Avery at Stereo Describes My Scenario has an excellent post on colorblindness. One question he raises is whether it's good, or even possible, to treat people as if they have no race. He quotes someone he knew who once told him that he didn't really think of him as black. To whatever degree it's impossible to treat people as raceless, it's also illegitimate simply because it's deceptive. I'm with Avery on that. I have one additional concern with this colorblindness thing, but it's a little more complicated than just thinking colorblindness is wrong. It's occurred to me that there are two different ways of being colorblind, one normal and natural and the other viewed as good by the classical liberal framework (of which both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. are part) but which actually can involve real residual racism and certainly negative attitudes toward the people you're being colorblind about.
There's a natural kind of colorblindness. When I'm in a group of people I know well, I'm often not thinking about the racial groupings represented in that group. I sometimes do, and I sometimes even think about its significance. Other times it's just not relevant. I think of my friends as whole people, and their racial assignment in society is only a part of who they are. I don't generally subsume every way of thinking about my Asian friends under the category of Asian. There are so many aspects to them that being Asian doesn't always come on the radar screen for the things I'm thinking about. The same is true of people of a number of other groupings if I know them well, including my wife. I'm not constantly thinking of Sam as black, as if every other thing true of her is subordinate to her blackness. I think of her as Sam, and when being black is relevant it's part of my thinking. Sometimes I'm reminded of it when it's not highly relevant, but sometimes I'm not even thinking about her in terms of race. I'm thinking of her as who she is, and some aspects of the depth of her being aren't crucially subordinated to any racial categorization.
This is perfectly normal and natural, and I suppose someone could see this as one sort of colorblindness. When people become close to you, you grow less likely to see them in terms of any stereotypes you may previously have seen them in light of, including not just racial stereotypes but those involving age, economic or national origin, ways of speaking and dressing, political party, the music someone listens to, etc. This is generally a good thing. This is one reason I think the residual racism that remains in the U.S. isn't going to change too much without more widespread interracial relationships, whether romantic or just friendship, and more widespread commitment to making greater efforts to encourage and consider for oneself such bonds of intimacy. I don't think interracial relationships are morally required (if for no other reason than that some people don't even have the opportunity because of location), but I think there's a greater moral value to pursuing relationships with someone with whom such a relationship is harder, and for most people in the U.S. these relationships might be more difficult and might have greater moral impact on race relations. (There's also greater likelihood of interracial marriage and childbearing, which leads to greater genetic balance and thus counterbalances some of the results of racial inbreeding, but that's sort of a separate issue.) I'm not saying any of this to show any moral superiority that my marriage is interracial and that a few of my closest friends are Asian. It's almost an accident of circumstances (in God's providence, of course) that these are the people I happened to be spending more time with at the crucial junctures. I can't take much credit for that. I'm saying it because I think most people need serious encouragement just to consider such things at all.
On the other hand, I do think there's a really dangerous and insulting kind of colorblindness. Some people bring this up with regard to social policy. They think it's insulting to deny that being black, for instance, has social significance, and therefore arguments against something like affirmative action on the grounds that it discriminates are terribly insulting to black people who see the social effects of being black. Discrimination is only wrong when it's illegitimate. If the social relations due to race are serious enough that discrimination is justified, then such arguments are ignoring the real experiences of black people. That's bad.
(I happen to think affirmative action, at least in the university setting, causes all sorts of harm to black people, so I don't support it despite agreeing with the premises of this argument. I don't really think those social realities are bad enough to require discrimination anyway, even if that were a way to help, which I don't think it is. I should also say that the Constitution makes discrimination on race illegal for any reason, even if the Supreme Court has violated that amendment time and time again by claiming that states have a right to seek diversity at the expense of the Constitution. So any opposition to these arguments against affirmative action, if applied in the U.S., would require revising the Constitution. My long-aforementioned post or series of posts on affirmative action will get to all this.)
The more significant problem for this kind of colorblindness is that it treats being raced as bad while acting as if whiteness is not a race but normalcy. (See this earlier post of mine on normative whiteness, and its comments thread, if you're unfamiliar with the concept or unwittingly think it isn't a real social reality.) When someone says, "I don't really think of you as black," and it's not the normal and natural thing I've described above, I can't figure out what it means unless the assumption is that whiteness is normal and this particular black person is now welcomed into the group of welcomed people, as if someone is presumed not welcomed if black. It doesn't exclude all black people, but it is exclusive as a general policy except in the case of the exceptions who aren't treated as black. It's basically saying, "I don't think of you as black. You don't fit my picture of black people, so I don't think of you that way." It's thus a very demeaning thing to say to someone, treating them as if something they may well take great delight in is bad, as if you have to pretend they're not black to enjoy their friendship.
Let's try to think about this with other ways someone might be different from the norm. What if I said to my blind friend "I don't really think of you as blind"? What would he think? I'd be ignoring something important about who he is and how he must relate to the world and to other people. What if, in the name of moving beyond sex discimination, I said to a female co-worker "I don't really think of you as female"? (Even worse, what if I said it to my wife?) It denies something fundamental about who she is and how she sees herself, none of which is even bad. I've known women who I've thought have had a much easier time befriending men than other women do, and sometimes people say this sort of thing without realizing how offensive and demeaning to women it is. I've even said something close to it in the past about more than one person. Compare these examples with things we no longer consider bad in any sense, and you can see how some illegitimate notion of badness or inappropriate association with such people is involved. I just can't imagine someone saying "I don't really think of you as left-handed." Could you picture someone saying "I don't really think of you as a soccer player" without it just being an admission of ignorance rather than a compliment? So why is "I don't really think of you as black" supposed to be a good thing?