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4 things to know before blurting out "I'm not racist, but..."

May. 2, 2017
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“I’m not racist, but…” is generally a decent indicator that whatever follows will be a statement or observation that is in fact very racist. You’ve heard the “racist but” drip from the lips of your friends, family and even media figures as they try to justify their prejudices and excuse their stereotypical ways of thinking. These people “mean well”--in fact, they’d be the first to tell you so--but there’s still something noxious lurking at the heart of their not-so-innocuous comments and actions.   

The truth of the matter is that racism is ever-present, even in today’s world where many deny that it is alive and well. Just because someone isn’t using racial slurs or openly discriminating against people on the basis of skin color doesn’t mean that a person’s ideology is racism-free. This new paradox--the denial of overt racism while simultaneously engaging in covertly racist behaviors--has many names, but one of its most persistent and insidious forms is colorblind racism.

The term “colorblind racism” refers to the subtle ways that people can excuse the use of stereotyping, generalization and racial profiling in a way that is disguising their actual racial prejudice that has informed the statements they are making. Through careful research, Sociology PhD and Duke University educator Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has outlined four frames through which we can identify colorblind ideologies.

1. Minimization of racism

The minimization of racism is the assertion that minorities do not face discrimination as seriously and/or as often as reported. You might hear people say things like, “Oh, he’s just playing the race card,” as if citing racial prejudice as a source of discontent is somehow a privilege akin to pulling a ‘draw three’ card in a game of UNO. This goes hand-in-hand with denial of privilege: when people only choose to see what is happening to them directly, it becomes impossible for them to step outside their own frame of reference in order to examine the treatment of people unlike them and how race might affect that treatment. Refusing to acknowledge the deeply ingrained systemic and structural racism in our society is dangerous: when the people who benefit from these power dynamics refuse to acknowledge that they even exist, they become at best dead weight and at worst direct adversaries in the fight for progress. When we deny racism is a problem or discredit the lamentations of communities of color, we preserve the status quo intact, and the powers at hand are allowed to continue to exploit people of color and discredit the value of any accomplishments they manage to achieve under the suffocating wet blanket of oppression.

2. Naturalization of racism

Naturalization of racism can be best described as the belief that racial phenomena is just a result of what is naturally occurring without the added influence of a racial hierarchy. This is much more common than you can imagine. Perhaps you’ve heard people employ this technique to defend modern segregation: “Black people don’t like white people living in their neighborhoods; they practically segregate themselves!” This is obviously harmful because it ignores the structural and systemic methods exercised to confine communities of color in areas of poverty. Rhetoric like this completely erases the impact of environmental racism, the consequences of which are numerous and devastating--for example, the strategic recurrent placement of low-income housing in toxic waste sites and areas devoid of natural resources. Assuming that certain racial and ethnic groups optionally exclude themselves from upward mobility and a wider array of opportunities is ludicrous and completely baseless. It ignores the influence of white supremacy and the threat of discrimination or even violence against people who don’t “stay in their lane” or “know their place”.

3. Cultural racism

Cultural racism is the belief that certain “unfavorable” racial stereotypes are bred from a cultural background specific to that group of people. I’ve heard it myself many times: “Black girls are always so loud!” “Mexican people don’t take care of their kids--that’s why they’re bad in school!” Of course, anyone who knows a thing or two could debunk both these arguments easily: Black women have to work harder to demand respect as a marginalized, underrepresented demographic; likewise, second-language learning students invariably struggle more with academics than natural-born English speakers in the classroom.

But the ease with which people assume that disadvantages harbored by communities of color are natural is inherently harmful. See, you can’t fix what ain’t broke, and by assuming that race somehow has an effect on things like speaking volume or classroom aptitude you are essentially asserting that the inequities plaguing our society are not only natural but healthy. By denying that a problem is a result of disadvantage, one makes it impossible to appropriately discuss how to combat the disadvantages presented--and naturalizing racial stereotypes or generalizations helps people to explain away what happens when consequences of discrimination surface. 

4. Abstract liberalism

Abstract liberalism--the fourth and final frame of colorblind racism--is the idea that there is a level playing field where anyone can achieve anything through hard work and perseverance. We know that the playing field is certainly far from fair, filled as it is with all manner of unfair obstacles: sexism, racism, homophobia, and other factors, all combined in a nasty bramblebush of thorns and vines that ensnare capable individuals and prevent marginalized people from achieving things as readily as societally privileged individuals. If a Black lesbian woman from Mississippi aspires to attend medical school, it is impossible to assert that she will be afforded the same opportunities as a straight white man from her same hometown. Often used to contest programs like the NAACP or Affirmative Action, the denial of white privilege also heavily contributes to this frame of colorblind racism. Next time you hear someone say “Why isn’t there a WHITE Entertainment Channel?!” remember that there isn’t a dedicated White Entertainment Channel because almost every other channel besides the B.E.T. Network is essentially a white entertainment channel. Organizations like NAACP exist because the playing field is not level, which should offer proof enough that there is no true meritocracy in the United States. 

Debunking the argument of your opposition is an important part of the fight for equality, social justice and achieving a true meritocracy. In an ideal world, people would be embarrassed to be racist, and it’s true that it’s become far less acceptable for people to openly admit to racist beliefs--but don’t be fooled by creative attempts to hide racism and disguise harmful agendas. There is no hope for progress if we cannot have an honest conversation about what is and isn’t okay to say, do, ignore or prioritize. By familiarizing ourselves with these frames of colorblind racism, we can discuss at length how to appropriately address the concerns of the communities of color around us and build upon a shared vision of equality.