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“Colorblindness,” “Illuminated Individualism,” Poor Whites, and Mad Men: The Tim Wise Interview, Part 1

By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid

One of the perks of my particular role as Sexual Correspondent is getting to talk to some of the sexiest-to-me anti-racist thinkers.  So, you can guess my response to Racialicious’ owner/publisher Latoya’s question: “Do you want to interview Tim Wise?” (Precise answer: “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”  Of course, Wise is happily married with children; thus, my lurve for the man stays at “SSSSSQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”)

Tim Wise 3If someone asked me what is it about Wise that makes me so swoony, I’d say—besides his sleepy, brooks-no-bullshit blue eyes, his Southern-gentleman smile, his Baptist-preacher rumbly voice, and his precise facial hair—that he does quite a bit of the heavy lifting on handling whiteness, especially white privilege and racism, so I don’t have to.  To have someone like him on my side in this nastily trippy Mobius strip called Race in America is, frankly, quite endearing to me.

His latest book, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, is full of win because he succinctly takes apart the Obama Age meme of “post-racial” as well as its progenitor, the ableist term “colorblind(ness),” as the fallback retorts when race—and particularly racism—is discussed and/or called out.

In fact, as I will argue, colorblindness not only fails to remedy discrimination and racial inequity, it can actually make both prob­lems worse. To begin, if the rhetoric of racial transcendence gives the impression—as it does, almost by definition—that the racial injustices of the past are no longer instrumental in determining life chances and outcomes, it will become increasingly likely that per­sons seeing significant racial stratification in society will rational­ize those disparities as owing to some cultural or biological flaw on the part of those at the bottom of the hierarchy. In other words, ra­cial bias would become almost rational once observers of inequity were deprived of the critical social context needed to understand the conditions they observe. Whereas a color-conscious approach allows for a more nuanced understanding of racial inequities and how they’ve been generated, colorblindness encourages placing blame for the conditions of inequity on those who have been the targets of systemic injustice. Ironically, this means that colorblind­ness, often encouraged as the ultimate non-racist mentality, might have the consequence of giving new life to racist thinking.

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

Andrea Plaid: In your book, Colorblind, you explain what it is.  What is the difference between that and “race neutrality” (if there is a difference) and why doesn’t either work, specifically in the POTUS Obama’s case?

Tim Wise: I use them pretty interchangeably here. Basically, my argument is that post-racial colorblindness  fails on two levels: 1) it fails to solve problems that are race-specific and caused by racism and discrimination, and 2) it fails to help build support for broader progressive social policy (contrary to the claim made by its proponents), because even when you put forth “colorblind” policy (like universal health care, more money for schools, a jobs bill, etc), it is perceived by whites as a racial transfer, because of the way social policy has been racialized for 40 years. So whites hear “black people” when you talk about any policy to help the have-nots or have-lessers. Which means that the right is going to use race as a weapon anyway, to push those buttons with whites, and when the president refuses to punch back, even against the most blatant and absurd examples of that racism and race baiting, it emboldens the bullies and makes him appear weak. Obviously, he has to be careful how he engages race, but the evidence I present in the book (which is based mostly on research from the field of social psychology) has found that allowing race to remain sublimated and below the surface actually makes it easier for people to act on subtle biases, because they can do so without ever having to confront the contradictions between who they claim to be (open-minded, non-racist, etc) and who they really are.

AP: If “colorblindness” doesn’t work, then why use it?

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