My previous points about colour-blindness are important because I don’t want to be misunderstood on a larger issue. I believe the critique of colour-blindness in the current context is well founded. Mellody Hobson, for example, rightly points out that colour-blindness too often means we act as if race isn’t a problem now, and thereby ignore the many ways in which it is. There is a studied ignorance in comments like those of Chief Justice John Roberts, that “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Ignoring the current problem is the approach of American conservatives who take Martin Luther King’s words out of context to pretend that he opposed affirmative action, when he clearly and visibly supported it. Yet there is one thing those conservatives do see accurately. And that is that King did express a hope for colour-blindness in the future, “one day”. This is the part that contemporary left-wing critiques of colour-blindness often leave out – with awful consequences. Too often, these critiques refuse even the ideal of colour-blindness. In so doing, they effectively work to condemn us forever to the prisons of our socially constructed skins.
Consider as an example the article “Detour-spotting” by Jona Olsson, which is sometimes assigned to committees dealing with diversity and inclusion in universities. Olsson criticizes not merely statements that deny present implicit bias (“Character, not color, is what counts with me”) but other statements that affirm the very value of colour-blindness, statements that affirm our common humanity (“We all bleed red when we’re cut”). And it turns out that her criticism of colour-blindness is not primarily about the important point that we do often hold racial biases even when we think we don’t. Instead, Olsson tries to tell us there is an intrinsic problem with colour-blindness as such, even as an ideal:
Statements like these assume that people of color are just like me, white; that they have the same dreams, standards, problems, peeves that I do. “Colorblindness” negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color, and most importantly, their experience as a target of racism.
So, you know something that negates my values, norms, expectations and life experiences as a non-white person – a “person of colour”, if we must? It’s when a white person assumes, on the basis of my skin colour, that I don’t “have the same dreams, standards, problems, peeves” that they do. And that to the extent I don’t share those dreams and standards and problems, it is because of my skin colour and not of my individual situation – that a white person would share “dreams and standards and problems and peeves” with another white person in a way that they would not with me. These assumptions are what Olsson is telling white people to make.
In so doing, Olsson is effectively telling white people to commit what in the common parlance today is referred to as a microaggression. That is to say: such an assumption is one of
the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.
In my life, the microaggression that I have faced most frequently is the one where people ask “Where are you from?” or “What is your nationality?” and are surprised when the answer is “Canada” (or “Kingston, Ontario”). If they’re particularly aggressive, they’ll ask something to the effect of “Where are you really from?” Because, of course, they are looking at my skin colour and thereby assuming that the cultural background that formed me is not the Canada where I was born and raised, but the place where (half of) my ancestors were from – in a way that they would not assume for people whose ancestors happened to be from Norway or Poland. (I remember the lefty white woman who once told me I should be a vegetarian because “they have such a great tradition of vegetarianism in your country”. She wasn’t talking about Canada.) And it is exactly that microaggression – making assumptions about us based on our skin colour – that Olsson is telling white people to commit. For she asks them to look at our skin colour and assume that it implies we do have significantly different “cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences”, “dreams, standards, problems, peeves”, from them. The place in which I have the most experience as a target of racism is with people making that sort of assumption – and Olsson is telling them to make more of it.
I have no doubt that Olsson has good intentions when she tells white people to view non-white people as representatives of our race rather than as individual human beings. But people like Olsson are themselves the ones who hasten to tell us that what matters in these interactions is not intent but impact: “our unintentional racist behaviors will often have the same consequences as the intentional racism of a confirmed bigot.” And Olsson’s bad advice on colour-blind statements is particularly striking because of another claim that she makes:
It is a racist, paternalistic assumption that well meaning white people know what’s best for people of color. Decisions, by white people, are made on behalf of people of color, as though they were incapable of making their own.
Let’s connect the dots. Many of us “people of colour” do want to be treated in the way that white people are treated, and we have good reason for this. The problem for us is that we often aren’t treated the way white people are treated, both because of implicit bias and explicit racism on one hand, and, on the other hand, because of advice that tells white people to assume that we are different from them. The well-meaning Olsson decides to give exactly that advice – thus making the problem worse for us – because she assumes that what’s good for us is for us to be treated differently from white people on the basis of our skin colour. She, a white person, ignores those of us who don’t want to be treated that way, and makes that decision on our behalf. That is to say that by her own standards, Olsson’s advice is founded on “a racist, paternalistic assumption”.
Olsson’s position has roots in political philosophy; one can observe a more cautious version of it in Iris Marion Young’s highly regarded Justice and the Politics of Difference. Young takes issue with my position that people “should be treated as individuals, not as members of groups, and allowed to form their lives freely without stereotypes or group norms.” Why does she take issue with it? Because “group differentiation is both an inevitable and a desirable aspect of modern social processes.” (47)
But why, according to Young, is group differentiation desirable? “Even when they belong to oppressed groups, people’s group identifications are often important to them, and they often feel a special affinity for others in their group.” (47) Notice the logic of this sentence: group identifications are desirable because they are important to many individuals! That is, what takes primacy, even in Young’s own reasoning, is what is important to individuals. But for this individual, your author – and I am far from alone in this – it is important to be treated as an individual rather than a group member, to “live freely without stereotypes”, at least when the group in question is a group ascribed to me on the basis of biological characteristics I played no part in constructing.
I’m happy to be treated as a member of the group “Buddhists” – a group with whom I have no racial ties and did not grow up. By contrast it is important to me that people not judge me on the basis of the colour of my skin, or my Indian name. Prince Ea feels the same way. So does Zadie Smith, when she says:
If someone says to me: ‘A black girl would never say that,’ I’m saying: ‘How can you possibly know?’ The problem with that argument is it assumes the possibility of total knowledge of humans. The only thing that identifies people in their entirety is their name: I’m a Zadie.
Smith and Ea and I believe in ideals of qualitative individualism. We want what King wanted for his daughters: to one day be judged by the content of our characters and not the colour of our skin. If some reverse discrimination is required to get us to that day – to cancel out the ways in which we are treated on the basis of skin colour – then so be it. (It seems to me that affirmative action is an appropriate response to Smith’s and Ea’s situations but not to mine.) But that day is the end goal we seek.
Again, implicit bias can mean that frequently enough we are judged by the colour of our skin, even by people who think they are judging us by the content of our characters. Thinking explicitly about skin colour can help people be aware of those biases enough that they can come closer to actually judging us by the content of our characters, and that is important. But Olsson goes much further than that. She is effectively saying is that they shouldn’t even try to judge us by the content of our character – that we should be forever judged by the colour of our skins, in perpetuity. To which I say: over my dead brown body.
Other non-white people might feel differently. Olsson says she has an African-American friend who says “I don’t mind that you notice I’m Black.” But Young and Olsson have decided to hear only voices like these, and not the voices of people like me and Prince Ea and Zadie Smith. These white people have thereby made the decision for us, us non-white qualitative individualists, that the voices of those non-individualist non-whites should count louder than ours. I shall put it mildly to say that I do not appreciate this.
For reasons I articulated previously, I happen to think that those people who want to be identified by their race are wrong; I believe they should be thinking in terms of their culture instead. There is room for debate about that point. What cannot be justified is the way in which Olsson and Young assume that because some of us want to be defined in terms of our race, all of us should be.
We do better, in my view, to bring ourselves back to the avowedly pro-affirmative-action views of Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood acutely that the point of preferential treatment is to get us to a day where people can be judged by the content of the character and not by the colour of their skin. Conservatives warp his view beyond recognition when they cite it against affirmative action as if we had somehow already got to that day. But leftists are just as far away from King when they deny that day even as an ideal. Let us not stop dreaming of a world where people are judged by the content of their character rather than the colour of their skin. And, absolutely, let us today employ forms of preferential treatment where necessary as tools to make that world eventually possible – but as tools, as unfortunate and hopefully temporary necessities, not as goods in themselves.