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The Color Blind Society: Whiteness as the Default Standard

In California, Proposition 54 forbids the government from classifying people on the basis of race, ethnicity, color or national origin in public employment, contracting, education and numerous other situations. Under the guise of moving our nation to a colorblind society that facilitates antidiscrimination, recent polls suggest that a majority of voters in California support the initiative. The proposition is the brainchild of Wa

rd Connerly, an African American regent at the University of California who also led the fight to ban affirmative action in California. The fact that I have identified Mr. Connerly as a Black man violates the philosophy of his initiative.

This is a truly dangerous and frightening proposition because it will prove to have precisely the opposite effect; perpetuate and create greater disparities in our society. It will undermine accountability for civil rights violations (hate crimes, discrimination in the workplace and biased racial profiling), health care disparities, racial/ethnic disease patterns important for medical treatments, educational inequities, etc.

As a psychologist, I continue to be mystified by how difficult it is for many to see the falsehoods of the color-blind society. In 1997, for example, I participated in a Congressional briefing and testified before President Clinton's Race Advisory Board about the myth of the color-blind society and its detrimental consequences to racial minorities. The result was an outcry from some who watched the C-Span program accusing me of being a racist of a different color and of supporting "preferential treatment" for minorities. From disparaging comments to actual threats on my life, I left that experience knowing that I had pushed powerful buttons in the psyche of many White Americans. Why, I asked myself, did people react so strongly to my research? Could it be that I had touched a raw nerve that threatened their illusions of equal access and opportunity?

When originally formulated, the concept of a color-blind society was seen as the answer to discrimination and prejudice: Dr. Martin Luther King, for example, advocated judging people not by the color of their skin, but by their internal character. Proponents of this concept, unfortunately, have failed to understand a basic assumption made by Dr. King; such an approach has meaning only if we operate on a level playing field where equal access and opportunity exists for all groups. This condition does not currently exist in our society! How else would you account for the following statistics? While White Euro-American males constitute only 33 percent of the population, they occupy approximately

  • 80 percent of tenured positions in higher education
  • 80 percent of the House of Representatives
  • 84 percent of the U. S. Senate
  • 92 percent of the Forbes 400 executive CEO-level positions
  • 99.9 percent of athletic team owners
  • 100 percent of U.S. Presidents

What is glaring about this picture can be pinpointed by asking several simple questions: Where are the persons of color? Where are the women? Do these facts indicate we have a level playing field? Would these statistics even exist to gauge civil rights progress if we implement proposition 54?

I have come to realize that color blindness uses "whiteness" as the default key and mimics the norms of fairness, justice, and equity by "whiting" out differences and perpetuating the belief in sameness and equality. The denial of power imbalance, unearned privilege, and racial discrimination is couched in the rhetoric of equal treatment and equal opportunity. The pretense of not seeing color is motivated by self deception. To be colorblind not only denies the central importance of racial differences in the psychological experience of minorities (racism and discrimination), but also allows the White person to deny how his or her whiteness intrudes upon the person of color.

White teachers, for example, frequently admonish their African American students to "leave your cultural baggage at home and don't bring it into the classroom". They have little awareness that they bring their whiteness into the classroom and operate from a predominantly white ethnocentric perspective. I wonder how they would react if I was to say "Why don't you leave your white cultural baggage at home when teaching?"

In preparation for a documentary on "The Invisibility of Whiteness", I asked White strangers in the middle of downtown San Francisco the following question. "What does it mean to be white?" Many respondents were baffled by the question, said they did not understand, or that they had never thought about it. Others became angry and defensive, thought I was accusing them of being racist or bigoted, and found the question insulting. Still others denied being white by saying "I'm not white; I'm Irish, Italian, German, etc." When probed further for the source of their discomfort, they frequently made statements like "people are people", "we are all the same under the skin" or "we are all Americans". There was a clear desire to eliminate or dilute race differences.

I have come to understand the hidden meaning associated with the deception of whiteness as a universal identity. The invisible veil of whiteness inundates the definitions of a "human being", being "just a person", and being an "American". The underlying message from our society is that a human being is White!

Being a colorblind society will only harm our society. Until we have a level playing field, being a color-conscious society, oddly enough, will work toward correcting current and future inequities in our nation.

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