The other day on one of my favorite Sirius talk radio shows, a White pro-Obama caller commented on how Obama’s “color doesn’t matter.” You know, the “I don’t see color” kind of color-doesn’t-matter (CDM). The host, Mark Thompson (of “Make It Plain”), had to just let it go for the sake of diverging into a topic that deserved its own show. Of course, he asked the caller to explain what he meant and why CDM but the point Thompson was trying to make was loss on him.
The CDM idea was, apparently, something the caller hadn’t really thought about. Obviously he felt CDM was/is a good concept and in his life’s practice it may well be. But what does it really say?
I explained the problem with this concept once on Stuff White People Do in a thread that looked at a popular expression where the CDM concept comes into play. The thread reflected on the times when someone White says of African-American(s), “I don’t think of them as Black.”
Now maybe you can see the problem.
As I noted on SWPD at the time, the CDM idea, by definition, says that there is something wrong with being Black or any “color” except for White, it seems. Just like the picture on the cover of the children’s book above, Whites are at the center; viewed as the norm. That’s pretty clear to see. And when there are other CDM expressions like, “I’m a Man Who Happens To Be Black,” it’s clear how the idea of being “Black” is viewed as a negative, so much so that other aspects of a person’s being are used to subjugate it – to make it seem like being “Black” is an accident or something that’s wrong to emphasize and, worse, wrong to recognize.
Such is the history.
Indeed, the very historical moment that seems to have inspired White Americans (and others) to adopt the CDM attitude was one where Whites and Blacks, alike, had to deal with the history of seeing “blackness” as a bad thing. So it’s easy to see how saying “color doesn’t matter” or “color shouldn’t matter” is a rational response to that history. The only problem is: the color-doesn’t-matter attitude actually perpetuates the idea that being something other than White, and especially being Black, is a bad thing. But let’s think about that historical moment.
Perhaps no other idea has propelled the CDM concept and cemented it into the national consciousness as Dr. King’s famous (and most abused) lines from his “I Have A Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Nothing else screams out “I don’t think of them as Black” as loud as that. That is, when a person takes a literalist-reductionist view of things. The literalist says, “I can’t judge you based on the color of your skin.” That logically leads to CDM. The reductionist says, “that’s what MLK all wanted us to do,” but that, quite frankly, does a disservice to MLK. The literalist-reductionist strips the idea from the historical moment and climate is was made in and ignores volumes of other things MLK said. It also ignores other developments during that historical moment.
On SWPD, I explained how, historically, “White Americans had associated Black with all sorts of bad things.” So it made rational sense for Whites to say, “I don’t see you as Black” — i.e. “I don’t see you as bad.” But that reveals a serious problem and explains why the colorblindness the nation embarked on as a response to the civil rights era is seen as a form of racism itself. Just look at the two expressions: Black and “bad” remain synonymous, mere substitutes for one another which suggests how colorblindness doesn’t fully constitutes a fundamental change from America’s more troubling racial past.
Now, I would be negligent if I didn’t mention how “Black=bad” was/is a concept that the Black community had to deal with and still has to deal with. However, at that same historical moment, at the same time when Dr. King espoused what has been treated as “colorblindness”, Dr. King and the Black community at large engaged in a campaign to break the nefarious link between Black and “bad” by exalting the idea that BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL:
Unfortunately, expressions like, “I don’t see you as Black” and “I’m a man who happens to be Black”, miss that very important point of decoupling Black with “bad.” If color really didn’t matter then there would be no reason not to see an African-American as “Black” and, likewise, no reason to marginalize someone’s Blackness by trying to highlight something people are more inclined to view more positively (e.g. a person’s “humanness”) even when those people includes your own self.
UPDATED: To add text of Dr. King’s remarks from the video (above):
I’ve come here tonight and plead with you.
Be proud of yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
I said to a group last night,
“Nobody else can do this for us.”
No document can do this for us.
No Lincolnian proclamation can do this for us; no Ken[nedy]sonian or Johnsonian civil rights bill can do this for us.
If the negro is to be free
he must move down into the inner resources of his own soul and sign, with a pen an ink of self-asserted manhood, his own Emancipation Proclamation.
Don’t let anybody take your manhood.
Be proud of our heritage.
As somebody said earlier tonight,
“we don’t have anything to be ashamed of.”
Somebody told a lie one day.
They couched it in language…
They made everything black ugly and evil;
look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word “black.” It’s always something degrading
and low and sinister. Look at the word “white”;
it’s always something pure, high and clean.
But I want to get the language right tonight.
I want to get the language so right
that everybody [here] will cry out,
“Yes! I’m black and proud of it.
I’m black and beautiful.”