Colorblindness pulls blinds over racism

Staccato beats puncture the silence. Three black youths bounce their heads and slap their thighs to the addictive rhythm of rap. The bus is packed with the regulars – droopy-eyed college students, tired working folk and placid-looking retirees. Abruptly, a middle-aged white woman stands up and says, “Please stop rapping. As an American, I will not tolerate this disrespectful form of music. Do not think you are intimidating me.”

This is not a scene from a sixties documentary film on racial discrimination in the South. Rather, this is an incident I witnessed on the Metro Transit route 16 bus on a Wednesday afternoon as it turned the corner at University Avenue Southeast. For twenty minutes, this confrontation continued to broil and turn ugly. Yet, no passenger dared to intervene in what was clearly a racial conflict. To a new generation of liberal-minded college students growing up in the post-civil rights era, this might seem like an isolated case of ignorance and old-school thought. However, it highlights all the holes in a “colorblind” United States and begs for race to be discussed openly, genuinely and without fear of political incorrectness.

In the 60s, Norman Rockwell sketched the famous painting of a black girl being targeted by a slew of tomatoes while walking to school after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education victory. Forty years later, every educational institution has terms such as “diversity,” “multicultural” and “minority” implanted into its codes along with a slew of programs directed at minority students. This rhetorical change is reflected in the nation’s laws, which often emphasize equal treatment of all U.S. citizens. In fact, the mere mention of race is often considered racist itself.

In only a few decades, the United States has transformed itself from a race-obsessed society to a colorblind-obsessed society. But are these two terms necessarily polar opposites? Isn’t the latter a facade covering up the underlying racial tensions that continue to plague our daily lives? I’ve spoken to many white students who shy away from expressing their opinions on affirmative action, rap and gang violence because they feel their color disqualifies them from talking about “minority” issues. At the same time, loaded words such as “white privilege” and “white supremacy” provoke guilt and anger. Many students may ask silently, “Why are you holding me accountable for my ancestors’ actions? After all, lynching is not a sport anymore, schools promote diversity, Condoleezza Rice is the national security adviser and rap is idolized by white youths. How can you tell me I am privileged because I am white? Why do we have to emphasize my skin color?”

Indeed, anthropologists have long shown that “race” is a false construct since there is no clear demarcation line in the genes of a white or black person. Although people of the same race tend to look alike, this is due to past adaptations to different geographical environments. Because race isn’t a valid scientific term, it would only make sense to promote equality rather than focusing on who is black and who is white.

However, in an era when racism doesn’t usually manifest itself in burning crosses but in the inexplicable loss of a job, hiked-up rent, biased media coverage and unjustifiable traffic tickets, only the targeted minority population might feel its psychological impact. Colorblindness is not a personal choice for minorities.

In reference to the 1978 Supreme Court case University of California Regents vs. Bakke, Justice Harry Blackmun said, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way.” In other words, we cannot afford to be colorblind because the realities of differential treatment force us to recognize superficial differences of the skin.

Diana Fu’s column usually appears alternate Wednesdays. She welcomes comments at [email protected]