of Columbia University law professor Williams (The Rooster's Egg, 1995). The notion of a "color-blind" society, in which everyone is judged by their performance and behavior, rather than by their racial makeup, is one of the clich‚s of American political discourse, wielded by both right and left. Williams tells her audience at the outset of this slender but immensely suggestive volume that "I embrace color-blindness as a legitimate hope for the future, [but] I worry that we tend to enshrine the notion with a kind of utopianism whose naivet‚ will ensure its elusiveness." Williams dissects with a scalpel-sharp wit the many layers of paradox at the heart of the American (and English) racial divide. Despite the subtitle, the racial question is not one paradox but a fabric woven of many paradoxes. Among the paradoxes she highlights are the plight of African-Americans poised between two polesþthe hypervisibility of being scapegoated and the oblivion of social neglect; the O.J. Simpson case being used as a crude parody of racial dialogue; the strange fact that "whiteness" is never coded as race but treated as normative. Williams readily admits that, unlike most pundits in this overcrowded field, she has no single, simple answer, no checklist of prescriptions, nor does she give credence to the idea of a society in which all is peace and light. Rather, she offers a commonsensical plea for empathy with the Other as the first step toward bridging the gap among white, black, red, yellow and brown. Written with an unerring eye for the thought-provoking and fresh metaphor, and with askillful blending of personal and professional observation, this is one of the most intelligent commentaries on the vexed subject of race in many years.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780374525330
Publisher:
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date:
04/01/1998
Series:
1997 BBC Reith Lectures
Pages:
84
Sales rank:
403,791
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.19(d)

Read an Excerpt


CHAPTER ONE

THE EMPEROR'S NEW CLOTHES

My son used to attend a small nursery school. Over the course of one year, three different teachers in his school assured me that he was color-blind. Resigned to this diagnosis, I took my son to an ophthalmologist who tested him and pronounced his vision perfect. I could not figure out what was going on until I began to listen carefully to what he was saying about color.

    As it turned out, my son did not misidentify color. He resisted identifying color at all. "I don't know," he would say when asked what color the grass was; or, most peculiarly, "It makes no difference." This latter remark, this assertion of the greenness of grass making no difference, was such a precociously cynical retort, that I began to suspect some social complication in which he was somehow invested.

    The long and the short of it is that the well-meaning teachers at his predominantly white school had valiantly and repeatedly assured their charges that color makes no difference. "It doesn't matter," they told the children, "whether you're black or white or red or green or blue." Yet upon further investigation, the very reason that the teachers had felt it necessary to impart this lesson in the first place was that it did matter, and in predictably cruel ways: some of the children had been fighting about whether black people could play "good guys.

    My son's anxious response was redefined by his teachers as physical deficiency. This anxiety redefined as deficiency suggests to me that it may be illustrative of the way in which the liberal ideal of color-blindness is too often confounded. That is to say, the very notion of blindness about color constitutes an ideological confusion at best, and denial at its very worst. I recognize, certainly, that the teachers were inspired by a desire to make whole a division in the ranks. But much is overlooked in the move to undo that which clearly and unfortunately matters just by labeling it that which "makes no difference." The dismissiveness, however unintentional, leaves those in my son's position pulled between the clarity of their own experience and the often alienating terms in which they must seek social acceptance.

    There's a lot of that in the world right now: someone has just announced in no uncertain terms that he or she hates you because you're dark, let's say, or Catholic or a woman or the wrong height, and the panicked authority figures try to patch things up by reassuring you that race or gender or stature or your heartfelt religion doesn't matter; means nothing in the calculation of your humanity; is the most insignificant little puddle of beans in the world.

    While I do want to underscore that I embrace color-blindness as a legitimate hope for the future, I worry that we tend to enshrine the notion with a kind of utopianism whose naivete will ensure its elusiveness. In the material world ranging from playgrounds to politics, our ideals perhaps need more thoughtful, albeit more complicated, guardianship. By this I mean something more than the "I think therefore it is" school of idealism. "I don't think about color, therefore your problems don't exist." If only it were so easy.

    But if indeed it's not that easy then the application of such quick fixes becomes not just a shortcut but a short-circuiting of the process of resolution. In the example of my son's experience at school, the collective aversion to confronting the social tensions he faced resulted in their being pathologized as his individual physical limitation. This is a phenomenon that happens all too frequently to children of color in a variety of contexts. In both the United States and the United Kingdom, the disproportionate numbers of black children who end up in special education or who are written off as failures attest to the degree to which this is a profound source of social anxiety.

    In addition, the failure to deal straightforwardly with the pervasive practices of exclusion that infect even the very young allowed my son's white schoolmates to indulge in the false luxury of a prematurely imagined community. By this I mean that we can all be lulled rather too easily into a self-congratulatory stance of preached universalism--"We are the world! We are the children!" was the evocative, full-throated harmony of a few years ago. Yet nowhere has that been invoked more passionately than in the face of tidal waves of dissension, and even as "the" children learn that "we" children are not like "those," the benighted creatures on the other side of the pale.

    This tension between material conditions and what one is cultured to see or not see--the dilemma of the emperor's new clothes, we might call it--is a tension faced by any society driven by bitter histories of imposed hierarchy. I don't mean to suggest that we need always go about feeling guilty or responsible or perpetually burdened by original sin or notions of political correctness. I do wish, however, to counsel against the facile innocence of those three notorious monkeys, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, and Speak No Evil. Theirs is a purity achieved through ignorance. Ours must be a world in which we know each other better.

    To put it another way, it is a dangerous if comprehensible temptation to imagine inclusiveness by imagining away any obstacles. It is in this way that the moral high ground of good intentions knows its limits. We must be careful not to allow our intentions to verge into outright projection by substituting a fantasy of global seamlessness that is blinding rather than just color-blind.

    This is a dilemma--being colored, so to speak, in a world of normative whiteness, whiteness being defined as the absence of color. The drive to conform our surroundings to whatever we know as "normal" is a powerful force--convention in many ways is more powerful than reason, and customs in some instances are more powerful than law. While surely most customs and conventions encode the insights of ancient wisdom, the habits of racial thought in Western society just as surely encapsulate some of the greatest mistakes in human history. So how do we rethink this most troubled of divisions, the fault line in our body politic, the fault line in ourselves? The ability to remain true to one self, it seems to me, must begin with the ethical project of considering how we can align a sense of ourselves with a sense of the world. This is the essence of integrity, is it not, never having to split into a well-maintained "front" and a closely guarded "inside."

    Creating community, in other words, involves this most difficult work of negotiating real divisions, of considering boundaries before we go crashing through, and of pondering our differences before we can ever agree on the terms of our sameness. For the discounted vision of the emperor's new clothes (or a little boy's color) is already the description of corrupted community.

    Perhaps one reason that conversations about race are so often doomed to frustration is that the notion of whiteness as "race" is almost never implicated. One of the more difficult legacies of slavery and of colonialism is the degree to which racism's tenacious hold is manifested not merely in the divided demographics of neighborhood or education or class but also in the process of what media expert John Fiske calls the "exnomination" of whiteness as racial identity. Whiteness is unnamed, suppressed, beyond the realm of race. Exnomination permits whites to entertain die notion that race lives "over there" on the other side of the tracks, in black bodies and inner-city neighborhoods, in a dark netherworld where whites are not involved.

    At this level, the creation of a sense of community is a lifelong negotiation of endless subtlety. One morning when my son was three, I took him to his preschool. He ran straight to a pile of Lego and proceeded to work. I crossed the room and put his lunchbox in the refrigerator, where I encountered a little girl sitting at a table, beating a mound of clay into submission with a plastic rolling pin. "I see a Mommy," she said to me cheerfully. "That must mean that your little boy is here somewhere, too."

    "Yes, he's here," I answered, thinking how sweetly precocious she was. "There, he's over by the Lego."

    She strained to see around the bookcases. "Oh yes," she said. "Now I see that black face of his."

    I walked away without responding, enraged--how can one be so enraged at an innocent child--yet not knowing what to say just then, rushing to get the jaggedly dangerous broken glass of my emotions out of the room.

    I remember being three years old so well. Three was the age when I learned that I was black, the colored kid, monkeychild, different. What made me so angry and wordless in this encounter forty years later was the realization that none of the little white children who taught me to see my blackness as a mark probably ever learned to see themselves as white. In our culture, whiteness is rarely marked in the indicative there! there! sense of my bracketed blackness. And the majoritarian privilege of never noticing themselves was the beginning of an imbalance from which so much, so much else flowed.

    But that is hard to talk about, even now, this insight acquired before I had the words to sort it out. Yet it is imperative to think about this phenomenon of closeting race, which I believe is a good deal more widespread than these small examples. In a sense, race matters are resented and repressed in much the same way as matters of sex and scandal: the subject is considered a rude and transgressive one in mixed company, a matter whose observation is sometimes inevitable, but about which, once seen, little should be heard nonetheless. Race thus tends to be treated as though it were an especially delicate category of social infirmity--so-called--like extreme obesity or disfigurement.

    Every parent knows a little of this dynamic, if in other contexts: "Why doesn't that lady have any teeth?" comes the child's piping voice. "Why doesn't that gentleman have any hair?" And "Why is that little boy so black?" Sssshhhh! comes the anxious parental remonstrance. The poor thing can't help it. We must all pretend that nothing's wrong.

    And thus we are coached upon pain of punishment not to see a thing.

    Now, to be sure, the parent faces an ethical dilemma in that moment of childish vision unrestrained by social nicety. On the one hand, we rush to place a limit on what can be said to strangers and what must be withheld for fear of imposition or of hurting someone's feelings. As members of a broad society, we respect one another by learning not to inflict every last intimate, prying curiosity we may harbor upon everyone we meet.

    That said, there remains the problem of how or whether we ever answer the question, and that is the dimension of this dynamic that is considerably more troubling.

    "Why is that man wearing no clothes?" pipes the childish voice once more. And the parent panics at the complication of trying to explain. The naked man may be a nudist or a psychotic or perhaps the emperor of the realm, but the silencing that is passed from parent to child is not only about the teaching of restraint; it is calculated to circumnavigate the question as though it had never been asked. "Stop asking such silly questions."

    A wall begins to grow around the forbidden gaze; for we all know, and children best of all, when someone wants to change the subject, forever. And so the child is left to the monstrous creativity of ignorance and wild imagination.

    Again, I do believe that this unfortunate negotiation of social difference has much in common with discussions about race. Race is treated as though it were some sort of genetic leprosy or a biological train wreck. Those who privilege themselves as Un-raced--usually but not always those who are white--are always anxiously maintaining that it doesn't matter, even as they are quite busy feeling pity, no less, and thankful to God for their great good luck in having been spared so intolerable an affliction.

    Meanwhile, those marked as Having Race are ground down by the pendular stresses of having to explain what it feels like to be You--why are you black, why are you black, why are you black, over and over again; or, alternatively, placed in a kind of conversational quarantine of muteness in which any mention of racial circumstance reduces all sides to tears, fears, fisticuffs, and other paroxysms of unseemly anguish.

    This sad, habitual paralysis in the face of the foreign and the anxiety-producing. It is as though we are all skating across a pond that is not quite thoroughly frozen. Two centuries ago, or perhaps only a few decades ago, the lake was solidly frozen, and if for those skating across the surface things seemed much more secure, it was a much more dismal lot for those whose fates were frozen at the bottom of the pond. Over time, the weather of race relations has warmed somewhat, and a few of those at the bottom have found their way to the surface; we no longer hold our breath, and we have even learned to skate. The noisy, racial chasm still yawns darkly beneath us all, but we few brave souls glide gingerly above, upon a skim of hope, our bodies made light with denial, the black pond so dangerously and thinly iced with the conviction that talking about it will only make things worse.

    And so the racial divide is exacerbated further by a welter of little lies that propel us foolishly around the edges of our most demanding social stresses: Black people are a happy people and if they would just stop complaining so much, they would see how happy they are. Black people who say they're unhappy are leftist agitators whose time would be better spent looking for a real job. White people are victims. Poor Bangladeshis are poor because they want to be. Poor white people are poor because rich Indians stole all the jobs under the ruse of affirmative action. There is no racism in the marketplace--"each according to his merit" goes the cant, even as the EEOC has a backlog of 70,000 cases by the most conservative estimates; even as top executives funnel the jobs to school chums and their next of kin, or chief executives at major corporations are captured on tape destroying subpoenaed records of ongoing discriminatory practices. Immigrants are taking over the whole world, but race makes no difference. If sixty percent of young black men are unemployed in the industrialized world, well, let them watch Oprah. If some people are determined to be homeless, well then let them have it, if homelessness is what they like so much ...

    Triage is a word I hear bandied about a lot these days. I have heard it used by many of my friends who are economists; they used it to convey an urgency of limited resources. If there's not enough to go around, then those with the least should be written off first because it will take more to save them anyway. And we don't have more.

    This word triage originally cropped up in the context of the medical profession. It is a term borrowed from overtaxed hospitals in theaters of war. On body-strewn battlefields, doctors would divide the survivors into three groups. The third, in the worst condition, might be left to die because bandages were better spent wrapped around those more likely to survive.

    In the context of today's ghettos, inner cities, and those places doomed to be called the Third World, I hear the word triage.

    I worry about this image that casts aside so many so easily. It envisions poor and dying populations as separate, distant, severable. I worry that perhaps we have mischosen our metaphors.

    I fear triage; I fear that one cannot cut off a third of the world without some awful, life-threatening bleeding in the rest of the body politic. The Malthusian nightmare has never been a simple matter, I think, of letting someone else go hungry, or of letting someone else die. It is a matter of amputation--that's the metaphor I'd rather use. And one can't cut off one's leg and pretend it never belonged.

    It is as though we are employing, in our economic analysis of distributive justice, the images of the very earliest days of medical experimentation. Oh, well, let's see now ... The soul abides in the liver ... Therefore we can chop off that troublesome, heretical head and no one will be the less holy for it ...

    Maybe. But quite a few martyrs have been made that way.

Anthropologist Michael Taussig has written about the phenomenon of public secrets. He writes of a ritual in Tierra del Fuego in which the men come out of the men's hut wearing masks. The women hail them by singing "Here come the spirits!" On some level, everyone must know that these are not spirits but husbands and brothers and fathers and sons, but so powerful is the ritual to the sense of community that it is upon pain of death that the women fail to greet them as spirits.

    In our culture, I think that the power of race resembles just such a public secret. I understand the civic ritual that requires us to say in the face of all our differences, We are all one, we are the world. I understand the need for the publicly reiterated faith in public ideals as binding and sustaining community. Such beliefs are the very foundation of institutional legitimacy and no society can hold itself together without them. Yet such binding force comes from a citizenry willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of honoring the spiritual power of our appointed ideals. And where suspicion, cynicism, and betrayal have eaten away at a community to the degree that the folk parading from the men's hut look like just a bunch of muggers wearing masks--or badges, as the case may be--then hailing the spirit will sound like a hollow incantation, empty theater, the weary habit of the dispossessed.

    There is a crisis of community in the United States no less than in the rest of the world, of specific and complicated origin perhaps, but in this moment of global upheaval, worth studying for possibilities both won and lost. Whites fear blacks, blacks fear whites. Each is the enemy against whom the authorities will not act.

    If racial and ethnic experience constitutes a divide that cannot be spoken, an even greater paradox is the degree to which a sense of commonality may be simultaneously created as well as threatened by notions of ethnicity and race. It is no wonder we end up deadlocked with so many of our most profound political problems. The "0. J. divide" (as it's come to be known in America) is merely a convenient metaphor for everything else we disagree about. Are you one of "us" or one of "them"? When I say "we," am I heard as referring only to other black people? When I employ the first person, will it only be heard as an exercise of what might be called the "royal I"--me as representative stand-in for all those of my kind ...

    Certainly the great, philosophically inspiring quandary of my life is that despite the multiculturalism of my heritage and the profundity of my commitment to the notion of the "us-ness" of us all, I have little room but to negotiate most of my daily lived encounters as one of "them." How alien this sounds. This split without, the split within.

    Yet in this way the public secret of human fallibility, whose silence we keep to honor our symbolic civic unity, is vastly complicated by the counter-secret of palpitating civil discord. Hail the spirit of our infallibly peaceful coexistence. Hail our common fate (even as young white men are forming their own private militias complete with grenade launchers and one in three young black men are in jail or on probation ... But shush, don't stare ...)

Such is the legacy of racism in the modern world. Perhaps it is less and less fashionable these days to consider too explicitly the kinds of costs that slavery and colonialism exacted, even as those historical disruptions have continued to scar contemporary social arrangements with the transcendent urgency of their hand-me-down grief.

    I realize therefore that it might be considered impertinent to keep raising the ghost of slavery's triangle trade and waving it around; there is a pronounced preference in polite society for just letting bygones be bygones. And I concede that a more optimistic enterprise might be to begin any contemporary analysis of race with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, or the Notting Hill riots in the United Kingdom. Beginning at those points is a way of focusing one's view and confining one's reference to the legitimately inspiring ideals that coalesced those movements: the alms of color-blindness, the equality of all people, and the possibility of peaceful coexistence.

    Yet if that well-chosen temporal slice allows us to be optimistic about the possibility of progress, there are nonetheless limitations to such a frame. First, it is the conceptual prehistory of those movements that explains the toll of racism and its lingering effects. There can be no adequate explanation without reference to it. Second, the diasporic complexity of today's social problems requires an analysis that moves those ideals of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s beyond themselves, into the present, into the future--to a more complex, practical grappling with such phenomena as the hybridizing of racial stereotypes with the fundamentalisms of gender, class, ethnicity, religion. Third, the problem of race is overlaid with crises in environmental and resource management that have triggered unparalleled migrations from rural to urban locations within national boundaries, and that have impassioned debates about immigration across national boundaries. Finally, not a few aspects of our New Age global economics, much like the commercial profiteering of colonialisms past, threaten to displace not just the very laws to which we persistently make such grand appeal but the nationstate itself. I believe that a genuine, long-term optimism about the future of race relations depends on a thorough excavation of the same.

    A memory slips into my mind. I was riding the train from New York to Washington, D.C., some years ago on my way to some lawyers' conference or other; I was accompanied by two black colleagues. An hour into the trip, the train stopped in the city of Philadelphia. A young white woman got on whom my colleagues knew. She was also a lawyer, headed to the same conference. She joined us, sitting among us in a double row of seats that faced each other. A little while later, the conductor came along. The new woman held up her ticket, but the conductor did not seem to see her. He saw four of us seated and only three ticket stubs.

    "One of you hasn't paid," he said, staring at me, then at each of my two black friends. I remember pointing to the white woman, and someone else said, "Over there." But the conductor was resolute.

    "Which one of you hasn't paid?" he asked again. Two of us kept saying, "Our receipts, see?" and the white woman, speaking very clearly said, "Here. I am trying to give you my ticket."

    The conductor was scowling. He still did not hear. "I am not moving till one of you pays up."

    It was the longest time before the conductor stopped staring in all the wrong directions. It was the longest time before he heard the new woman, pressing her ticket upon him, her voice reaching him finally as though from a great distance, passing through light-years of understanding as if from another universe. The realization that finally lit his face was like the dawning of a great surprise.

    How precisely does the issue of color remain so powerfully determinative of everything from life circumstance to manner of death, in a world that is, by and large, officially "color-blind"? What metaphors mask the hierarchies that make racial domination frequently seem so "natural," so invisible, indeed so attractive? How does racism continue to evolve, post-slavery and post-equality legislation, across such geographic, temporal, and political distance?

    No, I am not saying that this is the worst of times. But neither will I concede that this is the best of all possible worlds. And what a good thing, is it not, to try to imagine how much better we could be ...

    "I had a dream," said my son the other morning. Then he paused. "No," he said, "it was more of a miracle. Do you know what a miracle is?"

    "Tell me," I said, thunderstruck, and breathless with maternal awe.

    "A miracle is when you have a dream and you open your eyes in it. It's when you wake up and your dream is all around you."

    It was a pretty good definition, I thought. And even though my son's little miracle had something to do with pirates meeting dinosaurs, I do think that to a very great extent we dream our worlds into being. For better or worse, our customs and laws, our culture and society are sustained by the myths we embrace, the stories we recirculate to explain what we behold. I believe that racism's hardy persistence and immense adaptability are sustained by a habit of human imagination, deflective rhetoric, and hidden license. I believe no less that an optimistic course might be charted, if only we could imagine it. What a world it would be if we could all wake up and see all of ourselves reflected in the world, not merely in a territorial sense but with a kind of nonexclusive entitlement that grants not so much possession as investment. A peculiarly anachronistic notion of investment, I suppose, at once both ancient and futuristic. An investment that envisions each of us in each other.

Meet the Author

Patricia J. Williams is a columnist ("Diary of a Mad Lawyer," The Nation), and a professor of law at Columbia University. Her previous books are The Rooster's Egg and The Alchemy of Race and Rights. She also contributes regularly to Ms. and The Village Voice.

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