Tim Wise: Colorblindness is the Enemy

Tim Wise began his February 3 talk by crediting women and men of color for doing the hardest work. In particular, he honored the British Stuart Hall, known as the “godfather of multiculturalism,” who has just died.

“Having done this work for 25 years, I have learned a few lessons: The problem we confront is far far bigger than anything we imagined. After graduating from Tulane, I worked against David Duke’s campaign for governor. He lost, but not because of white people — 6 out of 10 whites voted for him. Black people saved us and said ‘you can thank us later.’ We asked ourselves, who is the enemy here? I knew that 6 out of 10 whites were not ‘that far gone’ (so what happened?)

David Duke scapegoated. He said that black and brown took slots for college and jobs — and then he said they don’t want to work at all. I don’t ask for much in my bigots but I do ask for consistency.

We thought the problem was people who openly scapegoated. Over time we came to see a more disturbing reality, that this mentality is ingrained in fabric of culture. Especially now that I am a dad with two daughters, I am wondering, how does one learn social inequality?

1. Everyone learns the secular gospel of meritocracy and individual initiative, that anyone can make it if they just work harder. In theory, that is not racist. But when racial inequality has been overlaid over every aspect, it almost becomes to think that the people at the bottom must be genetically inferior. Or, if not genetic, it must be a cultural norm to be lazy.

Unless you have a sociological imagination to explain the context, your thinking will default to conventional wisdom, meritocracy. We are good people doing good things and the others are bad people doing bad things. We “know” this because we see the stereotypes so often, and marketing works.

But here are the statistics: That about 500 white people have the same net worth as 41 million people black people. Those 500 white people haven’t worked that much harder! And how about this statistic: Eighty five people have the same net worth as 3.5 billion of world’s population.If you don’t make sure young people know the basics about sociological inequality, they grow up to believe the stereotypes.

2. Colorblindness is the biggest enemy. It ignores context. Color consciousness considers how someone acquired credentials that make them qualify. For my daughters, I need to teach them how to deal with men who think they are lesser than them. I have to prepare them for the reality of victimhood.

Pretending that color doesn’t matter makes it harder to understand inequality. Pretending that gender doesn’t matter makes it harder to understand inequality.

“Post raciality” is dangerous. In a “post racial” world, whites can say we are all having the experience, why can’t everyone just be Americans.

But we are not all having the same experience because even the most liberal whites have bias — they internalize it. Brain scans of nice white liberals showed subliminal fear, anxiety, and stress at the photo of a black male. So don’t be quick to assume we couldn’t be George Zimmerman. Whites demonstrated wearing Tshirts that said “I am Trayvon Martin.” Whites — we will never be Trayvon Martin. We have to be honest about our own conditioning.

In 1962, Gallup asked white Americans if education for blacks and whites were equal and 85 of 100 white Americans said yes. In 1963 Gallup asked white people if minorities are treated equally and 2 of 3 answered yes.

The only explanation for that level of denial is that whites didn’t have to know the truth. They could afford to be oblivious to it, just like I am oblivious to calculus because I didn’t have to take that course. The same is true for social reality. White folks still think they are qualified to tell black and brown people their truth.

When we belong to any dominant group — straight, not disabled, male and moneyed — we are less likely to understand the truth.

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