Letter 13 — Philemon Fridays

Dear Phil,

In your last letter you noted that discussing enslavement in polite company was the height of rudeness in your culture. Honorable people didn’t mention such things to one another and even pretended that enslavement didn’t exist – all while their every whim was met by the enslaved persons in the shadows behind them.

I don’t mean to make fun of anyone by lifting this up. Phil, we have our own brand of such self-deception in our white treatment of the anti-Black racism which is so deeply embedded in our society. We call it being “color-blind.”

Now, I should tell you that I have a deficiency in my color vision. I have trouble seeing and distinguishing certain shades of red and green. It’s a condition that affects about four percent of males in our population.

Photo by Vinu00edcius Vieira ft on Pexels.com

I discovered it playing a table game that was called “Chinese Checkers” (a title which, in hindsight, has its own set of racialized problems). The game pieces are colored glass marbles. As the game proceeds, the marbles representing the various players get intermixed. As I played, I was routinely moving marbles that weren’t mine. It was clear that I did not see the difference in the colors.

At first, my family members assumed I was cheating. They then realized that I wasn’t actually winning when I played the wrong pieces. They then assumed that I was just causing trouble – an assumption that was a bit more evidence-based. Finally, they assumed that I was just stupid when it came to the game. It took a great deal of time for them to believe that I simply couldn’t see the colors the way they could.

That is not the kind of “color-blindness” I mean here. There is nothing biological, inherent, or unintentional about racialized color-blindness. In most of polite society in my time, it is bad form for white people to “notice” and discuss race. Instead, white people say things like, “I was taught to treat everyone the same,” or “I don’t see color.”

Some will get more descriptive and declare, “I don’t care if you are pink, purple, or polka-dotted.”[i] The last one seems relatively easy to declare, since the likelihood of meeting a polka-dotted human is fairly low.

The stated intention of such racial colorblindness is to “move beyond racism.” For a while, white people began to believe that we were living in a “post-racial” society. The last several years of our history have put that delusion to rest, but it was as highly destructive as it may have been well-intentioned.

“We might think of conscious racial awareness as the tip of an iceberg, the superficial aspects of our racial socialization: our intentions (always good!) and what we are supposed to acknowledge seeing (nothing!),” Robin DiAngelo writes. “Meanwhile, under the surface is the massive depth of racist socialization: messages, beliefs, images, associations, internalized superiority and entitlement, perceptions, and emotions. Color-blind ideology makes it difficult for us to address these unconscious beliefs,” she argues. “While the idea of color blindness may have started out as a well-intentioned strategy for interrupting racism, in practice it has served to deny the reality of racism and thus hold it in place.”[ii]

In our time, this “color-blind” racial ethic was ostensibly rooted in the words of a speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In what came to be known as his “I Have a Dream” speech, King hoped that little children would one day be judged not by the color of their skin but rather by the content of their character. That hope was taken out of context and turned into a political and sociological construct to shield white people from their own continuing racism.

King’s point “was never that ethnicity and culture are irrelevant,” Esau McCaulley writes, “but that they should not be the cause of discrimination…Far from being colorblind, King called on his people to look upon themselves as Black and to see in that blackness something beautiful.”[iii] But racial colorblindness has served our white supremacy in many ways.

For one thing, it has relieved liberal white people of the need to do anything about the continuing realities of racial discrimination. Those realities are most obvious in our American system of mass incarceration. In that system, “race” is no longer discussed. Instead, skin tone has been criminalized.

“In the era of colorblindness,” Cornel West writes in the forward to Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, “it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So, we don’t. Rather than rely on race,” West continues, “we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind. Today it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans.”[iv]

Racial color-blindness is not a way to combat racism, anymore than refusing to discuss enslavement was a way to resist the Imperial enslavement system. Our “color-blindness” performs precisely the opposite function.

Whiteness continues to be the unquestioned norm for and center of American culture and polity. Since whiteness remains the standard for what it good, true, and beautiful in our culture and polity, when we refrain from naming race, we simply agree to the current system. Silence on race is support for and participation in systemic racism. That is fiercely resisted by most white people in our culture. But that resistance does not make it any less true.

Debbie Irving puts it another way in her book, Waking Up White. “Though it once felt polite to ignore a person of color’s race and just see all people as individuals, my former color-blind approach was actually allowing me to ignore my own part in the system of racism,” she writes as part of her self-disclosed journey in anti-racism. “Color-blindness,” she continues, “a philosophy that denies the way lives play out differently along racial lines, actually maintains the very cycle of silence, ignorance, and denial that needs to be broken for racism to be dismantled.”[v]

You noted that some of Paul’s own words have been used to justify this intentional ignoring of enslavement in your time. The same has been true of this intentional suppression of whiteness in our own time. In particular, both in your time and ours there has been a damaging misreading of his words to the Galatians about all being one in Christ.[vi] Some in our time take Paul’s words to mean that race is no longer a topic for discussion or notice among Christians.

“Some take this passage to mean that Paul claims our identity in Christ cancels out our ethnic identities,” writes Esau McCaulley in Reading While Black. “But this is strange for many reasons. Few would claim that they do not see gender because of our identity in Christ…How could Paul make a point of evangelizing Gentiles if he didn’t care about ethnicity? How could he speak about different mission strategies unless he recognized the differences between Jews and Gentiles? The colorblind interpretation of Paul,” McCaulley concludes, “cuts against the grain of his entire ministry.”[vii]

McCaulley notes that this colorblind perspective gets Paul’s perspective inside out and backwards. It draws a broad and unrelated conclusion from a very specific text. “The colorblind reading of Galatians 3:28 is most flawed because it doesn’t take the context of the book of Galatians seriously enough,” he writes, “Paul’s point is that being a Jew does not make you more of an heir to the promises in Christ than being a Gentile. It is a question about standing as it relates to the inheritance, not ethnic identity full stop.”[viii]

The silences on enslavement and race perpetuate the injustices of each system. The antidote to these realities is not silence or the suppression of conversation. It is rather, an awareness of the history, reality, and necessity for change in each system. “If the white person chooses to courageously continue down the path of racial awareness,” Jemar Tisby writes in How to Fight Racism, “colorblindness eventually gives way to color-consciousness.”[ix]

He builds on the thought and words of Michelle Alexander. “The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that we, as a society, can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion,” she declares. “A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”[x]

Color-consciousness will move us white people to confession and repentance – the necessary preludes to repair and reconciliation. Perhaps enslavement-consciousness had the same impact on you, Phil. I’d be interested in your thoughts in that regard.

I long for the hope that Alexander suggested over ten years ago. “We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream,” she concludes, “a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.”[xi]

I’m not entirely sure how that fits with your situation, Phil. But it is central to ours. I rejoice that we follow a living Lord who makes the blind to see. We need that healing in our time and space.

Greetings to Lady Apphia, Master Archippus, and the saints who gather in your household.

Yours in Christ,

Low


[i] DiAngelo, Robin J. White Fragility. p. 71.

[ii] DiAngelo, p.42.

[iii] McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black, p. 113.

[iv] Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow, p. 2.

[v] Irving, Debbie. Waking Up White, pp. 118-119.

[vi] See Galatians 3:28.

[vii] McCaulley, Esau. Reading While Black. Pp. 113-114.

[viii] McCaulley, p. 114.

[ix] Tisby, Jemar. How to Fight Racism. P. 48.

[x] Alexander, p. 302.

[xi] Alexander, p. 303.

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