Monday, October 22, 2007

Does love see no color?

A few years ago the slogan "Love sees no color" was prominent on progessive T-shirts and bumper stickers. The idea seems simple: we should love people for being human beings, whole persons, and not tokens of a race or ethnicity. If love is not colorblind, then we risk exoticizing people. The result is the hot Latin lover, the Jezebel, the Asian Dragon Lady--we get stereotypes of people of color when we eroticize their race. Better not to take notice of it at all in trying to be loving individuals.

I had a student years ago, in my class on the poltiical philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr., tell me that he (a white man) had a friend who was Black. But he didn't notice he was Black, didn't think of him as Black--he was just "John", his friend. It seemed to me disingenous to say that he didn't notice that "John" was Black. What would it mean to "think of him" as Black? I often wondered how "John" felt about all this. Perhaps, "John" appreciated being just "John" and not the "Black friend named John". But what if being Black mattered to "John"? Had my student rendered "John" into a modern version of Ellison's Invisible Man?

Heather Wood addresses these kinds of issues in her short article "Ten Mistakes White People Make When Talking About Race". One of these mistakes is trying to think that you're colorblind in order to make it seem as if you're not at all racist. As she argues, its worse to think that race is something we should NOT bring up or talk about or notice.

On one occasion, I was trying to describe Kwame Anthony Appiah's distinction between racism and racialism, when a well meaning, liberal white woman stopped me, and with obvious distaste, said that any notice of racial or ethnic differences between people was just racist. People are people, she said, and race is a made up category. There is no good way to notice race and to do so is morally impermissible.

I thought this might be a idiosyncratic understanding of race until I saw this video by the German artist Sarah Connor:

Beyond the fact that the video trades on some very stereotypcal, feel-good imagery (the world holding hands? oy!), there is a very interesting message here in the lyrics "Try to make this earth a better place without a racial curse." Its clear that acknowledging race can only be negative.

Yet, as Wood seems to imply, thinking of race this way is a particular privilege of white people who tend not to think in terms of race because so much of society is structured to cater to their needs and interests. As Peggy McIntosh suggests, things just are the way they are, for most white people, and white privilege means not ever having to notice whether or not the world reflects your sense of yourself, your family, or your closest friends. People of color don't get to be so oblivious on a regular basis.

So is it more loving, or a greater form of insult to dignity, to be colorblind?



At 10:03 AM , Blogger Dap said...

Without answering the actual question you posed, I want to respond to the well-meaning white liberal woman who thinks that noticing race is racist:

Um, no. Just no. Yes, race is a social construct - but ethnic history and the associated skin color and physical features are not.

Also, acknowledging the existence of a social construct is not the same as supporting said social construct. If that was the case in general, any mention of Nazi Germany would suggest that the person mentioning it was a supporter of Nazi Germany, and that's obviously not true.

Would said liberal white women object to acknowledging different skin tones or facial features between people? Or is that 'racist' too? What if I'm talking about how I look different from other people around me?

At 12:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe we should think of people as duck-rabbits. They're ducks sometimes, rabbits other times, and sometimes just a two-dimensional figure made up of certain lines with certain lengths and angles. Which they are depends on how we talk about them. Likewise with people: of course I'm of a lighter color than Greg Oden! It takes a person with statistically abnormal vision to miss that. But just like certain features of the duck-rabbit are irrelevant (or less relevant) in talking about it as a duck or a rabbit, so skin color is less relevant when talking about moral worth.


p.s. You have been Carnivaled.

At 3:58 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My single question on this is: why can't we see color AND love?


At 6:14 PM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Dap: I think I understand where the woman was coming from. She was a well meaning person who wanted to work on social justice issues. But for her race is just too loaded of a social category. She told me that to think of people in racial terms at all is to be racist. I admit I'm baffled by this as well as by "John's" friend--who told me he really didn't see John as black. I don't know what that exactly means. But as Galen points out, maybe there are these facts about our vision that make it possible to just not see in this way.

And I think you're on to something right, Galen. Race is an feature that our society has chosen to say is irrelevant in certain cases (for instance, as to the equal protection of the law offered by the 14th Amenment), and not in others. Perhaps, trying to determine criteria for relevance is the issue. Legally speaking it may be irrelevant (though that is open to contention too), but is it morally or aesthetically?

I like your question, Lani. I think its the right one. And I think it matters too that this year marks only 40 years that a person in the U.S. could love another person and not have race be a limiting factor in whether they could legally build a family together. Loving v. Virgina removed all legal restrictions to interracial marriage in 1967. Love is political.

At 1:18 PM , Anonymous Theresa said...

I agree with Lani as well. To ignore someone's ethnic or racial identity or pretend it has nothing to do with who they are as a person dismisses a large part of that person's reality. Race does shape the experiences of all of our lives, and to pretend it doesn't exist sends a message those well-intentioned liberals don't intend, that is, that there's something wrong with being something other than white, so we'll just ignore it. I prefer the 'Celebrate diversity' approach that values the varied experiences, cultural norms and other aspects of coming from different places and different backgrounds. Doesn't that create a much more wonderful place to exist than a land of bland sameness?

At 6:56 PM , Anonymous CHRISSYSNOW said...

Ok this is the thing, you made the bed now we all have to have a love in and lie in it. To not notice someone's race nowadays is almost like saying that you don't recognize their true and relavent existence. I have dated a few people outside of my race and I have been an experiment of sorts for afew of those white men. It is indeed disingenuous to say that one can know a person without becoming engaged in one of the major factors that contribute to who and what they are regarded as in this world. No matter where I am I can never forget for too long that I am a black woman in this world. This is not to say that this should be the sole defining feature of my existence but you've heard Mr.Cornell West say it race matters. I travelled to Barcelona once not so long ago and was not too appalled at how I was vied as a person of color. Forgive me I digress. But anyway I think that love can and must see color and say grow up already everybody.

At 11:22 AM , Blogger Joseph Orosco said...

Chrissy: Thanks for your perspective. I agree that race matters and, as I mentioned in the post about the Danish adverts, colorblindness strikes me as a very politically conservative standpoint. I'd love to hear more of your comments!


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