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June 24th, 2008
08:15 AM ET

The fallacy of colorblind post-raciality

Carmen Van Kerckhove
Co-founder, New Demographic, a consulting firm that addresses race and racism

It has become increasingly fashionable to bandy about the words “post-racial” and “colorblind” when discussing race in America.

Apparently, many Americans have convinced themselves that they even if racism does still exist, they are not part of the problem. When asked the question "If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?" in a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, only three in ten respondents answered yes.

The other seven must be afflicted by “colorblindness,” that odd phenomenon that drives people to insist that they “just don’t notice race” and claim that they don’t care whether people are “black, brown, green, or purple.”

Of course, colorblindness and post-raciality are both mythical constructs.

All of us notice variations in skintone, facial features, hair texture, eye color, and the myriad of other phenotypic factors that cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.

Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color? Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.

But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.

And unfortunately, too many of us do make those assumptions. We’ve all internalized racist ideas – consciously or subconsciously – from our families, our environments, our media consumption, and more. Until we can understand that and begin to de-program ourselves, we cannot be truly “post-racial.”

Even more importantly, when people proclaim that they’re colorblind, what they’re really implying is that race no longer matters in America. While it’s true that race is not a biological reality, it is a very real social construct that has a profound impact on our lives. Race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said it best when he stated that colorblindness means being “blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.”

soundoff (44 Responses)
  1. Mike in NYC

    To NancyP:

    Nothing you wrote contradicts the conclusion that there are significant differences between the races, and that those differences are largely genetic in origin.

    "I do get annoyed at non-geneticists playing scientist."

    And I get annoyed at scientists telling me to ignore the evidence of my own mind, senses and experience.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:38 pm |
  2. Cynthia

    Racism is real, but it cuts both ways, I sometimes feel discriminated when sitting in a room filled mostly with African Americans although they are my friends. I have had dear friends tell me that all white people look alike to them, or that white people don’t have any rhythm or white people have no sense of style. I don’t take offense to these comments, I can understand their point in some cases but I never believed in generalizing anything including people’s race. But I know that had I made similar comments I would have been deemed racist, most of my African American friends would have taken offense. What is the difference between a white person making a potentially offensive comment or a black person making the same remark, in my view none. However I stand to be called racist while my friends will just be expressing their views, isn’t that racism as well?
    People who have been oppressed at one time or another have the right to not let the world forget what was done to them we should never forget, but in order for all of us to move on and become a united peaceful nation we must stop living in the past, instead let’s move forward, let’s change the things we know are wrong with our society today so future generations won’t have to suffer anymore.
    Stop blaming the people in Washington, they are not the ones that discriminate when renting apartments, or offering a job to someone, that is each and every one of us, if I were to move to a predominantly black neighborhood what can I expect? Will people give me dirty looks as I walk to the corner store or will they embrace me as part of the community?
    If each of us made an effort to get to know the person before we pass judgment on whether we like them or not the world would be a much nicer place to live in, I make my own choices every day the people in Washington don’t make them for me, I choose to be tolerant and fair to people or to be biased and unfair to them. The solution is not in Washington is in each of us.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:36 pm |
  3. Mike in NYC

    Lisa wrote:

    "... when the 5 major continents were just one (before the techtonic [sic] plates broke them apart) and the 13 Tribes of Israel migrated, Humans probably were all one skin tone."

    The last time the continents split up was prior to the rise of the dinosaurs, about 200 million years ago. Our earliest hominid ancestors appeared about 2 million years ago. The Tribes of Israel, about three thousand.

    "We have simply adapted and evolved to our environment as a means of survival over the course of many thousands of years."

    Agreed. And those adaptations go far beyond skin color.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:16 pm |
  4. Kirk from MI

    Thank for the KISS definition of racism -you can't make it any simpler than that!

    @Gary Chandler in Canada- And this is from somebody who is a avowed Canadaphile, I agree that Canada does a lot of things better than the US, but you need to get off you High Horse about racism in Canada . it's there ; it's just hidden better. To hear you talk There's no problem between the french and english speakers, and and Blacks in canada that I talk to have a far different view of your starship than you do.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:04 pm |
  5. Mari, Salt Lake City

    There is no such thing as a "little racist"....... you either are or you are not.
    Racism, and other sex and gender phobias are alive and well in our country.

    Look at the likes of Lou Dobbs, when he calls illegal immigrants "illegals" he dehumanizes them! But no one is upset about this major figure on CNN using derogatory language!

    When we dehumanize and label people, we are on a slippery slope ..... a dangerous one, one which led Germany to label and dehumanize Jews and led to the Holocaust!

    People who do not know the past WILL repeat it, sadly, there is a lot of ignorance out there!

    June 24, 2008 at 8:59 pm |
  6. Marla OK

    Does that mean that all 92% of African Americans who are voting for Senator Obama are color blind???

    June 24, 2008 at 8:23 pm |
  7. Larry

    @GetALife

    You may not know that Derek Jeter of the Yankees is 50% of each, yet team mates say they can't approach him with regards to racism on the Yankees because he's not black enough, go figure?

    BTW, he one-drop rule was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:05 pm |
  8. NancyP

    Mike in NYC: Of course there is human phenotypic variability. Some physical characteristics are relatively highly correlated with distant genetic origin (geography), other characteristics are not correlated. Single gene polymorphisms with Mendelian inheritance are likely to be correlated with deep geographic origin if the initial mutation event occured long ago in that geographic area at a time when the population number was low (founder effect). Most traits of interest to the general public are governed by interactions of many variants of many genes, and by prenatal and postnatal environment. The correlation of ancient geographic origin with complex traits (eg athletic, mathematical, musical ability) is pretty much nil, due to continual reshuffling of the many genes involved, and due to the major effect that environment has on expression of the various genes.

    I do get annoyed at non-geneticists playing scientist. Go get your Ph.D. in Genetics, do a post-doc fellowship in human genetics, put together a syllabus and lectures for doctoral students and clinicians.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:02 pm |
  9. Roxie

    Gah, I mean it IS a societal problem that IS present within our institutions.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:56 pm |
  10. Roxie

    MikeNYC– Race is a SOCIAL CONSTRUCT! In context of society, it is real.

    However, it is not a biological reality.

    What we think of as "race" in the U.S. is based on phenotypes, yes, but that's social. It's not in someone's "genes" that they are strictly black, white, asian, etc.. More proof of this is evident in other culture's interpretation of race. Brazil, Puerto Rico, and South Africa all VERY different definitions of race–what makes one "white" or "black" or "colored", etc..

    While I might be considered black in the U.S. in Brazil, I would be considered something different....Race is a social construct.

    Also, can we stop with the "we're all a little bit racist/prejudice!" Because it does NOTHING to further the discussion is mostly used to squelch any discussion about white privilege and white solidarity and other topics. Most of the time it's used to shut people up as if racism is simply a personal problem. It's not a societal problem that is within all of our institutions. It's not some old antiquated idea that just has to die off with the older generations.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:55 pm |
  11. A.

    This is a great article, Carmen.

    As far as "everybody is a little bit racist", people who say this continue to miss the point. While yes, it does mean that we aren't at all colorblind, what it is attempting to assert is some kind of sophomoric group-think aspect, which trivializes racism and it's effects.

    June 24, 2008 at 7:03 pm |
  12. velmeezee

    LouAnn, what exactly is the problem with emphasizing your cultural experience in whatever way you feel appropriate? So what if Obama acknowledges his African roots with others that share that and his European roots with others that share that? If you were Irish and were going to speak to a group of Irish people, would you not acknowledge your Irish roots just because you also may have Sweedish roots and German roots? I love the fact that Sen. Obama can inarguably relate to both the African American and European American cultural backgrounds (although he had to teach himself much of the African American culture). You are right that is a wonderful tool that he can use to help unite ALL Americans...but only if WE stop being scared, holding grudges and keeping our minds closed to the new reality that our children now live in.

    June 24, 2008 at 6:36 pm |
  13. Faith Pa

    This article has a ring of truth to it. However, there will be , for a long time to come, racism in the world no matter how you define the word. I remember being told that no one is born with prejudice against anyone or anything by my 10th grade History teacher. We learn it just like speech and walking and manners from people around us. As long as people around us are still shouting racism or reverse racism it will continue to be learned. It was true in 1964 when I was in 10th grade and it has not changed in 2008 now that I am retired. It is unfortunate that we say we have come so far but in reality we have not.

    June 24, 2008 at 6:10 pm |
  14. Greg

    Come on, anybody out there who says that they don't have a little bit of racism in them is a all out liar. We're human, hell I'm a black man and i don't like some black people, some white people, some arabs, and some mexicans, not the women of these races but the men, you know what i'm saying, i just love the honeys whatever race they are.

    June 24, 2008 at 6:00 pm |
  15. sueluoise1

    When I was living in Philly a number of years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked their readers how race relations could improve in Philly. There were a number of interesting and compelling responses. I was surprised that my very short letter was published. I wrote that every human being needed to grow up and become the person the Creator met him/her to be. In the process of growing up, all of us come to believe that we have many more commonalities, then differences with our fellow man, irrespective of race. Sue

    June 24, 2008 at 5:57 pm |
  16. GetALife

    LouAnn. We all know that in America people use the "one drop" rule to determine blackness. Obama is half black, half white. Therefore, in this country, he is considered Black. Seriously, who would consider Obama White?

    @Bob: I agree completely. The dominant group always complains when they have to be equal to everyone else.

    June 24, 2008 at 5:21 pm |
  17. Mike in NYC

    rah wrote:

    "to mike in NYC:
    read a book called ‘the race myth.’ race is indeed a social construct."

    Not to get into a reference war, but I’ll mention "Why Race Matters", by Michael Levin, "Race - The Reality of Human Differences", by Sarich and Miele, or anything on race by Steve Sailer at vdare.com. Linda Gottfredson has also done fine work. Google her.

    In the final analysis, I have to rely on the evidence of my own mind, senses and experience. These all tell me that race is real.

    June 24, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
  18. Bob

    Whites have been complaining about reverse racism since the Civil War.

    In the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, segregating and discriminating against persons of color was not wrong. It was merely noting social distinctions. People should not be forced to accept, the Court reasoned, changes in the status quo, for it violates the rights of others.

    When blacks initiated the "Don't Buy Where You Can't Work" campaigns in the 1930s, store owners in mostly black neighborhoods complained that blacks were stealing jobs.

    When blacks staged Sit-Ins to protest segregation in the 1960s, white merchants complained that blacks violated their right to serve whomever they wanted.

    The claim by some that whites today are mistreated by nonwhites is nothing new. There are still issues to resolve and they require race as an analytical tool. You have to be aware of race and its implications in history and today in order to be able provide fair solutions. Otherwise you are firing a gun without bullets and at no target.

    June 24, 2008 at 4:25 pm |
  19. rah

    to mike in NYC:

    read a book called 'the race myth.' race is indeed a social construct.

    June 24, 2008 at 3:55 pm |
  20. Fay, CA

    It's frustrating to hear people say "get over" racism–it's not that simple if you are the one having to deal with the consequences of it. Racism can be overt or subtle, but it has certainly never gone away.

    June 24, 2008 at 3:15 pm |
  21. Mike in NYC

    “... blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.”

    Which is white, from where I'm standing.

    June 24, 2008 at 3:09 pm |
  22. Gecko-San

    Well I have read most of the comments and I agree with many of them I like Sallies the most but I'm not here to review user generated content. I just wanted to say I live in the south and I feel race is not important but I have a few times in my life been judged by the color of my skin. I went to school with the kids that still say the N word. Well Yeah what Mr.Bond said was right. Although I have decided that race does not matter to me and how I see someone. It still affects me that not everyone believes the same way as me.

    Gecko-san VA

    June 24, 2008 at 2:33 pm |
  23. Melissa

    It's difficult not to have preconceived notions of other races. We see it everyday whenever the Most Wanted list appears on a public channel or reading the Homicide Report on the LA Times website. There's a pattern there that we see and it's hard to ignore hence Imus' recent remarks. Of course it's not right to assume that all people of this race are like this or that but until a high majority of those different races prove the notions wrong – they will continue to exist.

    June 24, 2008 at 2:27 pm |
  24. LouAnn

    Larry....exactly!!
    Racisim is used when needed. He uses it like a smooth tool. He is not all black, so why doesn't he say he is white?? Why not just call himself mixed? Why did he choose the black heritage? It is useful, when needed! Why should someone who can't decide what he is run an entire nation. He has backpedaled and the media just excuses it. Being politcally correct and all, but only for him. He can say he is black at a fundraiser for blacks and he can say his mom is white when at a white or mixed gatering. Do we want someone who uses his own heritage like a hat. Which hat does he wear today?

    June 24, 2008 at 2:07 pm |
  25. Lisa

    Penny, to answer your question - way back when the 5 major continents were just one (before the techtonic plates broke them apart) and the 13 Tribes of Israel migrated, Humans probably were all one skin tone. We have simply adapted and evolved to our environment as a means of survival over the course of many thousands of years.

    June 24, 2008 at 2:00 pm |
  26. Sarah

    There's not such thing as colorblind. That's just a word used by people who don't want to own up to having a prejudice. Everyone has one...white and black. Too bad we haven't yet learned how to live without making race the determining factor in everything. We could learn a thing or two from those other countries that we laugh at...we are called the "ugly Americans" for a variety of reasons.

    June 24, 2008 at 1:33 pm |
  27. sally

    I think sometimes people (that I know anyway) talk about a post-racial or colorblind society, not because they're saying they don't actually see race or don't think there is racism left, but to say that there's a way of interacting with each other and understanding each other regardless of race.

    Sometimes I say I'm "colorblind" simply because I don't know what other word to use for saying that I respect people's experiences and acknowledge that they shape who that person has become, but I'm not going to have that be the first thing I think about in interacting with that person. In that sense I don't see their color, I see them as a person. It's a very subtle, but incredibly important, distinction.

    Similarly, I know people who say that Obama will help create a post-racial society, not meaning that race/racism won't matter anymore, but meaning that it can help people take accountability for both the differences AND similarities between us beyond our race. For example, there are more similarities between poor blacks and whites than there are between wealthy white and poor whites. People don't acknowledge that right now because race is something they can (usually) see. So that distinction is ignored. That's a problem.

    June 24, 2008 at 1:15 pm |
  28. Larry

    If we are to be colorblind then why do we say Obama is the 1st african-american....? Why does John King say 'well this state has a large african-american presence and so Barack should do well there...'?

    June 24, 2008 at 12:56 pm |
  29. nina allen-goggans

    I have never heard the words racisim, blacks, african american and all other exotic words about a person until this elections. Is this an election for presidency or a show for creating a headline for the media or who is the best reporter? Well, you all have won, this comes from a southern lady that has watched and watched the government and its follower, no different than a cult, do a Rodney King job on the economy, presidential race and laws. We do not have a constitution we have a freak side show for officals. This is so sad. I do want to warn the next seat to be careful because the republicans has set up a full pledge sting to make the democrats look foolish with what is left after the republicans leave office. They cannot steal this elelction. Because it would make Al Gore RIGHT!!!!!!!!!! This is a discussion of the little people.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:56 pm |
  30. GF

    Of course we're all racists in some way shape or form. As people we do pre-judge others and form our own opinions of others based on past experiences with those races. I work in an area with a large Asian population therefore I'm exposed more to their driving so whether I consciously or subconsciously make a judgement (even though I too am Asian) – it's there. My apartment complex has recently moved in a number of African Americans and I've developed other opinions about them as well as having lived among other races. We're all culturally different and to pretend that it's easy to all live together is unrealistic.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:42 pm |
  31. Anne

    It is impossible to ever be colorblind and as the author points out that doesn't make you a racist unless to act upon that difference with judgement and preconceived notions. Most people are not racist, but we are all prejudice in some way. I have to admit, being Black I have been around many helpful, pleasant and nice white people as well as other races. At the same time I have encountered rude, unpleasant, and non-helpful Blacks. However when rude comments, disparate treatment, or small offensive actions are made by whites toward other races, sitting in the back of my head is the question of whether those actions were based on the color of one's skin. Sitting in classrooms, working a job, shopping in the grocery store, walking down the street, Blacks and other minorities pray that no one says anthing crazy/racist to them or looks at them like they don't belong. That is something the majority often times doesn't have to go through.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:37 pm |
  32. Mike in NYC

    "While it’s true that race is not a biological reality, it is a very real social construct that has a profound impact on our lives."

    Race is most certainly a biological reality. A medical examiner or physical anthropologist can determine the racial makeup of a deceased individual from hair, bones, or DNA.

    Races also differ metabolically, resulting in, for example, different frequencies of various illnesses across races, or varying efficacies of particular drugs across races.

    It is anything but a "social construct."

    June 24, 2008 at 12:29 pm |
  33. Matt

    Penny, it's so that you could learn to ignore it.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:29 pm |
  34. Gary Chandler in Canada

    Oh, and if you want the cure, you could study the Canadian experience with multiculturalism. Lester B Pearson, a Nobel prize winning Prime Minister of ours, back in the 50's, recognised there was no '(melting pot)' in North America, because cultures held onto their customs. It started with bilingualism, then Pierre Elliot Trudeau expanded it nation wide into a '(cultural mosaic)'.
    Nobody could deny America holds pockets and regions of diverse cultural groups which does not fit the definition of 'melting pot'. In Canada people are 'allowed' to celebrate their *****-Canadianism. There are offices encouraging events that celebrate the diversity of multiculturalism.
    (There is one defect in our system you could avoid, but that is copyrighted for now.)
    {{{To understand this, think of Canada as a Star Trek vessel. Looking at America's immaturity on race and gender issues is like looking at a planet that has yet to evolve.}}}

    June 24, 2008 at 12:11 pm |
  35. JC- Los Angeles

    Racism and bigotry exist in most cultures, however, to apply it to all people and all instances is a sad referendum on what you think of your fellow man. What's most troubling is when people use race for convenience to help push agendas. The media asked if the American people were ready for a black President; once the American people were exposed to Rev. Wright and Rev. Pfleger, the real question became whether Barack Obama was ready to accept all Americans. It's facinating to see people use race as a lightning rod then struggle to explain their positions once they are exposed as someone who might not embrace all races equally. In the ABC News poll you reference, you mention that 30% of the respondents possess racial prejudices; you then question whether the other 70% can judge a man or woman based upon their character or merits. I am a person that always has and always will be able to make that distinction. Right is right and wrong is wrong, period. Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas have all reached the top of their chosen professions and I'm sure their success had nothing to do with skin color. The American people have been let down time after time by our leaders, executives and politicians. The American people deserve better and hopefully, in the near future, we will be better served by leaders regardless of their color, orientation or party affiliation.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:10 pm |
  36. Lilibeth

    It is only through open and ongoing conversations that we will gain a better understanding of the issues surrounding race and racism. We may have disagreements and we may not eliminate racism completely, but it’s a step in the right direction.

    Lilibeth
    Edmonds, Washington

    June 24, 2008 at 12:09 pm |
  37. penny

    Color-blind or not. There is a reason why GOD made us to look different. If you can explain Why, please tell the world!!! GOD always knows what he is doing.

    June 24, 2008 at 12:04 pm |
  38. Gary Chandler in Canada

    When it comes to race and gender issues, the most powerful democracy in the world is not necessarily the best. People should study recent world history before shouting out 'Only in America.'
    Clinton's 18 million glass ceilings was actually an 'in America only', long overdue, occurrence. If Jay Leno asked people on the street who Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir were, he would probably get 'a new rock bond?" (Truth is, since the 1950's, there have been 4 dozen elected woman leaders, including in Muslim countries.)
    In Canada, (it is north of the US), nobody bats an eye when we elect East Indians as Premiers, aboriginals as Cabinet Ministers, women as Prime Minister, gays to elected office, and an Asian woman appointed to Governor General.
    It is CRUDDY to see a large, 'modern' democracy squabbling about race and gender issues. Maybe there was Millennium bug after all, that kept the USA in last century!

    June 24, 2008 at 11:49 am |
  39. Regina Ericson

    When I was a kid growing up....back in the dark-ages...we talked about America as the "great melting pot"....now we talk about the "great salad bowl"....
    Which, to my mind, is far more accurate...and leaves all sorts of room for wonderful differences and the joys of a culturally rich society...
    Problem is, it all ends at the door of politics...we've got that damn melting-pot mentality, dominated by white males.....
    and if you don't walk like 'em, talk like 'em, and spend like 'em....well you're screwed.....

    June 24, 2008 at 11:42 am |
  40. Cynthia

    I agree wholeheartedly with this article.

    June 24, 2008 at 10:15 am |
  41. Alex

    It strikes me that it is no wonder that "Racism" exists today. No matter which way you turn, you cannot be excluded from this discussion no matter if you a RACIST or you are COLORBLIND. People on both sides of this argument and the News Media won't let you! I have to agree some with Anderson's explanation but the fact is, human nature seems to instinctively tell you someone is DIFFERENT when the color of their skin is different than your's. Now if you act on that difference, it shows you have biases. But human nature also tells you that if you are say in a fox hole during a war and you are white and the only others around you are black and you are being overrun by the enemy, I suspect your desire to survive isn't in the slighest worried about the color or ethnic origin of those guys. In fact, you want to live and go have a beer with those guys when the fighting is over. Ever been there? I have and I can tell you my prejudices, if I ever had any, went away real darn quick. I live next door to an African American family and I feel damn confortable about it. I wonder how many self-righteous people can say that.

    June 24, 2008 at 9:05 am |
  42. Annie Kate

    Mr. Bond's definition of colorblindness is one of the most accurate and succintly put that I have heard. Its also the most unfortunate because it is true.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    June 24, 2008 at 8:48 am |
  43. Cindy

    Racism is definitely still alive and well!! I agree that most people don't even realize that they have a bit of racism in them. They think that it isn't them that it is someone else. But the reality is a lot of people make assumptions about others because of their color. It is sad but true. It doesn't mean that you are going to be out joining the KKK but it does mean that you have some pent up feelings that need looking at.

    People need to really evaluate what they say, think, or have heard from their families and see the real truth and try to change it. That is the only way that we will ever get racism out of this country.

    Cindy...Ga.

    June 24, 2008 at 8:43 am |