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The Problem With Colorblindness

June 12, 2010

essay by guest contributor Faith Bell

Colorblindness. I have been hearing this term more and more. It sounds nice, but it does more harm than good. After centuries of giving value to the color of a person’s skin, attempting to push race aside now also pushes aside the struggles that many people have gone through because of the value placed on their skin. Colorblindness is passive. It helps maintain the status quo.

The idea of colorblindness is positive when a person is not preferred over another based on race. But this term also carries a connotation of inability or unwillingness to perceive something that has meaning to those who can perceive it. I would like the uniqueness of every single person to be admired, not ignored. Instead of trying to tackle and dismantle the idea of race, it would be more productive to address the racial inequality that prevails.

In a report titled “A Year After Obama’s Election: Blacks Upbeat about Black Progress, Prospects” the Pew Research Center gives statistics on perceptions of race as well as on racial inequality in America. Through surveys, the center found that the income of black households was 61.8% of the income of white households in 2008. In 2009 the homeownership rate for whites was near 75% while the rate for Hispanics was about 50% and the rate for blacks was about 48%. Great disparity still exists in the quality of life and opportunities based on race. After centuries of this white supremacist societal construct, one that places whites at the top of the hierarchy and privileges them over other races, the negativities associated with racial identity need to be rethought before we get to a place where there is no hierarchical value associated with race.

Eliminating the discussion on race does not help end racism and can perpetuate racist acts, though these acts may be subtle. Mica Pollock, an assistant professor at Harvard who wrote a book on the subject, gave an interview for the article “When Race Matters: ‘Colormuteness’ in American Schools.”Pollock claims that sometimes colorblindness is just another word for colormuteness, because it ignores race and racial inequality by not discussing them. Pollock says, “Refusing to talk about racial orders doesn’t make them go away. Indeed, we can actually exacerbate racial orders through colormuteness. The most counterintuitive race talk dilemma…is that while talking in racial terms can make race matter, not talking in racial terms can also make race matter.” The silence makes race matter because no effort is being made to fix racial inequality, so the disparities between the races remain.

Our society cannot be colorblind right now. I have been taught by my family, by friends, by teachers, and by the media that I am black. Other people have been taught to see me as black. Race does not have a biological basis; it is a social construct. But can we demolish that social construct after centuries of enforcing it? Because I have been taught that I have a race, I have developed a racial identity. When I think of myself, I know I am Faith Bell, an introverted young black woman. If we demolish the ideology of race, then I can no longer claim my blackness, which is something that makes me unique. Yes, the term can be used to group and stereotype me with other black people, but as an individual I can claim my racial identity, in the same way that I claim I am an American. When people take time to examine those who call themselves black, then they will see it is a very diverse group, just as Americans are diverse based on individual personalities, values and interests. I am black, but my race does not define me; it is just an aspect of me.

It is important to not let racial stereotypes dictate who to befriend, hire or avoid. That is colorblindness at its best. However, there is a problem when someone refuses to acknowledge racism because they claim to be colorblind. It should not be used as a response to discrimination, admittance of fear, or observation of racial inequality in society. In movie castings, in stories and in media that represents people, we should be more aware of the tropes that are being used and we should challenge them. We should be aware of how people feel when they see people that look like them misrepresented, if they even see people that look like them at all. We should be aware of what our choices—conscious or unconscious—mean in society and how they affect people. It is not about pleasing everyone. It is about fighting racial constructs and tropes so we can step closer to equality.

The Last Airbender is a film coming out this summer. It is a live-action movie based on a cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender. The creators of the cartoon—Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino—informed IGN Entertainment in an interview, that “Our love for Japanese Anime, Hong Kong action & Kung Fu cinema, yoga, and Eastern philosophies led us to the initial inspiration for Avatar [the animated series].” Set in a fantastical world, the cartoon incorporated aspects of Inuit and different Asian cultures, including clothing, philosophies and Chinese script. Yet, the movie production cast a white actor and actress for the two lead characters named Katara and Sokka, who were brown-skinned Inuit-inspired characters in the cartoon. A world that was filled with Asian and indigenous influences now features white actors as the good characters, brown-skinned actors as the bad characters and people of color from various backgrounds as the extras. I have a problem with whiteness being the baseline, the norm. I see that as racism. If it were not true that whiteness is the baseline, then it would not be so common for some people to argue that they never saw Asianness in a cartoon that was filled with Asian influence. Why were white people the automatic choice for main roles?

The casting choices may have been made with the intent or pretense of colorblindness, but the consequences are far from racially neutral. Not many roles are given to Asian Americans in American movies, and the few roles are usually martial art roles and other stereotypical tropes. The Last Airbender was a great opportunity to showcase the talent of Asian actors and actresses. Unfortunately, decisions were made to change the world and the people of the series to fit tropes that are identifiable to American society: the good light-skinned people fighting the bad dark-skinned people and in order to win, some dark-skinned people must join the light-skinned people.

I am not saying that there can never be a hero in a movie who is white. But there should be more heroes than just white ones. We need to think about what it means when in narratives a white person encounters a culturally different group of people and then does everything better than they can, a scenario that plays out in James Cameron’s Avatar. Why did the writer choose to do this? What message does this send? Is there a way to complicate this story that has been told over and over it so that it challenges the tradition? Even if there are a range of races and ethnicities represented, we must examine how each of these is represented.

We should explore our society and what we mean by race because if we do not know what we mean by race we cannot tackle institutional racism. We should fight racism that takes away individuality by seeing individuals who are directly affected by the construct. Let us begin to embrace a different idea of race by accepting multiracial identity, by challenging stereotypes, by seeing the beauty in all shades. I want people to value my personality and character, but before you know me you will see my brown skin and my naturally tightly curled hair. I want everyone to see the beauty and uniqueness in my outward appearance instead of not seeing it at all. Race is a social construct and since we have constructed, it we have to learn how to live with it but without racism.

Categories: History and Concepts, The Last Airbender
Tags: , , ,

About the Author

Loraine Sammy is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • Phil Hubb

    “Race is a social construct and since we have constructed, it we have to learn how to live with it but without racism.”

    *******

    We don’t really have to live with it.

    Race theory only existed in the first place to justify racist acts.

    But once race theory was debunked racist acts became unjustified.

    The only reason I’m not a racist now is the knowledge that race is an unscientific, invalid category.

    In order to be truly non-racist one must be non-race.

    Everyone who identifies as the member of a race is really flirting with racism, just as people who identify as members of a nation are going to eventually betray nationalist sympathies.

    I say if it’s crap, flush it. Otherwise it’s going to smell.

    You’re saying, “We took this huge crap, but now we have to learn how to live with it while somehow avoiding the smell.”

    Just flush it.

    • Believing that “race is an unscientific, invalid category” doesn’t necessarily make you “not a racist.” And in order to flush it, you have to recognize that there’s a crap first, and then build a toilet. A lot of people are unable or unwilling to recognize that there’s a turd. We still don’t have a working toilet, and we’re going to have to acknowledge the turd before we can build one.

      The recognizance that everybody poops would be helpful, too.

      • Ok that’s a funny analogy. But true colorblindness means that you look at the person and not the race. In terms of movie casting, instead of having a default white person just say a talented actor.

        Mind you I’m not saying erase race altogether. Inorder to be colorblind, you have to know what you are blind too.

  • Takuma

    I dont think I have commented yet on any post here on racebending but this article is somethig I almost 100% agree with. There is a problem with so called color blindness. In fact I have been told that speaking out against the casting in things like the Last Airbender makes me a racist! I like how it is explained here that some people do believe that ignoring injustice and proclaiming you are colorblind really does not help in diffusing injustice but rather prepetuates it.