Being colorblind does not offset innate advantages of white privilege

By Robert Jensen

Published in Kansas City Business Journal · January, 2001

In an attempt to appear anti-racist, it is common for well-intentioned white folks to say something like: “I don’t think of John as black. I just think of him as a person.”

As a Latina colleague once told me, “God save us from well-intentioned white people.”

In a thoroughly racialized and racist society such as the United States, attempting to endorse the humanity of nonwhite people by pretending they have no color is not a sign that one has moved beyond race. Rather, it indicates that one is stuck knee-deep in the culture’s deeply embedded racism. Why?

Who makes such statements? I have never had a nonwhite person say to me, “When I look at you, Bob, I don’t see a white person. I just see a person.”

That’s because being white historically has not been associated with degradation, dehumanization and denigration; being white does not make my humanity problematic. To see me as fully human, nonwhite people don’t have to strip away my whiteness because whiteness is not assumed to be less-than-anything.

So although no nonwhite person has to de-race white people to treat them as people, white people often take such de-racing to be evidence of having transcended racism. This clamor for colorblindness is another reflection of how far white America has to go in race relations. At this moment in history, being colorblind is a privilege available only to white people.

Nonwhite people do not have the luxury of pretending that color can be ignored.

When an African-American man is stopped on the street, he has to be conscious of what his color means to white police officers who may associate blackness with criminality.

When a Latina interviews for a job, she has to be aware of how racialized stereotypes about her sexuality might affect what the white man behind the desk is thinking about her.

And when Asian-American students are in classrooms, they have to understand how a white professor’s notion that Asians are all “good at math” will affect perceptions of them.

This is just one of many manifestations of white privilege in the contemporary United States: White people don’t have to worry about how their race affects the way most people in power treat them. We are able to walk through the world, except in isolated situations, without that burden.

When confronted with the realities of racism and white privilege, too many white people want to take the illusory escape route of colorblindness. But to be blind to color in 2001 is to be truly blind.

Our goal should not be to strip away the reality of our difference, our particularity, in favor of some abstracted human form. We are people in our particularly. Our goal should be to understand how differences in skin, hair and bone, to borrow from W.E.B. DuBois, shape all our lives.

That means more than celebrating the easy differences. It’s not enough to listen to Brazilian music, appreciate Indian cuisine or include a Kwanzaa greeting in your holiday cards. To be truly anti-racist — to take seriously the moral imperative to confront white privilege — means focusing not only on cultural differences but also on differences in power.

A first step is to be honest about how deeply woven into the material and ideological fabric of our society racism is. Just as important, I think, is challenging the pathological individualism of this culture so that we can see how our successes and our failures are always partly social, not strictly individual. That means letting go of the collective fantasy that the United States is a meritocracy with a level playing field.

If anyone still clings to that mythology, I have two words in response: George W.

Whatever one thinks of our new president, it is impossible not to see in his life how race, gender and class privilege work. A mediocre student with a string of failures in the oil business, Bush has traded all his life on privileges that come with being a white man with family connections. Agree or disagree with his politics, it is undeniable that George W. Bush did not rise to one of the most powerful positions in the world on merit. Can anyone imagine a black man with Bush’s record making it to such a position? Or a woman of any color? Or a kid starting out in a poor family?

That may seem harsh to some, even disrespectful. But it is, I believe, the kind of obvious truth we have to tell if we are to make progress toward racial justice, as well as gender and economic justice.

We white folks have to take seriously the task of understanding not only what it means for people of color to live in a racialized and racist world but also how the privileges that come with being white give us advantages, some subtle and some obvious, some overt and some covert, some material and some ideological.

It is time for white people to go beyond good intentions and begin to face, and to tell, the truth.