Dismantling the Myth Of a Color-Blind SocietyAfter more than 30 years of work on the psychology of racism and antiracism, I continue to be mystified by how difficult it is for many to see the falsehoods of the color-blind society. In 1997, for example, I participated in a congressional briefing and testified before President Clinton’s Race Advisory Board about the myth of the color-blind society and its detrimental consequences to racial minorities. The result was an outcry from some who watched the briefing on television. I was accused of being a racist of a different color who supported preferential treatment for minorities.
When originally formulated, the concept of a color-blind society was seen as the answer to discrimination and prejudice: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, advocated judging people not by the color of their skin, but by their internal character. Misguided and devious advocates have co-opted it, taken it out of context and failed to understand a basic assumption made by King; such an approach has meaning only if we operate on a level playing field where equal access and opportunity exists for all groups. This condition does not currently exist in our society.
The practice of color-blindness is a dangerous and frightening proposal because it will perpetuate and create greater disparities in our society. It will undermine accountability for civil rights violations (hate crimes, discrimination in the workplace and biased racial profiling), health care disparities, and racial/ethnic disease patterns important for medical treatment, educational inequities and so forth.
In my research on the causes and effects of racism, I have come to realize that color-blindness uses “whiteness” as the default key to mimic the norms of fairness, justice and equity by “whiting” out differences and perpetuating the belief in sameness. The denial of power imbalance, unearned privilege and racist domination are couched in the rhetoric of equal treatment and equal opportunity.
The pretense by some White Americans of not seeing color is motivated by the need to appear free of bias and prejudice, fears that what they say or do may appear racist, or an attempt to cover up hidden biases. To be color blind not only denies the central importance of racial differences in the psychological experience of minorities (racism and discrimination), but also allows the White person to deny how his or her whiteness intrudes upon the person of color.
White teachers, for example, may frequently admonish their African American students to “leave your cultural baggage at home and don’t bring it into the classroom.” They have little awareness that they bring their whiteness into the classroom and operate from a predominantly White ethnocentric perspective. How would they react if one were to say, “Why don’t you leave your White cultural baggage at home?” The invisible veil of whiteness inundates the definitions of a “human being,” being just a person and being an “American.” The underlying message from our society is that a human being is White.
Belief in the color-blind society protects White people from realizing that they benefit from racism; as long as it is hidden from consciousness, they can maintain the illusion that they are not responsible for the state of race relations because they do not knowingly engage in racist behaviors. Making the “invisible” visible is the first step toward dismantling the unfair and harmful nature of whiteness and the myth of the color-blind society.
— Dr. Derald Wing Sue is a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is author of Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation (2003, Jossey Bass Publishers).
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