“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 2

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

Of course, I could talk to author/activist Tim Wise about 5,000 things all day long; he’s a fascinating conversationalist.  I even asked him a question on my mom’s behalf about the Tea Party.  (I relayed his response to her.)  We flowed from the problems of  “colorblind” rhetoric as social/political policy to what we do at the R, pop culture…including the politics of porn.

Cosby Show castAndrea Plaid: Let’s talk about addressing race and racism on TV, with the discussion about Mad Men and how it does or doesn’t do that.  What do you notice about how race and racism is addressed on TV, especially on shows that take place in contemporary times, like The Cosby Show, Friends, and Grey’s Anatomy?

Tim Wise: Mad Men, from what I understand, is a fairly realistic portrayal of that time. The question is, Why do people love [the show] so much, why do they so enjoy a period piece like this one, which portrays a slice of life, and a period where people of color aren’t present? That’s interesting to me sociologically.  But my question is not about Mad Men so much, as it is about other shows like Friends, which is in the contemporary period in New York, and yet there are no people of color around, or Grey’s Anatomy or the Cosby Show, where we can have representations of folks of color, and “race,” but rarely if ever deal with racism per se. So, they can have the occasional, or even central characters of color in the case of Grey’s or Cosby, but it’s as if these people never deal with racism in their lives. It’s not that every episode needs to be about race, but when virtually NO episodes are, that’s unrealistic. I mean, even a show my kids watch, in re-runs, That’s So Raven (with former Cosby star Raven Symone) had an episode about racism: a really good one in fact. If they could do it, why can’t these shows for adults do it?

AP: The flip of that is how working-class and poor whites are portrayed as a group of people others can feel free to turn their noses at due to their outspoken bigotry and/or their impoverished lives.  Latest case in point: Arlene and Sam Merlotte’s family, the Mickens, on True Blood.  Your thoughts?

TW: Well, there’s a long history of portraying bigots as backwoods “trash” or whatever, because it allows the hip, urbane TV viewer to assume an outsider stance, where we can say “oh, thank God I don’t know people like that!” Or, “I’m not like that.” It’s why whenever one of the talk shows, like Jerry Springer or whatever would have on a racist family, it would always be some family from rural Georgia or whatever, missing teeth, mispronouncing words, or whatever. But of course, people can be elites and incredibly racist, without slurs, without bad dentition, without any overt signs of bigotry, because they have the power to do their stuff in private: old boy’s networks for hiring and contracts, zoning laws that restrict where people can live and where they can’t, etc.

AP: In light of the Ciara/Justin Timberlake post I did a while back–and now the controversy with Montana Fishburne–let’s talk about race and sex and the “ewwwws” that seem to arise with quite a few of these discussions, especially when images involve portrayals of sexualized/romantic interracial interactions.  What’s going on, in your opinion?

Monster's Ball Halle Berry Billy Bob ThortonTW: [I think what's going on is] that there are valid questions about how are the images are being received in a racialized society.  There’s a fear, and it’s understandable, of women of color being seen by people as a sexual stereotype. So this is why the scene in Monster’s Ball several years ago — for which film Halle Barry won the Oscar — was problematic. Not only was it an aggressive scene in which the line between consent and resistance wasn’t clear at all, but it was, in the eyes of many people, a scene that triggered any number of real emotional memories of a whole history of white male aggression towards black women, and the sexualization of black women. I think folks of color are understandably concerned about the way men and women of color are portrayed, sexually, and in relation to whites, because the imagery is so fraught with historical baggage. For whites, I think racism of course still animates the resistance to certain scenes of that nature, or videos like the Ciara/Justin Timberlake example, and especially when the pairing is white/black. No doubt about that. Interestingly, of course, whites have constructed an entirely different set of assumptions about interracial relationships and sex when the pairing is, say, white and Asian, In that case, the sexualization of Asian women, in particular, as passive, ends up playing into any number of distorted sexual fantasies, which are both rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy.

The bottom line is that racism and the history of racism always complicates interracial connections, be they friendships or romantic relationships. Folks who have been in interracial relationships for twenty years will tell you that: that nothing is as simple and straightforward as just, “oh, we love each other,” ya know? There’s always this other layer there, which both partners have to deal with in order to work through the hard times that all couples have. If a couple is having a fight and one partner is white and the other one is black, I’ve heard story after story of how both partners are wondering, “Is this the time,” ya know, when race is going to come into this fight? Is my partner thinking about this conflict racially? That kind of thing. It’s real

AP: Speaking of sexualized interracial interactions, we touched a bit on the economics of interracial porn.  You said that the genre itself “exploded,” but the “wealth isn’t being shared” and who’s “calling the shots and has access” are skewed.  Would you like to expound on that?

TW: There’s a lot to unpack here. Why the genre has become so much more popular in recent years, which it has, is a phenomenon I couldn’t begin to explain, sociologically or psychologically. The same is true with lots of sub-genres of porn, like Gonzo and such. I don’t know if perhaps both of these are in some strange way reactions on the part of white men to the fact that women generally, and people of color in particular, are gaining (however slowly) opportunities and certainly visibility in the culture, and so this is some kind of strange backlash to that — as in, a way to really objectify women even more than usual, or to project all kinds of deep-seated psychological fears about black male sexuality in particular onto black men, via porn — or whether it’s something else. But certainly we know that there are these deep-seated beliefs and stereotypes about folks of color, which are making their way into porn more and more. And the dynamics are usually pretty clearly in keeping with those stereotypes. So, ya know, it’s the black male dominating the white female. It’s the white female lusting after the black male. As with most porn though, the payoff for this kind of thing is usually a white producer, white studio, white distribution network. The folks of color whose bodies are turned into these templates for mostly white fantasies are not, in all likelihood, the ones reaping the most significant benefits.

I propose a new paradigm for both public policy considerations and private personal and institutional prac­tice: an approach I call illuminated individualism. While conserva­tives have long pushed for a complete disregarding of group identity in favor of a focus on rugged individualism and personal achieve­ment, and liberals like Obama have promoted a collective national identity under a “one America” motif, herein I suggest a third op­tion. Illuminated individualism seeks to respect the uniqueness of all persons and communities—and thus not to assume that racial identity or country of origin, as in the case of non-citizens seeking to become residents, automatically tells us what we need to know about a person and their background—while yet acknowledging the general truth that to be white, a person of color, indigenous, or an immigrant continues to have meaning in the United States.

In other words, we are neither merely individuals, nor merely Americans. Race continues to matter. Only by being aware of that meaning and resolving to view individuals and communities as they really are—which requires acknowledging their languages, cultures, traditions, and racialized experiences—can we actually hope to build the kind of democracy that treats all persons fairly and equally. And just as important, only by illuminating our own individual and community uniqueness—including our personal biases—can we hope to check the tendency to disadvantage and exclude, which sadly is still far too common. Illuminated indi­vidualism then suggests a number of policy options and practices, at both the public and private level…

–From Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity

AP: In light of all these questions, how does your idea of “illuminated individualism” work towards helping solve these issues?

TW: Illuminated individualism is really just a fancy term for progressive color-consciousness: a kind of color conscious mentality that leads us to take account of how color has shaped the experiences of others, and ourselves. So in terms of employment, this means adopting the mindset that when evaluating job applicants, we need to understand how things like on-paper credentials have been shaped (and mis-shapen) by the unequal opportunity structure. That way, when we are in a position to hire someone we don’t jump to the conclusion that we might otherwise reach, which is that the person with more on-paper credentials (often the white male) is the most qualified. They may be, but they may also simply have had more access. Colorblindness wouldn’t take that into account, but illuminated individualism does, because it illuminates, or tries to, the social context within which individuals operate. Likewise, in college admissions, we consider what it means to be a person of color in the school system, in terms of opportunities, in terms of access, in terms of the research on stereotype threat, which has found that even black kids who are equally qualified as their white counterparts, will often underperform on standardized tests, because of the additional anxiety they contend with, as they take the test, and which comes from their strong desire NOT to confirm the negative stereotypes that they know are out there, regarding black intelligence. Colorblindness would just look at scores and grades. Illuminated individualism says we have to dig deeper to see what’s really there.

There are lots of examples in the book about how we can weave this kind of color consciousness into our lives, as parents, educators, employers, co-workers, and in other areas.

Also, illuminated individualism is a key to interrupting our own racial biases, for those of us who are white. If we are aware of our biases — more to the point if we are made aware — by being exposed to what the research says about our implicit biases and how easy it is to fall back into old patterns and then act on them, then we can interrupt the process. We can check our biases. But only when we know they are there. So this means we need to be having these discussions about the importance of acknowledging and checking bias whenever we find ourselves in an evaluative situation, like an employment setting, or in school, or on a jury where race may be salient to the case somehow, to make sure we are going that extra mile to be equitable. The good news is that the research on this makes it clear: if we are made aware of how often we operate on the basis of biases, we can check them. The bad news is, we rarely are made aware of this problem. So that has to change.