That's Not What Colorblindness Means
Unless you are physically incapable of identifying different shades of red, blue, or green, you are not colorblind; you are upholding white supremacy by refusing to interrogate the existence of race.
Have you seen the movie “Little Miss Sunshine?”
I love that damn movie. It’s embedded in my family’s culture; my mother includes it in her ESL syllabus, we quote it at each other over holiday dinners, etc. etc. It offers repeated strokes of genius commentary on mental illness, family dynamics, adolescence, and the futility of capitalism. It also offers many an example of how Hollywood has long been, and continues to be, white-centric and excellent at erasure. But for our purposes here, I’m asking if you’ve seen “Little Miss Sunshine” because of the moment when Dwayne realizes he can never become a pilot.
“Little Miss Sunshine” follows the Hoover family as it embarks on a road trip in an ancient yellow VW bus. There’s drug-addicted-grandpa, mom-who-smokes-a-lot-and-is-trying-very-hard, dad-in-khaki-shorts-who-is-dying-of-toxic-masculinity, queer-and-recently-released-from-institutionalization-uncle, teen-son-who-is-from-mom’s-first-marriage-and-has-taken-a-vow-of-silence, and young-daughter-who-is-beauty-pageant-bound. The conceit is getting the daughter, Olive, to a pageant performance (The Little Miss Sunshine Pageant, in fact.
Teenage son Dwayne maintains his vow of silence for the first part of the trip; he has sworn to not speak until he successfully becomes a pilot. Halfway to their destination, however, the family realizes that Dwayne will never be able to realize this dream. On a freeway somewhere in the American southwest, Olive is bored, and administering various sight tests to her big brother. At one point, Dwayne fails to identify the letter “A,” patterned red and green, in a graphic that she shows him. Their uncle, Steve, realizes what is happening, and what the larger implications are. Dwayne sees Steve’s unhappy face, and signals silently at him to fess up: what’s wrong? What is he not seeing on his sister’s cards? “You’re color-blind, Dwayne,” Uncle Steve says, miserably. “You can’t fly planes.” Heartbroken, Dwayne begins to pound on the van door, and doesn’t stop until his stepfather jerks the vehicle over to the shoulder and Dwayne can leap outside. He runs out into the desert, screaming. His first word in months is a shipwreck of a sound: “FUUUUUUUUUCK.”
Colorblindness is a condition that limits how well a person can perceive certain colors. In Dwayne Hoover’s case, he cannot tell the difference between red and green at all, but the severity of the condition can run the gamut. The commonality across cases is the set of colors in question: blue, red, and green. Anyone with this diagnosis will struggle with “seeing” at least one of these colors in the same way that the mainstream does. This can limit certain activities; pilots, for example, cannot be colorblind for safety reasons. Some folks have to memorize the order of stoplight colors, in order to know when to accelerate or when to stop because the colors themselves don’t differentiate. Certain cases of colorblindness will render people unable to identify more than five or six colors of crayon in a box of twenty-four; the world just lacks the full range of hues that others take for granted. Here is what any case of colorblindness will not do: render someone unaware of race.
What is it, really, to be racially colorblind? I went to Michigan State University, home of the green and white (and a variety of unbelievable criminal acts against people of color and women) for undergrad, and I remember once hearing that a white, male alumni of the teaching program claimed he didn’t see his students as Black or white, but all Spartan green. If this sounds ludicrous to you, that’s because it is: colorblindness prevents perception of the color green, not the other way around. But it’s also ludicrous because no human being can observe another human being, register their appearance, and then mentally alter that appearance. Even people with Prosopagnosia can’t do that; a friend of mine who actually has this face-forgetting disorder identifies me every time we meet in public settings by “looking for a white girl with brown hair and loud sneakers or earrings.”
People categorize each other; as race scholars Omi and Winant point out, this is how we make sense of the world. It is what we do with those categories that is another matter entirely. The act of examining the actions that we take, and have taken, on the grounds of these categories is a necessary component of dismantling race and racism. But people who claim colorblindness skip over this self-reflection and go straight to “I am post-racial, collect $200.” The systems in place, and the categories and histories that uphold them, go uninterrogated, and nothing actually changes.
In the 1960s, the U.S., as a body politic, jumped straight from decades of Reconstruction and Civil Rights-era segregation and legal Black oppression to a national rhetoric of colorblindness. The concept of race was eliminated altogether, rendering its inclusion in many conversations, in fact illegal or “offensive.” From the 1960s to the 1990s in South Africa, Nelson Mandela and his colleagues had to build an anti-apartheid agenda that was undergirded by colorblindness in order to actually get any white South Africans on board. This course of action promised a focus on “not being apartheid anymore” instead of “why do whites weaponize their whiteness in order to oppress of Blacks in South Africa, and how do we keep this from happening again?”
Examining a history of racism is hard for the oppressor, because it means they— we— must hold ourselves accountable. It is uncomfortable. We do not want to be uncomfortable. We do not want to examine what our ancestors did, what systems in the world benefit us instead of the oppressed, what we do in our everyday lives that reinforces oppression, and what we must change in order to bring about actual social restructuring. We much prefer the ease of what colorblindness offers us: claim that you do not see race, and thus demonstrate that you are not racist. Done and dusted.
Except not done, not dusted. Because the whole rotten, mold-infested foundation of the system has not been addressed by colorblindness; paint has just been applied in order to obscure the damage.
Colorblindness is miraculous, honestly. It’s a perfect example of what white supremacy is best at: slapping a new coat of lead paint over the the sagging wall, the buckling ceiling, and then, a couple years later, covering that over with a new, different coat of lead paint when the tenants start to get sick from the heavy metal exposure, insisting that they must be inventing their symptoms. White supremacy is the rotten house, the lead in the paint, and the landlord’s gaslighting of the tenants as they get more and more sick. Colorblindness is merely one coat of poisonous paint. There are others: the myth of meritocracy, the bootstraps narrative, the promise of a college education as a ticket to a better life. The mainstream insistence that Black men are inherently intimidating, and that if they’d just “behave differently” they wouldn’t be targeted by cops. Neither white people nor non-white people can actually alter their identities. The only change that is actually possible is a reflexive, intersectional one that calls for societal overhaul. But doesn’t that sound a lot harder than just saying that you treat everyone equally because you don’t notice skin color?
We like colorblindness, we white people. It offers a path that minimizes discomfort and maximizes virtuousness. It ensures that that line is perpetually getting moved, preventing non-white people from acessing the same power and privilege that we have while letting us claim that we aren’t part of the problem, because we don’t “see” race. It’s comforting. It’s easy. And it is dangerous. It is so fucking dangerous. Because here’s the thing: the lead paint in this rotten house is killing us, too. It’s killing everyone.
As a white writer, I have focused this piece on the relationship between white people and colorblindness. But it is important to note the role that people of color play in upholding this practice. For centuries, working towards whiteness has been the only feasible way of gaining power and privilege in Western contexts. Embracing rhetorics of white supremacy has thus long been a means by which people of color can signal their solidarity with whiteness, and hopefully improve their odds of success in the white world. But what this does, instead, is increasingly alienate non-whiteness as something to be marginalized and disenfranchised, widening the gap between the oppressed and the oppressor. Colorblindness prevents any meaningful change from happening on either side of the divide, and thus from actually improving the world that we all live in and making it safe for our descendants. If we do not examine race, we do not examine the history of imperial history. We do not examine the root causes of racial inequity, hegemony and power structures between colonizers and the colonized, the categorizations of countries as first-, second-, and third-world, and the proportionate qualities of life (or lack thereof) relegated to each. We do not look at how access to technology, mechanical efficiency, environmental pollution, and unregulated industry tie back to imperial oppression and global power distribution. We do not see what groups have suffered greater rates of infection of, and death from, COVID-19 and trace how white conduct in the last several centuries has resulted in the deaths of millions of people who are not white.
To be clear: non-white people are suffering from the metaphorical lead paint much more than white people are. But eventually, the hens come home to roost; we all will be displaced and compromised by climate change, by increased policing, by the metastasizing of the issues that are, at present, disproportionately impacting groups that have been marginalized by whiteness. At least, we all will be if we continue clinging to practices like colorblindness.
When Dwayne Hoover realizes that he will never be able to be a pilot, his life as he knows it is over. But with the support of his family, he begins to imagine what a different future might look like. He has to start over, yes. But that is infinitely better than him wasting his life trying to fight an unfixable health condition that affects his sight. Or doubling down on what he wants (to be pilot), even if he cannot legally do it. This is the point. Don’t say the house isn’t collapsing, don’t tell your tenants that they’re inventing their symptoms of lead poisoning. Don’t say that what is true is not true. The house has to get torn down, then all of us have to rebuild it. Not as tenants and landlords. As something else; something new.
Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. (2014). Racial Formation in the United States, Taylor & Francis Group. (Pp. 105-137).