It's Only Racism When I Say It Is
Sony Corp. got into trouble in Europe last year with these Dutch ads meant to announce the release of the PlayStation Portable (PSP) in two distinct colors: White and Black. Many gamers found the ads to be racist. Sony responded saying that the ads had "no other message or purpose" than to let people know about the launching of the new products:
"A variety of different treatments have been created as a campaign to either highlight the whiteness of the new model or contrast the black and the white models. Central to this campaign has been the creation of some stunningly photographed imagery, that has been used on large billboards throughout Holland."
Essentially, Sony's defense is that the ads are only about colors, there is no other way to understand these images, and anyone who reads them differently is imposing an interpretation that Sony did not intend (or, in other words, they are seeing something that is just not there). Thus, Sony cannot be racist because they did not mean this ad to be about race at all.
Sony's reponse here seems to confirm an argument made by UC Berkeley law professor Ian Haney-Lopez: In the coming years, as the U.S. confronts increasing numbers of minorities in the population, whites will assert an ideology that is meant to maintain white dominanence in most social, political, and economic institutions. This will be the ideology of colorblindness. It will hold that racism is a moral evil and the way to overcome it is to completely ignore race and racial classifications. Government policy should, in no way, take racial distinctions into account, even if the policy is meant to remedy past discrimination based on race.
Anti racism, then, means making sure that no one notices or mentions race. Thus, a racist will be someone who purposely or deliberately introduces race, with the intent to demean a group of people, into civic life.
The result of this kind of ideology is, in effect, the policing of racial justice discourse by whites. Haney Lopez hints at this in an interview:
"Let’s be clear, then, about its political and racial valences: colorblindness is strongly conservative, by which I mean that colorblindness as a current practice (rather than as a distant ideal) conserves the racial status quo. And in this, colorblindness takes on a racial cast, inasmuch as preserving the present works best for those currently racially dominant. In short, whatever its antiracist pretensions, colorblindness primarily serves the political and racial interests of whites."
Under this kind of colorblindness, whites get to define what is or is not racist. If someone didn't intend to demean a group of people based on skin color, then they are not racist, no matter what they did or said. Indeed, to call someone racist who didn't intend to be racist is usually to make race more of an issue than it merits in today's world in which things such as de jure segregation are relics of the past. If Blacks are offended by the Sony ads, they are being too sensitive. Sony didn't mean to be offensive and that's all that should count in the issue.
But it's not clear why intention should be the defining factor in deciding whether an ad, idea, or action is racist. It seems the idea is that since no harm is intended, no harm actually occurs. But that is not a valid conclusion. A person can unintentionally harm another quite easily. Accidents are quite common--you can turn around quickly in the grocery store and bump into someone. In such cases, we usually say "Oh, I'm sorry" not "Hey, get out of the way, its your problem", even when we know that we didn't intend to hit the person.
The law also recognizes many different kinds of crimes in which a clear intention to harm someone was not part of a person's action. These are crimes of negligence. A person who is impaired by drugs or alcohol and kills someone with their car is still culpable for the action even though they didn't intend to harm anyone. They are blameworthy because they should have known better than to operate a vehicle under the influence of intoxicants. If we follow Sony's logic, we should excuse drunk drivers because they didn't mean to do it.
I would contend that the burden of proof lies on those who think that intention is all that matters in terms of racism to explain why that is, given that it is quite common to imagine unintended harms in both everyday ethics and the law. Why should the harms of racism be different (unless or course, Sony's reasoning is a part of the ideology of colorblindness meant to discredit the harms of people of color and protect its "negligent" racism) ?