Patricia Williams' Color-Blind Future

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I've talked about three main kinds of racism (broadly defined to include unintentional and institutional tendencies that have negative racial effects): normative whiteness, white voyeurism, and racial narratives. My main interlocutor for this discussion has been Patricia Williams' highly readable Seeing a Color-Blind Future. Identifying problems doesn't really give any sense of how to address them, however. Williams does have something to say about how she wishes things were, which gives some indication of what her goals are, so now I'd like to look in that direction.

It's amazing how many of my students could read her book and think education was the solution she offered. I just don't see that. In fact, she contradicts that in one place by saying education isn't enough. I remember hearing over and over again during my freshman orientation at Brown that education was the solution to all racial problems. They didn't come out and put it so clearly, but they almost did. It was certainly the primary tactic modeled and suggested by everyone running the activities during that week. Williams comes out very strongly against this as the only method. Why? Education doesn't accomplish what she most wants to see, and once it's clear what that is it's easy to see why she doesn't think education is what we most need.

Williams wants to be recognized but not as something to be avoided or scared of, something kept at distance. She wants to be appreciated for who she is, not for some sort of exoticness that's an illusion pasted on the surface of who she is. She wants people to experience her, to enjoy her. She wants people to be able to see from her perspective. (In one sense that's impossible, as I'm sure she knows, but attempts can be made to try to understand not just how the other looks from my perspective but to think about how things you never considered will affect their experience.) Most important of all, she wants each person to invest of herself or himself in the other, perhaps even investment of oneself as that other. This is a kind of two-way interaction that many people do have. It's just not as common between people on different sides of racial lines.

I think this is a noble goal, and I admire her for stepping away from the old mantra about education that the traditional left has repeated so much that it's lost its meaning. The consequence of this as the primary goal is that most social policies as solutions to racial problems are at best band-aids. The forced interaction between people of different races will eventually tend to result in the bravest of people interacting in this way, but that's more self-inititated than government-enforced. Eventually that will lead to more people doing it, as people start to see that everyone else is a person too, regardless of race. This is a long-term process, however, and it's not really the forced application of any policy that achieves it, since courageous people can do that even if not forced to interact.

The policies and attitudes that lead to more segregation (or at least separatism), obviously, will work in the opposite direction, though they're no in principle against what she wants. It's clear that her goal isn't going to take place easily if the self-imposed separation of the black community continues. Since that's one of my later topics, I'll put off saying more on this until I get to the three racially-harmful tendencies within the black community that are next on my list in this post series.

The other really interesting consequence of Williams' view is that it's not just one way. She wants to prevent the one-way voyeurism of whites attracted to exotic elements of black society or people. That can't be achieved if the people trying really hard to understand are only white people, since that will lead to an imbalance in the other direction. If her goals are to be achieved, then black people are going to have to work just as hard to make sure they're not assuming stereotypes about white people or "the man". They have to be as careful about racial narratives as white people have to be. This is another direction the next three posts will develop, since the racial victimology narrative is the same sort of story that shapes black attitudes as the white/mainstream narrative about black criminality or black stupidity. All such narratives will need to be exposed for what they are.

The consequence of all this will be that mainstream culture would truly adopt and appreciate the elements of black culture that haven't already been adopted (and there are many that have, proving that there really is no such thing as a white culture, just a mainstream culture, although there are white narrative myths, as I have explained in my earlier posts). There could be no more separatism for the sake of social identity, and there would be no more need for it. There could be no more tolerance for anti-intellectualism among any smaller community that sees intellectualism according to an inaccurate narrative about oppressors who have a monopoly on intellectual curiosity and learning for its own sake. Thus these three tendencies conservatives on race like John McWhorter identify as the biggest racial problems within the black community (victimology, separatism, and anti-intellectualism) come out as bad by the very criteria of Patricia Williams, no ally of the likes of McWhorter. That's some of what I want to develop in my next posts on those three topics.

Finally, I should mention one more thing. Williams' book is not long, and it spends a good deal of time just explaining the issues I've covered, giving examples to illustrate them (though I disagree with her on whether some of the examples she gives really are examples of the phenomenon in question). However, I'm a little surprised that she spends almost no time on methods or policies for pursuing the goals she so clearly defines. How does she intend to bring us to this color-blind future that she envisions? I have no sense of what she thinks on that issue, just as I have no sense of what Al Sharpton, Carol Mosely-Braun, Jesse Jackson, and most other so-called civil rights leaders today would say to this question. They do advocate some policies, but I've explained how policies aren't going to accomplish these goals. Williams has explained what people need to do, but she did very little even to suggest how an individual might try to accomplish that. This leaves me thinking that black thinkers on the left have little positive to say about what might bring us from the current situation to the ideal world we all would like. It remains to be seen if the black thinkers on the right do any better.

Update: During class tonight I realized something (actually two things, but one of them will remain to be developed in my next race post on victimology). Patricia Williams does have a reason for not dwelling on policy issues. Her general perspective on what the ideal world would look like racially has the resources to explain the absence of social policies in her treatment. The ideal world won't be reached merely by education, since simply teaching people facts won't achieve the two-way perspective-sharing and investment-in-each-other that she thinks would be true in the ideal world of color-blindness. Similarly, social policies will achieve little of what's most important in achieving that goal. They may have some effect (and she obviously thinks they'll have a better effect than more conservative thinkers on these issues, e.g. John McWhorter), but they don't have a huge effect on how well people understand each other, whether they see ultimate value in each other, and to what extent they place their own investments in people of other races, mutually concerned for each other because we already are interconnected. How can a social policy ensure such a thing? So my complaint against her ignoring of the issue is really illegitimate. She has reasons available to her to explain this lack of attention. Those aren't the ways to resolve the deepest issues anyway.

What I'll try to show in the next few posts is the significant reliance of McWhorter's categories (or whoever really came up with them -- I know he didn't) in terms of how they fit into Williams' own and how she should, for consistency's sake, admit to the possibility that his concerns at least play a great role in leading to negative racial effects. When I realized this connection I was quite surprised, but that's a story for another time.

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