Sunday, March 14, 2010

Seeing Race

I titled this blog "Seeing Race" because of the number one comment I hear from my students: "I don't even see race!"

People, I cannot tell you how much hearing this pisses me off.

First of all, it is complete bullshit. Sure, when you have a close friend you don't think of them in terms of their race. You think of their sense of humor, of the good times you had together, of the way you can sit in a coffee shop and talk with them for hours, of that book of theirs you've had for six years and should probably return, of that time you got drunk with them in college... etc. At some point their race isn't the first thing you notice but you definitely know what their race is.

And when you meet someone for the first time, you quickly perform three observations: 1) gender, 2) race, 3) age. Is this person a man or a woman? What race do I think that they are? And are they about my age? Following that are all the other things you notice.

But race is for sure in the top three. And to claim otherwise is just so ridiculous. Not only is someone's race generally pretty obvious, our society places a high importance on race. The most important calculation (white or not white?) is possible 95% of the time (although personal definitions of "white" may vary).

When we can't tell what race someone is (if they are mixed-race, from an unfamiliar part of the world, or whatever), we file that away. Eventually, if we become friends with this person, we'll probably ask about any mixed signals we can't clear up ourselves. I think it took me about a month to ask one friend, who I believed was Indian, what was up with her Hispanic-sounding last name. And then I got to learn about Portuguese settlers in India. See, I get to learn something and everyone wins!

I would surmise that some people probably become a little anxious if they are unable to determine the race of a new acquaintance, just as some may become quite anxious if they are unable to determine gender. This distress may be entirely subconscious, but I bet it's there.

When my students tell me that they don't "see race", I'm tempted to respond, "and how long have you been blind?"*

It's silly to pretend that we don't notice race, so why do my students spend so much energy lying to me, their classmates, and themselves?

We are all the same. Race doesn't matter. Treat everyone equally.

We have spent so much time shoving these platitudes down each others' throats that we have been reduced to claiming that we don't even see black skin, epicanthic folds, blue eyes, or any of the other racial indicators. So we insist on showing everyone that we have taken these values to heart in such a degree that we boast about our cluelessness.

In contrast to the peasants in the children's story The Emperor's New Clothes, insisting they could see what wasn't there, we shout over each other in desperate competition to be the most ignorant about what is the most obvious.

And if we don't even "see race", how can we talk about it? How can we celebrate our different cultures? How can we explore the race related problems that continue to taint our society? We can't. Because we are just so awesome, so above the problem, that we claim to not even notice it.

When my students say that they don't "see race", they are really telling me that they don't see the continued prejudice and discrimination suffered by minority groups.

*I've always wondered if blind individuals identify race when meeting a new person. Do they rely on cues like accent? Do they ask other sighted people? What are the other non-visual clues that I, as a sighted person, am completely unaware of?


  1. One of the most racist and sexist people I've ever known has "COLORBLIND" tattooed on his chest. I'm also told constantly when I call out sexism (I work in an extremely male-dominated field) that I'm "too gender-centric," "reverse sexist," and that the dudes in question are "gender-blind." Oooooh, I see, if the privileged class ignores discussions of race and sex, institutionalized oppression will magically disappear*. I've never before seen that in history, but any day now, silencing dissent is sure to work. Right.

    *Plus white dudes will come out feeling morally superior for being so post-racist and post-sexist and progressive! Never mind their inherent and tangible privileges -- hey, THEY can't see it!

  2. I'm not sure it's race only but looks in an ethnical sense. I see a white blonde guy dressed in Muslim clerical robes (or what I think are such thing) and I think: "another of those Catholic... erm Muslims fanatics" (I have a very strong anti-religious feeling and whatever religious iconography, particularly Yahvistic ones, makes me feel angry - not just Muslim ones: Jewish or Christian and even Hindu strike me as pure nonsensical craze), and then I see a black guy in jeans and t-shirt (who may perfectly be Senegalese and as Muslim as the other) and, well, he does look exotic by his skin-color but integrated... so he's less alien.

    Same for language: you hear them speak Arabic and it's like totally alien, while if they speak Spanish (even if with heavy accent and as mere lingua franca among them) it sounds "normal". Oddly enough listening to Chinese conversation does not sound so alien to me, even if I understand as little Chinese as Arabic. Maybe because it's more "musical"? Maybe because we have a cultural background of seeing East Asian civilizations as similar to ours? Can't say.

    Neither Arabs nor Chinese are normally too accessible, people from Black Africa instead typically are more friendly, more open...

    By now you would have guessed I write from a European context, one where the only clear minority used to be (a couple of decades ago) Gypsies (Roma or whatever).

    I hope not have offended anyone but really I see cultural items such as language, religion, clothes and music more meaningful than mere race, which is often too ambiguous to tell (what race is Obama, for instance? They say he's "black" but he's in fact 50-50 and was raised in a white anglosaxon family).

    En fin, my two cents.

  3. "what race is Obama, for instance? They say he's "black" but he's in fact 50-50 and was raised in a white anglosaxon family"

    Obama is black. He's black because race is a social concept and people look at him and label him black. His entire life people have categorized him as black. He self-identifies as black. Obama has faced racism as a black man.

    Lady Instructor states: when you meet someone for the first time, you quickly perform three observations: 1) gender, 2) race, 3) age.

    People don't look at a medium-toned black man and think he's half-white and try to assess if he grew up in a white anglosaxon family. Especially if that man is with a dark-skinned woman and two dark-skinned little girls.

    DNA testing shows that most people are not 100% one race anyway. Especially black Americans who were decended from slaves (because slave owners would rape their female slaves).