'I don't see color'

Published:May 28, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

Several days ago I patched together a few thoughts on race-mixing. The writer Steven Augustine has since commented on the piece (on another blog where the essay was also posted), arguing that race is in need of a “re-think,” that the term “race” itself is racist, and, finally, that my sister considering herself to be “black” is the product of “proto-Nazi nonsense . . . It’s Eugenics, pure and simple.”

Whew. (Take the time to read the rest here.)

A reader of both blogs responded to Augustine’s comments via e-mail:

The argument that “race does not exist as a natural category” makes me SO MAD in part, because it was at the cent of the anthropology curriculum at my college, and made me feel SO stuck (if “culture doesn’t exist, then what the hell are we studying?!) and finally pushed me over the edge. Steve: NOT HELPFUL. But thank you for your comments.

I have a couple thoughts. In Making Whiteness (1998), University of Virginia history professor Grace Hale writes that “identities are slippery, ambiguous, and individual things.” So any discussion of race (or “race,” if you prefer) is necessarily going to be charged because we’re talking about how we identify ourselves. When my sister describes herself and her husband as “the only two black people in a church full of whites,” it hardly matters whether the latest biology asserts that race doesn’t exist. It does for her!

However, Augustine is correct to point out that this identity is on one level arbitrary—all things being equal, she could just as easily identify herself as white. He is also correct to suggest that this identity has, in a way, been forced upon her by history. After all, all things are not equal. In the United States of America, people with dark skin are not and never have been considered white.

Nor, let’s face it, have they necessarily wanted to be.

Central to Hale’s argument is that “racial making,” as she puts it, goes both ways. The idea of whiteness began as a denial of racial identity, but in the years between Reconstruction and the Second World War, an entire infrastructure of white identity was built. And its foundation, of course, was segregation. If whiteness started out as the denial of race, it ended as the denial of blackness.

It’s sad. It’s unfair. But it’s the world we live in, and at Encyclopedia Virginia we welcome the discussion. In the meantime, playing color blind—or arguing that race doesn’t exist—won’t get us very far. Wouldn’t we all like to be like Stephen Colbert, who famously said, “Now, I don’t see color. People tell me I’m white and I believe them because police officers call me sir”?

Yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, highlights a report on transracial foster care and adoption. Multiracial families don’t produce psychological or social problems in kids, according to the report, but “these children often face major challenges as the only person of color in an all-white environment, trying to cope with being different.”

“The idea of being color-blind is great, and we’d all like to get there,” Adam Pertman, executive director of the Adoption Institute, told the Times. “But the reality is that we live in a very race-conscious society, and that needs to be addressed. We can’t simply pretend that the problem doesn’t exist and leave it up to the child to cope.”

Hear, hear. (Although this strikes me as not necessary at all.) Oh, and as for the issue of eugenics—Virginia has a fascinating role to play in that history. More soon . . .