Colour-Blindness in the modern world

 

Colour-Blindness in the modern world

Thesis

There is a growing trend in the race movement of the modern world to claim a “superior” position of colour blindness which is a destructive stance as it provides an easy way to ignore minority issues for the ethnic majorities and often leads to the belief of reverse racism being real towards whites in western society.

Introduction

Historically speaking, the definition of racism in the minds of the common populace has revolved around the obvious kinds of discrimination, those that call for the killing of coloured people by the local KKK, burning of crosses, refusal to share public space with a minority. These are all the obvious forms of racism that people are aware of. There are however more subtle forms of racism that have entered the public domain in recent years. These insidious forms seem to be growing in terms of general acceptance in the population as opposed to the other more confrontational forms that have slowly and thankfully gone out of favour in modern society. For example, it has become frowned upon by the general population “blacken up” as a way of portraying African/black characters. The use of the word “nigger” is no longer socially acceptable by Caucasians and there are affirmative action policies that are seeking to redress the balance of power held by Caucasians in positions of power as well as in schools and higher learning institutions.

Out of this movement to level the racial playing filed, a growing trend has emerged especially amongst ethnic majorities to take a stance of colour blindness. This ideal, although well-meaning to start with as a legitimate millennial movement against racism in the modern world has now devolved into a catch all phrase which people use. Mainly as a way to discredit the experiences of ethnic minorities in society. It has now become a phrase used to silence the minorities when an accusation of racism, either institutional or racial bias, are seen in a situation. This stance claims that the person who holds the view does not see colour and as such cannot be accused of racism as said person treats all races equally.

The phrase has most recently been used extensively and heavily by Caucasians against African-Americans fighting for an end to the institutional racism that exists in the American justice system. It has become a way of shutting down discord during conversations, by immediately stating that they treat everyone equally. This stance is an admirable stance to have, especially by ethnic majorities. The problem with this stance however, is the fact that we do not live in a post-racial world.

 

Body

The stance of colour blindness is problematic to say the least and regressive as a movement against racism. It renders the people who utter the phrase blind, figuratively to the struggles of the ethnic minorities. It invalidates their pain and assumes that they start life on a level playing field with Caucasians. In this essay, I will attempt to trace the roots of the word which began as a movement against racism; from the beginning of the civil rights movement to the birth of the millennials and the ideals of a post racial world being superimposed in a race dominated world, and the claims that reverse racism is real towards Caucasians.

For centuries in the west, mainly in North America, ethnic minorities, especially African-American people were victimized, enslaved, brutalized and were owned as property. After the abolishment of slavery, the status quo did not change much for centuries after with African-Americans being denied decent schools, hospitals and decent government services. This led to a majority being uneducated and stuck in a cycle of poverty for generations. As a result extreme poverty continued to dominate the lives of the minorities and most led the lives of share croppers and maids, not far from conditions that their grandfathers experienced as slaves centuries before.

Schools and public services in America especially were segregated to black and white schools until the famous Brown vs Board of education, 347 U.S. 483 in 1954. It ruled that state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The decision overturned a previous decision, Plessy v. Ferguson which allowed state-sponsored segregation in pubic education. This ruling in 1954 was a major victory to the civil rights movement and paved the way for racial integration in schools.[1]

Full racial integration was not achieved until after the civil rights act of 1964 was passed a decade later.[2]  This led the way for the rise of affirmative action policies being extended to African-Americans in a bid to redress the atrocities of the past. Unfortunately however, this has given rise to the myth that African-Americans gain the most out of other under-privileged groups as a result of the policies and it is frequently used as a way of belittling the achievements of African Americans in society today.

As Anthony M. Platt put it in his paper on the rise and fall of affirmative action, this policy was not originally intended for African-Americans, it was introduced as government initiated intervention to stop injustices against individuals or groups whose suffering was not self-inflicted; to correct the injustices caused by systemic discrimination; and to prevent its recurrence. Such a broad definition meant that people of different classes, ethnicities, racial designation, gender and sexuality who had been denied rights based on these factors were covered by the policy.[3]

It can be deduced from this definition of affirmative action that the majority of people who benefited from this policy were certainly not African-Americans but mainly white lower class Americans. In fact according to the United States labour department, the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women. The department estimates that 6 million women workers are in higher occupational classifications today than they would have been without affirmative action policies.[4]

As a result of this perceived injustice in affirmative action policies, counter protest groups sprung up, rejecting the ideas behind it. Their main grudge was the misguided opinion that African-Americans have to do less and achieve less compared to their white counterparts. They argued that the university policies of reserving places specifically for ethnic minorities from under-privileged backgrounds was a form of discrimination. Their claim was based upon the ideas that living in a post-racial world at the end of the civil rights movement meant that no special treatment should be given to any one race. They argued that it was reverse discrimination against whites. And this movement was bolstered by some former liberal scholars who published books in the early 90’s criticising Affirmative Action as a negative policy.

According to them, Affirmative action and other colour-conscious policies betrayed the original goals of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. They saw it as a perversion of the colour-blind society promise. They saw it as a colour-blind policy of antidiscrimination being transformed into a policy of compensatory justice.[5]

Advocates of this movement have been called racial realists by Professor Alan Wolfe [6] in his book review of “Someone else’s house” in 1998. An extract from his review is below:

“In the past few years, however, there has emerged a challenge to the liberal consensus among liberals (or former liberals…they are united on two important points. One is that whites have not resisted demands for racial justice but have accepted tremendous progress in race relations. The other is that those who claim to speak in the name of African-Americans do not always serve the interests of those for whom they supposedly speak.” [7]

The books Alan Wolfe criticise in his review put the blame of continued racial segregation on the shoulders of civil rights leaders like the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who were public and vocal supporters of Affirmative Action policies and pursued race-conscious solutions to societal problems.

This played into a new feeling in the white community of reverse racism as well as a victim mentality in which they refused to see or acknowledge the still heavily racialized world we live in today. In a way, they rebelled against the status quo by pursuing a different, if misguided movement against racism.  The demographics that felt this the most were the “millennials”, those that had gone to universities with ethnic minorities and had seen affirmative action policies at the universities they attended. This group perceived themselves as the victims in a world which was increasingly catering to just ethnic minorities. The belief that racism didn’t exist anymore and affirmative action policies were unfair to them in a post racial world was and is widespread amongst this demographic. This was the beginning of the Colour-blind movement in mainstream society. [8]

As Joe Kincheloe put it in 1998, this idea or “benign” response works to deny and, therefore, erase the identity of the subject(s) of the response. According to him, Colour-blindness is a luxury that only those who are very secure in position of whiteness and power can have. This idea ignores the treatment that many people of colour encounter. Together, the defensiveness and denial of this “benign” response function to maintain the status quo while absolving the white reactor’s responsibility for any bias to race that him/herself carries[9]

As many scholars have pointed out, the myth of reverse racism has become a tool by the oppressors to oppress the minorities. Through claims of colour blindness and the rejection of affirmative action policies due to the myth of it conferring an unfair advantage on a group, whites in America especially choose to go down the route of subtle racism.[10]

Conclusion

The idea of colour blindness started out as a noble, if slightly skewed way of dealing with racial inequality by treating everyone as if they started on a level playing field. Its roots were indeed noble as a movement against racism in the modern world. However, over time the movement has morphed into one of the single biggest racial challenges in the modern world and as the views become entrenched, it becomes more of a stumbling block to the minorities it claims to help by being impartial. It is an idea that can only work in a post racial world where everyone starts life on equal footing. Unfortunately, we know this to be untrue, the criminal justice system is still heavily biased towards whites and against blacks to the extent that whole books have been written on the subject in the dawn of the new Millennia[11].

As a result of this, its proponents, whilst claiming not to see race, choose to discredit the voice of minorities that protest the unfair advantages at the start of life conferred upon individuals based on the virtue of their race. In this way, this movement that started as a movement against racism has now devolved into a blind movement that impedes the people it proclaims to help due to continued ring fencing of white privilege. Or as Lopez put it; the current trend of colour blindness allows racial remediation while protecting the status quo[12]

Footnotes

[1] Hartford, Bruce. n.d. 1954. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://www.crmvet.org/tim/timhis54.htm#1954bvbe

[2] “Civil Rights Act 1964”. 2015. In The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide. Abington: Helicon. http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/heliconhe/civil_rights_act_1964/0

[3] Anthony M. Platt, The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action, 11 Notre Dame J.L. Ethics & Pub. Pol’y 67 (1997). Available at: http://scholarship.law.nd.edu/ndjlepp/vol11/iss1/4

[4] University, North Carolina State. 2010. NC State University Affirmative Action in Employment Training. Accessed November 18, 2015. https://www.ncsu.edu/project/oeo-training/aa/beneficiaries.htm

[5] Brown, Michael K. Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society.( Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 169.

[6] Political Science Department, Boston College. 2015. Alan Wolfe. 20 November. Accessed November 23, 2015. http://www.bc.edu/schools/cas/polisci/facstaff/wolfe.html

[7] Wolfe, Alan. 1998. Enough Blame to Go Around. Book Review, New York: The New York Times.

[8] Carr, L. (1997). “Color-blind” racism. (Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications)

[9] Kincheloe, Joe L. White Reign : Deploying Whiteness in America. 1st ed. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).

[10] Anderson, Kristin J. Benign Bigotry : The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice. (Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.)

[11] Bell, Derrick A. Race, Racism, and American Law. 4th ed. (Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Law & Business, 2000.)

[12] Haney Lopez, Ian. “Colorblind to the Reality of Race in America.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 53, no. 11 (2006): B.6-B9. (Pgs 1-2)

Global Well Being and The Media

An essay I wrote almost 5 years ago now about the role the media plays on how Africa is viewed. Still just as relevant now as it was then. I have had to convert it into wordpress form and as a result, the picture in it is very unclear, the references were also not added at the end of the essay. Enjoy!

New Orleans: a vibrant city, bursting to the seams with culture, the birthplace of jazz and legends like Louis Armstrong, and the gateway to the Mighty Mississippi River. No other city is quite like it, with its scintillating nightlife and burlesque shows, waterways that criss-cross the entire city, a mix of races and culture too numerous to quantify, all fused into one city. The temperature is just perfect. The most unique multicultural city in the US which has both sweeping plantation homes as old as the city on one part; and some slightly less grand city dwellings on the other.  A democratic political system where people can aspire to be presidents and marvel at the distinct French-creole architectural style. The name alone conjures up new beginnings and a bucketful of hope….

I’ve never been there though. How is it that I can describe the architecture, history and social life as a native inhabitant might? How did I know about the Mardi gras celebrations and the French-creole architectures? The more I thought about it the more I realised, I hadn’t set out to broaden my horizons, and neither did I find out about New Orleans to be able to participate in a discussion about American carnivals. In fact I hadn’t actively sought out information about it. I hadn’t ‘googled’ it and sat through page after page of interlinking Wikipedia articles. It was simply there. A huge database of information consisting of random snippets from various films, documentaries and cartoons condensed into a general knowledge of the city. I didn’t know about the Mardi Gras until I watched the Disney film: “The Princess and the Frog”. (Twins, 2010)  As a result I didn’t have to think to describe New Orleans, even though I’d never tasted the air or smelt the Mississippi’s unique scent.

Trying to visualise an African city however posed a different set of challenges. It wasn’t a lack of information or underexposure to stories from the continent. The crux of the problem was negativity.  I had to consciously sift through the countries to find the most positive. Every time I tried to think of a city in Africa my mind immediately started playing back documentaries about desertification, famine, civil war, genocide, even the Hollywood film: “Black Hawk Down”. (Pathay, 2001). I realised that my subconscious was selecting the country I knew most about. My mind was stuck on Somalia. I was halfway into my brainstorming before I realised my level of ignorance on the small matter of cities within Somalia.

It occurred to me that while the media brought stories about the country they never described the country farther than on an international level. Apart from Mogadishu I had no idea of the other cities. I was guilty of failing one of the fundamental judging points I used for strangers. On my first day of secondary school in the UK a well-meaning girl came up to me and gently asked where I came from. To which I replied Nigeria. After elaborating further, she was able to get a grip on the location. Puzzled, she asked me how a country could exist within another country. This was when I realised that she had a view of Africa as a country not a continent. I can’t blame her for it though as we were both young and naïve. However a similar occurrence happened in year 10 when a girl asked me which type of hut I used to live in as she had seen some on holiday to Tanzania. This question I found much more difficult to understand. A quick Google search reveals why she asked:

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The similar results section in Google asked me to specify my search result even farther to “Kenyan poor houses”. Whilst this was no fault of Google, it was simply displaying the most common search terms to do with Kenya. People do not generally expect much in the way of infrastructure from Africa, this stems from the images beamed to us through our news channels and television screens. Ultimately when they search for Kenyan houses on Google they specify the search to show what they perceive as a normal African house…or “poor house” My father once cried out in exasperation when a BBC correspondent was interviewed in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. He was moved to tears of frustration when the correspondent was interviewed in front of an open market in the rundown outskirts of the city. I was younger then and I did not realise his frustration. The BBC chose to show archive footage of a run-down area to support the correspondent’s report on the country’s politics. The city of Abuja is a mega-city custom built out of the lush savannah, a similar feat to the construction of Las-Vegas with stunning architectures and it is one of the most modernised in Africa. Whilst the BBC may have not acted deliberately, they inadvertently fed into the belief that Nigeria’s flagship city is nothing to write home about. It was then that I realised that our perceptions of the Third World, especially Africa are mostly shaped by what we see, hear and read in the media. The media does not deliberately go out of its way to portray Africa in a bad light; it reports on the latest famine in Somalia, the latest genocide in Rwanda and atrocities in Libya because it wants to inspire, it wants people to act and donate or buy fair-trade because it cares to make a difference. The problem however is that too much of the same kind of story is not good for a place. Just as my description of New-Orleans sounds too sweet and sickly, so does my description of Somalia sound too violent and harrowing. I don’t advocate that we simply bury our heads in the sand and pretend that people are not threading a fine line between life and death in Somalia. Neither am I suggesting that we go out of our way to portray Somalia as a Garden of Eden, like my idealised view on New-Orleans.  In reality New-Orleans is still recovering from the destruction caused by hurricane Katrina, race equality is one of the worst in America and many ethnic minorities live in places similar to a Third World city.

“On September 22 the Census Bureau released information from their 2010 annual American Community Survey based on a poll of 2,500 people in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, the report was ignored by the local mainstream media since it speaks volumes about the inequality of the Katrina recovery. The survey revealed that 27% of New Orleans adults now live in poverty and 42% of children… The new spike in poverty signal that blacks are not sharing equally in the employment benefits of recovery dollars. Indeed, the city may be creating a new generation of chronically unemployed poor who were previously part of the low-wage working poor.” (Hill, 2011)

For a MEDC the figures above are unacceptable and it shows the gap between minorities. As stated The media largely ignored this as it portrayed the city in a bad light. Without doing any independent research of my own I would not have known that such levels of inequality exist in the United States. Yet I know that thousands of people have fled Somalia due to conflict and even more have died from famine and related causes. I know that as recently as a few weeks ago, hundreds of people died and thousands were displaced when a ‘tribe’ went to war with a neighbouring tribe over stolen cattle (ABC, 2012). I didn’t research it but the news media chose to broadcast it. The danger in press practices like this is that people fall into the trap of a ‘single story’. According to a prominent Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; a single story is dangerous as it only shows one perspective and the audience have to form their own perceptions from a narrow point of view. (Tunca, 2009)  She goes further to say that most people in the developed world have a single story of Africa.

My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals. (Adichie, 2009)

In the speech she implies that the media is guilty of perpetuating a single story of less developed countries. They might be well meaning but ultimately through the use of terms like ‘tribal’ which depict a backward race they are helping to form stereotypes about Africa.

Ultimately we need to ask ourselves what part the media plays in forming our ideas and stereotypes about wellbeing in LEDCs. Are we guilty of fostering our perceived notions about wellbeing and wealth on a different culture? In the UK, to marry a woman a man might have to produce an engagement ring and the bigger the stone, the better according to conventions. This society puts value on precious stones, jewellery, houses’ the ultimate holiday to the Bahamas etc. It is a product of the country’s history and geography. In the UK water is seen as a common commodity as we have rivers of it. In parts of sub-Saharan Africa, to marry a woman you need to provide the family with a certain number of livestock, tubers etc. In countries like that holidays, diamonds, big houses with the latest gadgets and fashionable clothes are not valued as they are not of top priority. This is not because some cannot afford it. But it is because by its very nature a society values what it does not have an abundance of. For example in the UK precious stones and gold are status symbols because they have to be imported making them expensive. In Somalia land is not valuable but water is, if a rural living Somali man was given diamonds it would be more worthless than water, it does not feed his prized cattle or make the rains fall. We cannot judge a country’s level of wellbeing by comparing what they have with what we have, as cultures are the product of environment.

“In developed economies virtually every activity has been commercialised…national accounts of any western nation include payments for personal beauty care, which for the US is around $60 billion a year. Such an item would hardly feature in the accounts of African nations. However, this does not mean that African men and women living in villages do not enjoy ‘beauty’ treatments – activities are not commercialised. In 1996 Britain spent some $33 billion on beer, wine and spirits…the consumption of palm wine, local spirits and other indigenous alcoholic brews in African villages is not incorporated in national accounts…in capitalist societies, virtually all aspects of culture is monetized and incorporated in the national accounts…total annual expenditure on marriages and funerals in the US runs into several billions of dollars a year…people marry in African societies in elaborate and joyful ceremonies and the dead are buried with appropriate ritual, little of these activities get into the national accounts… Leisure and entertainment sectors account for a large proportion of the GDP of western nations, but in the GDP of poor countries these universal components of life hardly figure…When considering the material conditions of people in Africa, a distinction should be made between absolute poverty and relative poverty…” (Obadina, 2008) 

There is no denying the levels of absolute poverty in Africa but is the media guilty of perpetuating a single story to us in the information they choose to show. Are we guilty of succumbing to the single story? Maybe we should ask ourselves, how many times we have seen pictures of Africans living in poverty and assumed the continent is a single story of catastrophe. Although well-meaning, how many of us have fallen into the trap of the single-story portrayed by the media and changed our default position to one of pity? In this are we guilty of robbing a continent of its dignity?  Our generation and the generations before got it wrong, however we can still try to rewrite history. By re-educating the new generation of children and teaching them the dangers of single stories, it might be too late for our generation but we have the opportunity to mould the future of our children. As countries become more diverse we need to teach our children the dangers of a single story so they do not get left behind in the ever evolving politics of the dynamic modern world we live in.