This Op-Ed was written in response to Daniella Greenbaum’s “A color-coded right to speak” published in the Columbia Daily Spectator.
“Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance.” – Martin Luther King
To respond to Daniella Greenbaum’s “A color-coded right to speak,” I want to first address the idea of a ‘colorblind’ society and then directly respond to her other two points, the first about the perceived racism of black women who are apprehensive about dating white men, and the second about the perceived racism of black students apprehensive about learning the foundations of slavery from white teachers.
Ms. Greenbaum’s “A color-coded right to speak” represents her fundamental misunderstanding of the quotation she includes in her article since, first and foremost, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. never argued for a colorblind society. To judge someone “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” means, quite literally, to not be racist. Dr. King was responding to anti-blackness in America. He was responding to a society that held one race superior and another inferior; a society in which the dominant status group – white Americans – ostracized and exploited black Americans. We still live in this society. The philosophy by which the dominant white power maintains its authority, and which Greenbaum espouses, has not faded. The concept of color-blindness existed long before Dr. King was born – color-blindness is simply the devaluation and minimization of racial identity, and the ascription of the reality and struggle of being a racial minority not to racism but to another cause. Throughout history, various parts of the white power structure have decided that this cause is cultural pathology – the idea that black Americans are on average poorer than white Americans, arrested more often, and commit ‘more’ crimes not because they face profound social exclusion and the burdens of discrimination in the labor-market, a stigma of criminality, and have historically been excluded from social welfare agencies and other public services, or because low-level criminality is a function of social strain, but rather because black Americans are inherently inferior and that black culture is inherently linked to criminality and poverty.
Unsurprisingly, the white power structure in America benefits from a color-blind society while the oppressed suffer. Since the 19th century, many white Americans have claimed black Americans have been made “fully equal” (i.e. John Daniels claimed in 1895 that “blacks had been made fully equal” in the North), and many still do today. This fallacy of equality is what encourages a “color-blind” society. If everyone were equal, perhaps we could ignore color without literally hurting people, though it would still be wrong. However, we haven’t achieved equality. Color-blindness ignores culture and racial identity and minimizes the significance of those identities. It is impossible to be color-blind without further criminalizing blackness, minimizing the unique racial struggle of being black in America, and ultimately ignoring racial inequality, which inevitably leads to more black bodies in prison, turned to corpses at the hands of police, or trapped in impoverished and institutionally abandoned communities (communities which were abandoned by the government).
And we know that the government is not colorblind, although throughout history it has tried to reframe its policies as colorblind by emphasizing administrative perfection and the impossibility of personal bias in criminal sentencing, among other things. This emphasis is an attempt to minimize the reality of racial inequality in every aspect of American life. Even if criminal sentencing was fair, and black Americans didn’t face 20% longer sentences for the exact same crimes as white Americans, we could look all the way down the line—past discriminatory police practices and the fact that in many communities of color the police force is the first if not the only public service available—to the very existence of segregated communities of color and what that means historically. Focusing on color-blindness, however, would ignore that history because in color-blind terms racial history does not matter. The fact that throughout history black and brown bodies have been controlled and exploited – from slavery to Jim Crow segregation to the creation of ghettos in the North and eventually to the mass incarceration of hundreds of thousands of people of color today – does not matter in a color-blind society. Trying to understand the consequences of structural racism without acknowledging the reality of structural racism opens the discourse to the ideas of biological determinism and cultural pathology that have defined the treatment of black Americans and their communities throughout history. That is color-blindness, and it is the exact process by which structural racism has persisted.
To address the perceived racism of black women who might be wary of dating black men, I want to break it down as simply as possible. Black women not wanting to date white men is not racist – it represents a love of self and a love of blackness that rejects the constant degradation of black bodies throughout history at the hands of European cultures. Blackness is obviously also a commonality between black men and women – this alone is justification enough because the commonality of blackness represents an opportunity for unification in the face of oppression. Because blackness is beautiful, and unfortunately the rest of society still fails to see that, it is important to many black women that they continue to create blackness in their life.
There are more reasons than could fit in an entire essay just on this topic that can justify why black women might not want to date white men. It is important to note that black women who date white men are not any less appreciative of their blackness – that is okay too. However, some white men’s refusal to date black girls – which is something I have personally heard guys talk about – is something different, and it is racist. Because unlike the refusal of black women to date white men, which is rooted in self-love and resistance to discrimination and the constant representation of black bodies as uncivilized or ugly, the refusal of white men to date black women is based in the racial hatred that creates those representations. There is no comparison between the two topics. On the one side, the oppressor is disgusted at those he has oppressed. On the other side, those who have been oppressed want to keep their distance from their oppressor. One is historically rooted in racism, and one is rooted in rejecting that racism.
Regarding the desire of a student of color to take a class taught by a professor of color: there is nothing wrong with this, nor is it in any way racist. It represents that student’s desire to be taught by someone they can identify with. It is easy to imagine why you, as a white student, can’t understand that. The majority of Americans look like you, the majority of teachers here look like you, and the majority of your peers and probably your friends look like you. All of these people that look like you affirm your identity, your humanity, and your place in society – because you see white people all around you, you don’t question your place in society or whether or not your experience is normal. Your experience is normative, and the power relationships in America constantly reinforce your position at the top. This does not make you necessarily racist. But it absolutely makes you ignorant when it comes to racism. The phrase ‘predominantly white institution’ carries a very different significance for you than it does for students of color; predominantly white institutions are the basis for conceptions of black institutions and people as deviant from the norm. America is, as a whole, a predominantly white institution, and at the heart of this institution is a philosophy that argues for the inferiority and irredeemability of black people, black culture, and black spaces. This philosophy originates in many of the texts central to the Core Curriculum, specifically Contemporary Civilization. It is only reasonable for a student of color to assume that a white teacher will be less likely to acknowledge the legacy of slavery surrounding those texts than a black professor. While there are no guarantees – a white professor could absolutely acknowledge the problems within the texts (one of these problems is Plato’s argument that some people are naturally meant to be slaves, which I know comes up in Contemporary Civilization) – it is more likely that a black professor will because it is part of his life experience. America was founded on white supremacy, and white supremacy is part of a legacy that contains the texts of the Core Curriculum. It is not racist for a student of color to ask to be in a class in which there is a higher chance they will not feel isolated. It is not that professors of color are fundamentally better people than white professors – it reflects, like so many other things, why we cannot be colorblind, because the reality of race plays a role in these texts, and being in a classroom in which you are among a few people of color if not the only student of color, studying texts that justified slavery without acknowledging this legacy, might be daunting to say the least.
So, Ms. Greenbaum; no, it is not that, “People are essentially divided into two binary categories: privileged, and therefore ineligible to speak, or oppressed, and therefore eminently wise.” Not only is your language here incredibly condescending, but you are creating this binary; I’ve never met anyone who thought any one racial group was either ineligible to speak or eminently wise. Instead, most people acknowledge that everyone has a unique identity and outlook, and that we should judge their character rather than their class or skin color – but not the way you want to. It seems like you are the one judging people based on how they look. Throughout your piece, you stress the experiences of you and your white friends and, on the other side, black people. You make sure to stress the blackness of the one person who vaguely fits into your narrative. You aren’t talking in color-blind terms. You are the very embodiment of the hypocrisy of ‘color-blindness.’ You are just speaking in terms that suit your narrative, and reflect why you, in your privilege, are ineligible to speak on anti-blackness and the reality of being black in America, because your narrative diverges from the narrative of the people that actually experience the thing you are trying to speak about. I am biracial, but most people think I’m white. That is a privilege – I’m also male and heterosexual. Those are privileges. But I leverage these privileges to add my voice to the voices of the people around me that feel oppressed in any number of ways. If you are not leveraging your privilege to help others, and to listen to and amplify the voices of those who are oppressed, you are taking part in and enabling oppression.
Alexander is a first year in Columbia College studying the history of mass incarceration and the politics of slavery and anti-slavery in the United States.
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