I grew up hearing two things about race—first, that my (white) community was “colorblind” and did not see race, and second, that black people who succeeded and achieve likely did so only because of affirmative action. Even my parents told me that color did not matter, that we did not “see” race, my father simultaneously disparaged a black colleague, insisting that she was incompetent and had surely only got the job because of affirmative action.
I did not at the time realize that the two were contradictory.
Few white children of my generation grew up being told directly that black people are inferior, but that does not mean we did not learn racism. We learned, in our “colorblind” communities, that black people are less capable and less qualified, that “black culture” rewards laziness and devalues hard work, that black people are inclined to criminal activity—and even these things need not be stated directly.
Small inferences and snap judgements don’t slip by kids unnoticed.
What do you think it communicates to a child when her father insists that the black woman his workplace couldn’t possibly have gotten the job on her own merit? Or when her father points to a black man he approves of and says he only got where he is by rejecting “black culture” and working hard? Comments like these are how white children like me can grow up in “colorblind” families only to later realize to our chagrin that we are far from colorblind.
Many white people operate under a very narrow definition of racism. To be racist, they believe, a person must believe that skin color renders one group inferior or superior. Assuming that a black person’s work or qualifications will be inferior is not racist, because affirmative action. Viewing black men as dangerous is not racist, because “black culture” and crime statistics. The result is stereotyping and prejudging black people based on the color of their skin—and how is that not racist?
You can see these issues at play in a recent National Review article when the author warns that “when tribalism supersedes the individual … all criteria of merit, character, and ethics recede into identity” resulting in “black NASA engineers, white nuclear-plant operators, or brown jet pilots rather than missiles, power, and flights that are overseen and operated by the most skilled among us.” And yet the author simultaneously embraces the idea of “a multiracial nation … in which superficial physical appearance becomes largely irrelevant.” Which is it?
You are not “colorblind” if you by default assume that a black coworker will be less qualified or capable, affirmative action or no affirmative action. You are not “colorblind” if you lock your car door when a black man walks down the sidewalk, crime statistics or no crime statistics. This is reality. And yet many white people find ways to justify these actions, and may honestly believe that they are not racist.
Most people do not actually understand either affirmative action or crime statistics. Few white people take the time to research either before drawing on them to dismiss and undermine black people’s accomplishments and stereotype black men as dangerous and criminal. White people may be more willing to believe such misinformation because it is in line with generations of stereotypes about black people. It becomes one of those things people just assume are true.
Racism is alive and well in “colorblind” America. It may be hiding behind verbiage about affirmative action and crime statistics, but it is no less real.