Saturday, October 25, 2014

Colorblindness in the Classroom

I don't know how to deal with race and the ideology of colorblindness in the classroom. My sense is that it would be easier in a sociology class. Sociology is naturally present-minded and inevitably political. I could assign Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and no one would think twice about it. But as a historian, I have a responsibility to the past that constrains me in important ways and shapes my behavior in the classroom. How can I historicize race and colorblindness? How can I compel them to think in a way they haven't before (this is the whole point of college, right?) without telling them what to think?

It is a strange feeling to stand before a room of students and "teach" them when the only certainty I have is that in five years or ten--or one---I will look back on it and feel sorry for having done it so ineptly.

The class I'm talking about is called American Revolutions, and it has three sections: Puritanism; Indian Removal, and slavery and emancipation. Puritanism is hard because students, even religious ones, have trouble understanding the intense religiosity of the Puritans. Indian Removal is difficult because some students bring deeply engrained stereotypes to the classroom and seem impervious to new information. These days, though, their papers are more likely to portray the Indians before European contact as peaceful and at one with nature than as violent savages. The point is that the benign myth is equally dehumanizing.

Now we're moving into slavery and emancipation, and it is going to be the most difficult and enjoyable part of the course for me. Judging from the conversation in class yesterday, most of my students reflexively hold to some form of colorblind ideology. As a historian, it's not my job to convince them that they are wrong. Yet their ideology is in fact an impediment to historical thinking. So it is my job, I think, to show them that their unexamined "truth" about the world, its givenness and obviousness, is in fact a historically constructed discourse about the world. They inherited it. It is not obvious or inevitable or natural. That doesn't make it wrong. But it does make it historical, and that alone is often earth-shattering for us.

It is ironic that the dominant racial ideology of our time is named after a condition that makes it hard to see certain realities about the world. After all, the main feature of actual colorblindness is that its owner is unable to see clearly. Colorblindness changes the perception of its owner, not the reality of what is being perceived. People who proudly claim to be racially colorblind are admitting more than they realize.

The popular conceit seems to be that the next generation will rescue us from any racial problems we may have. I admit up front that I am deeply pessimistic about this. Anecdotally, I see abject confusion about race among people of my generation and the next one coming up. Moreover, the data indicates that around half to an outright majority of White millennials believe discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks.

Consider the bundle of beliefs that often coexist in the minds of students.

Race is a real physical thing.
Race is unimportant.
Everyone should be treated equally.
Whites are as likely to be discriminated against as others.
We should all just see each other as Americans.

This constellation of beliefs is  unequipped to answer basic questions.

Why have racial definitions and classifications changed over time?
When did race become unimportant?
What does it mean to be White?
Does the past influence the present?
Why is there racial inequality?

The answer to that last question often invokes culture. But that raises more troubling questions. How can advocates of colorblindness speak of racially distinct cultures without attacking their own suppositions? What does culture mean? From where did it come? This, too, must be historicized. Those who claim that culture is at the root of racial inequality must explain why they have taken up a historically created discourse that was used by segregationists decades before we were even born. At what point did this discourse change from a defense of White supremacy to a correct description of American society?

My sense is that many students believe that race is a fixed category rooted in biological realities. And it's no wonder. We routinely hear, even from the census bureau itself, that we're on our way to being a minority-majority nation by mid-century, as if anyone really knows how racial identity will develop in the next forty years. This week USA Today did a giant project on America's changing demographics, and the entire story implicitly treated race as a biological reality rather than a social construct. If the United States does become majority-minority, it will probably indicate a more level playing field. The more likely outcome, I think, is that Whiteness will continue its three century-long expansion by growing to encompass most Asians and many Hispanics. By 2050, the White majority might be just as large as it is now. We just don't know. It is ironic that the very people insisting race should not matter are often the ones treating it as a fixed, real, physical identity.

Colorblindness, the refusal to "see" race, often coexists awkwardly with a view that makes race real in a way that harkens back to heyday of scientific racism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. People who don't want to see race in the present tend to be reluctant to look at its construction in history. But when we take race out of history we're left with contemporary phenomena we cannot explain. Most White young people are growing up in households that do not discuss race beyond a few brittle admonitions: it should not matter; treat everyone equally. How are these young people to make sense of the world, then, when they come to Temple University? They see the poor, Black neighborhoods all around the campus. They sit in predominantly White classrooms. They read the Temple safety alerts that almost invariably describe Black male suspects. They hear the pervasive discourse about which neighborhoods to enjoy and which to avoid. The nearly exact overlap between avoidance and racial minorities is there to be seen, but it must not be stated. The ideology they've been given does not match their experience of the world, but admitting as much is extremely troubling.

I've come to believe that modern forms of prejudice grow up and our reproduced in this space between the brittle tenets of colorblind ideology and the reality of young peoples' lived experiences. In these spaces lurk the silences and inconsistencies and unconscious beliefs that are creating the next iteration of racial inequality and White supremacy. It will not be the "New Jim Crow" or neo-segregation. It will be its own phenomenon, historically conditioned but formed in its own time. Colorblindness cannot see this. In an ironic way, colorblindness depends on essentializing race, turning it into more than it is. If race is real, then we can ignore history. But if race is constructed, it immediately raises at least the possibility that our ignorance is very destructive indeed.

I'm still thinking through this. There's something about the way I led the class yesterday that made me feel that I was reproducing White supremacy rather than challenging it. When students don't yet understand historical thinking, can't the simple act of discussing White supremacy in history reinscribe it in the present? We never need to have discussions about whether White people are inferior. I'm just scratching the surface. At least I'll never run out of questions.

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