When Stephen Colbert jokes, “I don’t see race. People tell me I’m white and I believe them,” he is mocking very real phenomena: white people feeling that it is virtuous of them to ignore race entirely. Growing up as a white girl in New Hampshire, I was raised with this kind of a “colorblind” mindset: a mindset that says that race should be ignored, and that racism exists because some people simply refuse to ignore race like they should. It was a moral imperative that outside of my social studies class, I disregard race completely, because, as I was taught, all people are equal and should be treated as such. This ethic of colorblindness, which many of us embrace with good intentions, is an obstacle to overcoming injustices that still exist in this country. One important implication of this colorblind mindset is that the problem of racism exists in our society only because of those abnormal, backward people who refuse to ignore race and who continue to harbor hateful and bigoted mindsets.
The problem is that this belief is incorrect. Intentional and hateful bigotry certainly still exists, but such abhorrent behavior is not the main means by which racism is perpetuated in our society today. Racism persists in the United States today through structures and institutions that segregate, disadvantage and discriminate against certain races. Such systems do not depend on the active hatred of bigots, but rather the passivity, ignorance, and stereotypes of the masses. One example of such structural racism is in our country’s “war on drugs,” which has been designed in such a way that poor, black communities are targeted and incarcerated at devastating rates despite the fact that people of all races use and sell drugs at remarkably similar rates. This is not because all police officers are bigots, but rather because they are part of a system that incentivizes the targeting of isolated, low-income communities and the use of the stereotype of the black criminal as a primary motivation for searches and arrests. Our insistence that racism is the result of atypical bigots, rather than a part of systems that exploit biases that are all too typical, has caused us to turn a blind eye to the complex and subtle realities of racial injustice in this country.
This colorblind mindset, which ignores race at the expense of not only reality but the suffering of others, is exemplified in the belief expressed by some students after the public use of the n-word became campus-wide news. The logic that the use of the n-word by whites is progress, that we can be so good at forgetting about race that we can “take the n-word back” and say it wherever we want, reveals not only an ignorance about how far our society is from “moving past race,” but perhaps the deepest problem with the colorblind mindset: that the abstract principle of ignoring race could be more important than the obvious pain and disappointment that members of our black community made clear they were feeling.
I can empathize with the colorblind mindset. I grew up with it, and when you are sheltered from the structural violence and injustice that is playing itself out in our country, it can seem to make a lot of sense. But the truth is that the ability to forget about race is really a factor of that term I once did not understand: white privilege. Being a member of the racial majority not only prevents me from being a target of racist people and systems, it also shields me from many discomforts and disturbing cultural messages regarding race. For example, the impact of the “black criminal” stereotype has never affected me directly. Although many of my friends in high school did drugs, none were subjected to random searches, and the one or two who got caught through some flagrant violation had the resources to get it removed from their records. Campus police have never stopped me to make sure I was not stealing my car when I had to change a tire. I remain blissfully unaware of race in my classes, where I never have to worry that I am being seen as a representative of my race or that my race influences how others view my comments (experiencing the other side of this when I studied abroad in Ecuador, I found this discomfort a constant presence).
The point I am making is not that I should feel guilty for my privilege, or that the colorblind mindset represents some kind of malicious, willful ignorance. But as long as some students on our campus remain ignorant of the racial injustices that continue to plague our country, having productive conversations about race is nearly impossible. It also means that students are graduating with a mindset that will prevent them from acknowledging urgent racial injustices in our society. The communities affected by hurtful levels of ignorance on our campus cannot continue to bear the burden of educating our student body. I hope that this article might prompt students who also grew up with the colorblind mindset to question their assumptions and seek out ways to learn more about racial realities in our country ( have provided suggested reading, collected from Wash U professors, in the article’s postscript). Improved awareness also needs to be institutionalized for all students, not left to the particularly proactive and socially conscious. We need to demand that our university create programming that will provide an understanding of racial realities in this country that many students on our campus do not have the luxury of ignoring.
For more reading on “colorblindness” and race, consider Colorblind by Tim Wise, Racism Without Racists by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, “A Critique of our Constitution is Colorblind” by Neil Gotanda and TheRoot.com.