In my recent post titled, “Jeremy Lin Mania and How it Relates to Colorblindness,” among other things, I noted that Jeremy’s emergence as a media sensation and explosion onto the center stage of mainstream U.S. popular culture does represent a small step toward the eventual ideal of colorblindness. At the same time, I also argued that the reality is that unfortunately, we are still a long way from being a truly colorblind society.
This past week, several public incidents have solidified the sad fact that many Americans still think that we are already in a colorblind society and as such, they can basically say anything they want about Jeremy, including offensive references to him as a Chinese American. Unfortunately there have been several examples of racial insensitivity in the past couple of weeks, but in this post I will focus on two in particular.
First, after the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in which Jeremy scored 38 points, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” Whitlock later apologized for the remark, but you can’t unring that bell — clearly he thought it was perfectly acceptable to invoke the emasculating racial stereotype about Asian men having small penises.
But wait, there’s more.
A few days later, after Jeremy committed nine turnovers in a game that the Knicks eventually lost, thereby snapping their 7-game winning streak, the following headline made it onto ESPN’s mobile website (screenshot below): “Chinks in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-Snapping Loss to Hornets.”
The headline was apparently taken down after being public for 35 minutes but again, the damage was done — the editors at ESPN apparently had no idea or did not care that the term “chink” is a blatantly racist term against all Asian Americans but particularly and deeply offensive to Chinese Americans. I might expect people outside the U.S., such as Spain’s national basketball team, not to know that the term “chink” is racist, but it is very disappointing to learn that many Americans still think it’s perfectly fine to use in reference to a Chinese American.
Disappointing, but unfortunately not really surprising.
That is because many Americans already believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are already a colorblind society. As such, they have been taught, socialized, and desensitized to naively think that all racial groups are equal now, that no racial discrimination ever takes place nowadays, and therefore, it’s fine to casually use terms such as “chink” in everyday conversation.
These particular incidents may not be as blatantly offensive as the racial taunts Jeremy encountered back when he played for Harvard, but they nonetheless illustrate a woeful level of ignorance and lack of sensitivity about Asian Americans, our history, and our community.
Imagine what the public’s reaction would have been if Jason Whitlock was referring to a Black player and his remark invoked the racial stereotype about Black men having large penises. What would the public’s reaction had been if ESPN went public with some headline that referred to a Black player using the ‘N’ word? I think it would be safe to say that the American public would be shocked, outraged, and furious if these hypothetical examples occurred in reference to a Black player.
To Whitlock’s and ESPN’s credit, they both apologized and in ESPN’s case, fired the person responsible for the website headline and suspended one of their sportscasters, Max Bretos, who repeated the “chink in the armor” phrase on air. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and decisively ESPN acted in regard to these incidents. In the past, more than likely, ESPN would have taken days to issue a half-hearted apology and probably would not have disciplined any of their staff involved. I suppose ESPN’s actions in this matter do represent an encouraging sign of progress.
Fortunately, there are others in the mainstream media who “get it” — those who understand the contradiction and inequality that exist when such racial/ethnic stereotypes are in reference to, say Blacks, versus when they reference Asian Americans. Specifically, leave it the crew at Saturday Night Live to use comedy and satire to deftly illustrate this contradiction:
So I suppose that it does represent progress that when these types of racially ignorant incidents happen, the mainstream media nowadays does recognize it and take disciplinary action (or use satire to point out the absurdity of such ignorance) more quickly than in the past. Now if we can just get to the point where such incidents don’t happen in the first place.
Back in 2010, I wrote about Jeremy Lin, who was leading Harvard University to a league title, a birth in the NCAA postseason tournament, and was poised to become one of the first Asian American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Back then, I pointed out how he represents an example of Asian Americans balancing both model minority expectations with an extracurricular passion, and in doing so, is expanding the definition of success for Asian Americans.
Since then, Jeremy went undrafted in the NBA after graduation but has now landed with the New York Knicks and is now exploding onto the basketball scene, as this New York Times article describes:
On Saturday night [Feb. 4, 2012], Lin came off the bench and powered the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden, scoring a career-best 25 points with 7 assists. Two nights later, he made his first N.B.A. start and produced 28 points and 8 assists in a 99-88 win over the Utah Jazz.
Knicks fans now serenade Lin with chants of “Je-re-my!” and “M.V.P.!” while the franchise uses his likeness to sell tickets and teammates and coaches gush with praise. . . . Lin is raising expectations, altering the Knicks’ fate and redefining the word “unlikely.” On Twitter, fans and basketball pundits are using another term to describe the phenomenon: “Linsanity.”
[H]e became the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first N.B.A. start. . . . When the Knicks claimed Lin off waivers Dec. 27, he was fourth on the depth chart at point guard. Now he is No. 1, continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.
As another example of the accelerating Jeremy Lin bandwagon, ABC News just named Jeremy its “Person of the Week” and profiled him in the following news segment video:
Needless to say, Jeremy’s explosion into the U.S. cultural mainstream has inspired many Americans, and particularly Asian Americans. Beyond the mainstream media’s ever-increasing proclamations of him as “Linsanity,” “Lincredible,” “Going All Lin,” “Lin Your Face,” or “May the Best Man Lin,” Jeremy has also been described as Asian Americans’ version of Tim Tebow, both for embracing his Christian faith and for the media sensation and “Linspiration” that he has become for so many Asian Americans. For the record, Jeremy is the first monoracial (that is, both his parents are Asian) Asian American (either born or raised in the U.S.) to play in the NBA, and one of the few monoracial Asian Americans to play professional team sports in the U.S. at all.
In so many ways, Jeremy represents a big step forward for Asian Americans and U.S. society in general in terms of racial inclusion and being considered part of mainstream U.S. culture. Jeremy’s success actually follows a similar breakthrough moment for Asian Americans last year, as the hip-hop group Far East Movement became the first all-Asian American musical group to hit number one on the music charts with their single “Like a G6.” As another example of the “mainstreaming” of Asian Americans, the creators of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” are apparently in the process of creating a version that features an all-Asian American cast, to be called “K-Town.”
From a sociological point of view, the cultural emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and K-Town demonstrate that Asian Americans are indeed increasingly part of the U.S. mainstream. Up to this point, because of the relative scarcity of Asian Americans in the mainstream media and popular culture, it was usually a shock when we did see an Asian American on TV, in the movies, or on the music charts.
But as Asian Americans becoming increasingly common in these areas of U.S. popular culture, are we headed for a day when it is no longer a “big deal” when we see Asian American faces in the media, just like it’s taken for granted when we see White faces or Black faces? Ultimately, yes, that is the goal — for us as a society to no longer consider it “strange” or “unusual” to see Asian Americans in the media or in other prominent positions in U.S. social institutions.
If this idea sounds familiar, you might know it by its more common name — colorblindness.
In other words, part of being colorblind is what I just described — an ideal situation in which everyone in U.S. society is considered equal and when social, political, and economic distinctions based on race or ethnicity are no longer important or carry any sort of advantage or disadvantage. So in many respects, Jeremy Lin’s success gives us hope that, as a society, we are moving a little closer to the ideals of colorblindness.
Therefore, much like the idea of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” I think we should definitely embrace and celebrate the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and other examples in which Asian Americans are recognized for their success. Their accomplishments reflect how it is not a contradiction to recognize both their racial/ethnic uniqueness and their position as an integral part of mainstream society.
At the same time, we should also keep in mind that while we are getting closer to the ultimate ideal of colorblindness, there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with that, in order to keep working toward a time when true equality exists across all racial/ethnic groups, we need to understand that racial/ethnic distinctions still exist and still matter, and that the success of one person or a few people within that racial/ethnic minority group does not yet mean that members of that group no longer experience any injustice or discrimination.
In the meantime, despite my roots as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, I will definitely be rooting for Jeremy to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the “Lin-magination” of all Americans and beyond.
It’s Halloween time again. Around this time every year, many people — particularly high school and college students — think it’s “all in good fun” to dress up as a member of some racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural minority group as a “costume” for Halloween. As some examples, they might dress up as a geisha, or a Muslim terrorist, or a Mexican border-crosser, or in blackface as a rap star. Unfortunately, in virtually all cases, these kinds of “costumes” end up reinforcing and perpetuating offensive imagery and racist stereotypes against such minority groups.
Inevitably, when members of that minority group protest and criticize them, the costume-wearers reply that it’s just a joke, that they don’t mean to offend people, or even that the costumes are meant to “celebrate” that particular personality or culture that they’re portraying. The problem of course, is that it may just be a joke to them, but to the minority group being portrayed in such a stereotypical manner, it is deeply offensive and does nothing more than promote the naive and misguided idea of colorblindness — that since we now have an African American president, that we’re all equal now and as such, it’s perfectly fine to make fun of minorities and not suffer any consequences from it.
Fortunately, many young Americans around the country are fighting back. Specifically, a student group at Ohio University named Students Teaching About Racism in Society has put together an awesome campaign to encourage everyone to think twice about Halloween costumes (thanks to AngryAsianMan for first mentioning it). Some of their posters are below.
Please help to circulate their message as widely as possible.
I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).
For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):
I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.
[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.
It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.
I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.
Lesson 1: White Privilege
Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.
In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.
But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.
But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.
That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.
Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.
Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.
In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?
Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?
Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image
Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.
In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.
This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .
Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia
At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.
The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.
When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:
For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”
Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.
My fellow sociologist blogger Jessie at Racism Review has an excellent writeup on a new study conducted by education professors Brendesha M. Tynes and Suzanne L. Markoe entitled, “The Role of Color-Blind Racial Attitudes in Reactions to Racial Discrimination on Social Network Sites.” In studying the notes written by people on popular social networking sites such as Facebook, the authors find that people who have colorblind racial attitudes were actually less likely to find racial theme party images offensive. The abstract of their study reads:
This study examines associations between responses to online racial discrimination, more specifically, racial theme party images on social network sites and color-blind racial attitudes. We showed 217 African American and European American college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace.
Reactions to racial theme party images were not bothered, not bothered-ambivalent, bothered-ambivalent, and bothered. A multinomial logistic regression revealed that participants differed in their reactions to the images based on their racial group and color-blind racial ideology. European Americans and participants high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group.
Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers. Conversely, those low in color blindness were vocal in their opposition to the images with some reporting that they would “defriend” a person who engaged in the practice.
For those who have been reading this blog for a while, these findings should come as no surprise. Nonetheless, I am grateful to Professors Tynes and Markoe for doing this study and articulating the the relationship between having colorblindness and racist attitudes. We only have to look at the recent controversies about the racial tensions at the University of California campuses and other colleges around the country (along with past incidents of blackface racism) to see real-world examples of how being colorblind really means being racially blind.
Hopefully this study will help make all of us see that as an individual-level and interpersonal perspective and ass an institutional basis for public policy, colorblindness is not only a dismal failure but in many ways, hinders our nation’s quest for true and meaningful racial/ethnic equality and justice.
As many of you have undoubtedly heard about already, there has been a series of racist incidents at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) recently. It was first sparked by a fraternity party held off-campus with a “Compton Cookout” theme in which attendees “celebrated” Black History Month by dressing up in ghetto costumes and imitating racist caricatures of Blacks. As one of their fliers put it, “For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks — Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes.”
As news of this event became publicized and as various members of the UCSD community expressed their outrage, a student-run radio station and newspaper further flamed the tensions by airing a live segment on closed-circuit television in which they expressed their support for the frat party and called the African American students protesting it “ungrateful niggers.”
There followed a series of protests and marches where participants demanded that UCSD’s administration take immediate and decisive steps to improve the campus’ racial climate. After listening to and accepting many of the protesters’ demands (although giving few details about how they will be eventually implemented), the administration organized a teach-in on racial tolerance to publicly address the issues. However, hundreds of attendees of this teach-in walked out, calling the event an inadequate response.
Most recently, a noose was found at the university library. A student of color subsequently admitted to playing with some rope, fashioning the noose and “inadvertently” leaving it at the library. Her apology reads in part: “As a minority student who sympathizes with the students that have been affected by the recent issues on campus, I am distraught to know that I have unintentionally added to their pain.”
The students note that only 1.3% of UCSD’s student population are African American (believed to be the lowest of all the University of California campuses) and that as illustrated by these recent events, there is a climate of ignorance and hostility in which African American students do not feel welcomed or even safe around campus and where their history and culture are routinely ignored, marginalized, or ridiculed.
Unfortunately, these kinds of racial incidents are not new nor isolated incidents (thanks, Lisa and Gwen at Sociological Images). Not only have I written about other similar incidents but as just the latest example of this kind of climate of ignorance and intolerance directed against students of color on college campuses, some cotton balls were recently found scattered in front of the Black Cultural Center at Missouri University. For many, the cotton balls symbolizes the racist legacy of slavery and racial subordination of African Americans. Along the same lines and as a second latest example, an Arizona congressman recently asserted that African Americans were better off under slavery than today.
Beyond feeling profoundly sad and depressed about the state of race relations in this country, what should we make of these incidents?
My colleagues at Racism Review quote activist Tim Wise in analyzing in depth the sociological meanings and implications of these kinds of incidents. I would only add and emphasize that for me, these incidents serve to highlight the utter failure of colorblindness and the tragic belief that if we just don’t acknowledge or talk about race and racial differences in American society that racism will just magically go away.
I’ve written about this on numerous occasions but for those who want to hear from someone else, Wired magazine’s blog cites a recent study that further describes the fallacies of trying to be colorblind:
What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that.
If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good. And what are they learning? Here are a few depressing facts: Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.) The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships. 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.
That is, simply exposing a White child to racial diversity is not enough. Merely expressing generalized respect for racial diversity is not enough. This is because in keeping matters on a general level, racial differences and history get “watered down” and children do not understand why, despite the fact that we’re all supposed to be equal, Blacks and other people of color occupy different statuses and are portrayed in stereotypical ways in the media, which they inevitably are exposed to.
In other words, without a detailed and specific understanding of racial discrimination, children then just assume that it’s because individual Blacks and persons of color are entirely responsible for their subordinate status and have “earned” the scorn, prejudice, and hostility directed at them, not to mention being blind to the subtle privileges they enjoy as being part of the White majority. Ultimately, the assumption becomes, “Since American society is supposed to be equal, why aren’t you successful? What are you doing wrong?”
If we as a society are going to make any headway in alleviating this climate of racial ignorance and intolerance, the first place to start is to simply acknowledge race as a fundamental social distinction in American society. Only from this specific understanding of how racism works can we then begin addressing the consequences of racism.
Update: MSNBC reports that last night, a KKK-style hood was found on a statue outside the main UCSD library:
A university statement said the hood was found about 11 p.m. Monday. The object appeared to be a white pillowcase that had been crudely fashioned into a hood with a hand-drawn symbol. A rose had also been inserted into the statue’s fingers. The university said an aggressive investigation was under way, including fingerprint and DNA analysis, and vowed to punish the culprits to the fullest extent of the law.
Today we celebrate Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and legacy as a national holiday. I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on one part of Dr. King’s dream and how far we have come toward accomplishing it.
Specifically, I refer to Dr. King’s wish that one day soon, we would live in a society in which, as he eloquently put it, people “would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” a vision that we commonly refer to as a “colorblind” society. This ideal has remained an ultimate goal for many in American society, from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But are we there yet? How close are we to achieving that dream?
Many Americans thought that Barack Obama’s election was the culmination of Dr. King’s dream and concrete proof that we have evolved into a “post-racial,” colorblind society. Unfortunately, as I and many other sociologists and commentators have argued, even in this past year, we have seen numerous incidents that illustrate just how prevalent racial distinctions and racism still are in American society.
As another example, just recently, there was the uproar over Senator Harry Reid’s comments from the presidential campaign that Barack Obama had a good chance of being elected because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Many conservatives charged that Senator Reid’s comments were racist and that similarly due to the racist comments uttered by former Senator Trent Lott, Reid should resign. Others pointed out that conservatives were being hypocritical in pointing out this particular example of “racism” while basically ignoring other examples of racism directed toward Barack Obama over the past few years.
Similarly, others like Professor Joe Feagin point out that Harry Reid was just verbalizing an implicit reality that still operates within American society — the “backstage” racism that still exists among many White Americans who are reluctant or unwilling to vote for an African American candidate (or even any candidate of color) unless that candidate looks and acts as “White” as possible.
The point of these examples is to illustrate that in contrast to what many Americans had hoped, unfortunately we are not yet close to living in a colorblind society. While Dr. King’s dream remains the ideal, the realities of the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape are quite different.
With this in mind, I would also argue that allies and supporters of anti-racism and racial equality should accept this reality, that race is still a significant marker of differentiation in our county, rather than naively proceeding with the assumption that being colorblind is the best approach within this context.
In other words, many Whites (and other Americans of different racial/ethnic identities) try to fight back against racism by trying to be colorblind in their daily lives. They try to treat everybody they meet, interact with, or hear about, solely as an individual rather than as a member of a racial group. They genuinely believe that ignoring race is the best way to move forward toward a colorblind society. Even worse, many Americans who otherwise consider themselves “progressive” criticize people of color for “obsessing” over race and that we somehow create our own oppression by recognizing race.
While trying to be colorblind is indeed a noble and well-intended idea on the individual, interpersonal level, the problem is that the idea of colorblindness is not reinforced on the institutional level and therefore, it is just not practical given how American society continues to be racialized, as I described above, and how racism continues to largely operate independently of individual motivations. In other words, ignoring the problem will not make it go away, nor will it solve anything.
As many educators point out, if anything, trying to be colorblind only makes racism worse because people then mistakenly and naively believe that all forms of racial inequality and discrimination have been eliminated, that everybody is now on an equal playing field with equal access to all social opportunities, and that American society is a true meritocracy.
More generally, the fundamental problem is not racial differences themselves. Instead, the root of racism is that certain racial markers or characteristics have been assigned institutional value judgments of “good” versus “bad,” “normal” versus “abnormal,” and “human” versus “sub-human.” This process has led to certain racial groups being privileged and systematically advantaged over others. Or in the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Ultimately, the best way for us to work toward achieving the ultimate colorblind ideal is to recognize, accept, and understand that racial distinctions still matter and that they are still the basis for continuing discrimination and inequality in American society today. Only by doing so will we move forward on achieving Dr. King’s final ideal — true racial equality.
As MSNBC reports, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has completed its report on the incident and has found that despite its denials, the club is guilty of racial discrimination in its actions:
The club has maintained that there were too many children for the number of lifeguards on duty and that many of the children who were at the club couldn’t swim. . . .
[Email] messages quoted in the report include one from club board member George Whitehill to the rest of the board that said in part, “Race is an issue since every email of complaint mentioned race.” . . . The state report also noted that other large groups that came to the swim club did not generate the same reaction.
For example, a plumbing company has held an annual party at the club that draws about 100 to 125 people each year, about five to 10 of them black, the report said. It found that far more children were in the pool for those parties, yet no club members threatened to quit and guests did not report “inappropriate or rude comments” from club members.
Club lawyer Joe Tucker said Tuesday night that the decision “has nothing to do with the actual facts” and would be appealed. “The die was cast by the media firestorm. They had no choice but to reach the decision they did,” Tucker said.
Apparently almost everybody except the club itself can see that it was painfully obvious that race was a significant, and probably only factor in how the children of color were treated.
The saddest part is that, in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, the club continues to deny that race played any part and instead, chooses to blame the entire incident on the media. This is just another unfortunate example of colorblindness to the extreme and racial ignorance.
Or, as many would probably sum it up, it’s racism, plain and simple.
By now, I’m sure you’ve heard about the incident in which Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates alleges that he was racially profiled by the Cambridge Police Department after he tried to open the front door of his house that was stuck only to have a neighbor mistakenly think he was a burglar trying to break into the house and call the police, who subsequently arrested him after a confrontation at his house. The following CBS News video summarizes the incident:
For those who are regular readers of this site and blog, it will not surprise you to hear that I am squarely behind Professor Gates on this one for many reasons — being an academic as well, being a person of color, and being a sociologist who studies racial dynamics in this country.
As Professor Gates and his supporters argue, this entire incident is a stark example of the persistence of racial profiling in American society, where many Whites are quick to assume that any Black man in a well-to-do neighborhood is suspicious, where police are much less likely to believe a Black man’s word than a White man’s, and where police are much more likely to arrest a Black man while letting a White man go for the same behavior.
I don’t want to go into a long and detailed analysis about this particular incident nor the legal issue of racial profiling specifically. Some of the better commentaries that I’ve read about the Gates incident can be found at Racism Review, All About Race, and the New York Times.
Certainly, this is not the first incident of racial profiling in American history. Neither is it the first incident in which an African American professor was arrested trying to do a seemingly routine and mundane task in public. I refer to a 2005 incident involving Antwi Akom, an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at San Francisco State University and personal friend of mine, who was stopped from entering his office and subsequently arrested by campus police while his two young daughters were sleeping in his car.
Sadly, these two incidents illustrate many unfortunate points about the state of race relations in American society today. The first is that even Blacks such as Professors Gates and Akom with high-status occupations or professional characteristics are not immune from racism and racial profiling. In fact, incidents like this remind me of a “joke” that an African American mentor told me years ago (please excuse the language, I’m just repeating it as it was told to me): “What does White America call a Black man with a Ph.D.? A nigger.”
More generally, these kinds of incidents remind us that, contrary to what many and perhaps most Whites think, race is still a deeply-entrenched issue in American society, just waiting to boil over. As evidence, a second CBS News video summarizes how this incident has touched off a national debate about race relations and racial profiling:
What strikes me the most about not just this particular incident involving Professor Gates, but the reaction of Americans from different racial backgrounds around the country is this: I find it ironic that in general, many (as in a large number but certainly not all) Whites feel unaccustomed and therefore uncomfortable talking about racial issues (this recent article published by the American Psychological Association summarizes this tendency among Whites to avoid talking about race very well). Instead, consciously or unconsciously, they try to be “colorblind” and act like they don’t notice racial differences around them.
In theory, that’s a great idea but in practice and within the realities of American society, it is just not practical and ultimately, naive. The result of this dynamic is that when incidents like this (or when a group of Black and Latino children are turned away by a predominantly White swimming club, or when I notice that virtually all of the people who volunteered to stay and clean up after a Buddhist retreat are people of color) become publicized, many Whites are surprised and taken aback when the “R-word” (racism) is used.
In fact, many Whites become quite defensive when the R-word (or the idea of White privilege) comes up, as though they are being personally accused of acting in a racist way against a person of color, or that they are being told that they are personally more privileged than every single other person of color in the country.
But here’s the problem: what many Whites don’t realize is that one of the reasons why people of color invoke racism as the cause of such incidents is that on a collective and institutional level, we as a society have yet to honestly and fully reconcile our racial history and how it continues to form the basis for the conflicts such as this.
In other words, the fact that many Whites don’t want to or can’t talk about racism (as well-meaning and well-intentioned as they are) is part of the reason why racism still exists. In fact, this inability or unwillingness to discuss racism is a big reason why many Whites get defensive when the topic of racial discrimination or White privilege comes up — they are not able to depersonalize the issue, place it outside of their own personal experiences, and examine it from it from an institutional point of view.
Ultimately, this is also why relationships, opinions, experiences, and conversations between Whites and non-Whites on the individual and institutional levels remain emotionally fraught beneath the superficial veneer of colorblindness and in fact, will continue to boil over for the foreseeable future.
Yes, denial that race is a problem is part of the problem. And the more most Americans deny it, the more it festers and the more it erodes our sense of national identity and unity. The fact that this incident has become a national controversy should be plenty of proof that race is still a unresolved issue in this country. For those who think that I’m being “extremist,” or even “racist,” then take a look at the following NBC News video from this past weekend that basically says the exact same thing:
In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Australian government has issued an official apology to their native aborigine population over the historical and systematic practice of forcibly separating aborigine children from their parents and subsequently trying to raise and socialize them as Whites.
That post also included a news story describing Senator Sam Brownback’s (R-Neb) introduction of legislation that would officially apologize to the Native American Indian population over our country’s systematic discrimination of them over the decades and centuries.
The resolution, passed by voice vote, was the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district. Cohen faces a formidable black challenger in a primary face-off next week.
Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.
Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages. The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”
It says that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.
My first reaction is — to echo Jay Leno’s comments in his monologue yesterday — wow, it’s not a moment too soon! What’s it been — a 150 years now? It’s a good thing they did this right away, so that there wouldn’t be any lingering problems or bad feelings, right?
More seriously, as I wrote in that earlier post, I commend the House for taking this courageous, albeit largely symbolic step. As I and many other human beings can attest to, one of the hardest things to do in any kind of relationship is to apologize.
In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the severity of the wrong committed and the likelihood that the perpetrator will apologize for it. With that in mind, Rep. Cohen and all those who voted in favor of the resolution have earned my gratitude.
I will also point out that this apology actually seem to go against the larger trend in American society in which many Americans (particular White Americans) increasingly see the U.S. as a “colorblind” society in which racial minorities are perceived to be equal to Whites in terms of their socioeconomic opportunities. This mindset is reflected in recent opinion surveys which seem to show a lingering divide between Whites and Blacks over various social issues and perceptions about American society.
As I’ve written before about this colorblind trend, in theory, the motivation to be colorblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality.
It is worth noting that as quoted from the MSNBC article above, the apology resolution explicitly acknowledges this ongoing inequality. In other words, it seems that at least in this case, Congress actually seems to know more than what many Americans would probably give them credit for.
With that in mind, my hope that our government can once again lead the way in facilitating a more racially equal society has been rekindled — for now.