Thursday, July 12, 2012

Discourse and colorblind racism

I have been getting into a lot of conversations lately.  Friends ask, “How’s your summer going?”  “Great,” I say with a wry smile, “I’ve been spending the summer reading about systemic racism.”  

I really need to learn the art of chit-chat. 

Of course, these conversations inevitably end up being more difficult than I intended.  I am in a certain frame of mind right now and I forget that all my friends haven’t been reading along with me.  I liken it to a study abroad experience: I have been changing slowly in my way of thinking, and I expect that everything will be the same with the people I have known for so long.  My point is not to say my friends are not also changing and growing, it’s just that we are having different experiences. 

The latest book I read was called Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (2003).  Again, not a conversation starter in most circles, and if a conversation did get started, I have a feeling it would get ugly rather quickly.  But since you are reading this blog, I assume you would like me to explain why this is an important, insightful work.  

Bonilla-Silva conducted two large studies, one with hundreds of white university students, and the other in the city of Detroit with black and white adult participants from diverse backgrounds.  He and his fellow researchers conducted hours and hours of interviews with these participants.  The interviews centered on issues of race, racism and racial inequality.  For example, most of the participants were asked, “What is your opinion about affirmative action?” or “Interracial marriage is a controversial subject.  What do you think about this topic?”  The interviews were recorded, transcribed and then analyzed.  The goal was to look at the ways in which people, black and white, talked about race.  This included body language, silence, tone, volume and rate of speech, and other speech patterns, like stuttering or false starts. 

I should make clear at this point that the goal was NOT to analyze the speech of well-meaning individuals and reveal, “Hah!  We knew it! You’re a racist!”  In fact, Bonilla-Silva makes it very clear he doesn’t believe that people are either “good, non-racist” people or “bad racist” people.  Bonilla-Silva also noted that participants, regardless of age, mostly did NOT use racial slurs or other explicitly racist language more typical of the “Jim Crow” era.  Instead, with the understanding that racism is both systemic and institutionalized in the U.S., Bonilla-Silva wanted to see how people are influenced by this dominant ideology, even if their language is not overtly racist.   Therefore, the interviewers were very careful to ask questions in a way that would show the racial beliefs of the participants.  I might even describe it in terms of “innocent until proven guilty”—the interviewers attempted to help the participants clarify their views in ways that would show that they did not hold racist beliefs if that was the case.  

Bonilla-Silva found that many white participants, who were mostly complete strangers from across the state of Michigan, shared ways of talking about race, racism and racial inequality.  He calls these “frames.”  For example, one of the main frames is that of “cultural racism,” which has been traditionally described in terms of a “culture of poverty” (e.g. “Blacks don’t place much emphasis on education.”)  Ostensibly, it replaces essentialist racism, but since it presents culture as monolithic and stable it has been called the “biologization of culture.”   This was offered by many participants as a primary explanation for racial inequality in society.  While it seems like a compassionate response, it ignores systemic racism and places the responsibility on the victims.  Bonilla-Silva found that white participants used this frame, but that this frame also seemed to indirectly affect the discourse of some black participants, as well. 

An extension of the cultural racism frame is the narrative of the “exceptional black,” that is, the belief that most black people are culturally deficient, but there are a few exceptions (e.g. “I know a black guy who makes more money than I do.  He didn’t let discrimination get him down.”)  This is also similar to a rhetorical move that many participants used: “If the Jews/Italians/Irish/Asians can make it, why can’t the blacks?”  This is in line with the belief that if a person just works hard, they can succeed.  Ultimately, this view minimizes institutionalized racism against blacks specifically, but also against other people of color.  It also can be yet another way to “talk around” a belief that black people are culturally deficient. 

Bonilla-Silva found with the participants in his study that the use of color-blind discourse combined several frames and rhetorical moves.  Other frames were “minimization of racism” (e.g. I don’t think discrimination really happens these days.”) and “naturalization” (e.g. “People like to stay with their kind of people. It’s just the way it is.”)   Rhetorical moves included projection (e.g. “They are the racists ones.”) and claiming interracial friendships (e.g. “Some of my best friends are black.”). 

Again, the use of these frames and rhetorical devices do not reveal that the participants are inherently racist people; however, it does indicate problematic and faulty beliefs about racial inequality, discrimination, and privilege.  Secondly, the evidence of the “racial grammar” of color-blind racism in the discourse of many unrelated white people, and even some black people, is further proof of a hegemonic racial ideology in the U.S. (Frankenberg’s power- and color-evasive discourse, or Feagin’s white racial frame).   It is possible for the participants to have been influenced by this color-blind ideology and have incorporated it into their discourse without active awareness, especially if they had been socialized in predominantly white environments.  My advisor suggested that one way to think about discourses is that they speak “through us” in imperceptible ways.  It is this color-blind discourse, however, that allows people to navigate around issues of race so that a few pernicious racist perceptions remain unrecognized and unchallenged.

It is important to point out here that most black participants, and a handful of white participants, did show a “race cognizance” (Frankenberg, 1993).  In other words, while they may have displayed some influence from color-blind discourse, they recognized that racism still exists and that while race is merely a social construct, it still matters in terms of life outcomes in the U.S.  This shows, in line with other researchers, that it is possible to break out of the cycle of socialization, recognize the dominant discourse, and reject it. 

Most of the conversations I have had recently with white folks have ended poorly and left me feeling rather confused.  It’s like we are speaking different languages.  And it turns out, we almost are.  As I shift into “race cognizance,” I am finding more and more examples of color-blind discourse in the conversations with friends, family, and even strangers.  I also recognize that in the past I have been guilty of buying into and using several of these frames and rhetorical moves.  As I moved from my white segregated context to work with urban mercy ministries, I attempted to explain the inequality that I encountered.  Even though I had excellent mentors who told me about institutionalized racism, I still functioned from the whitewashed version of history that I had learned from my family, friends, church and school.  It has been a huge shift for me to realize that systemic racism currently, and over the course of the history of our nation, accounts for the majority of racial inequality that exists within our society.  Cultural explanations for racial inequality are deceptively gentler versions of racism because at the heart is a view of “black culture” as monolithic and essentially inferior. 

My understanding of solidarity has also been refined as I have realized the fallacy of cultural racism.  While it purports to be compassionate, I realize that I cannot be truly empathetic if I don’t recognize the systematic and institutionalized barriers that have been set up to oppress different groups.  Joining with an oppressed group in solidarity had a shallow meaning for me; I assumed I was mostly commiserating with “those people” and helping them to better their situation.  In reality, solidarity means that I recognize our common humanity and abandon the idea of “us and them.”  I must recognize the struggle of oppressed people against a system, acknowledge my role in that system, and as much as I am able, attempt to disassociate myself from this system, which has ultimately damaged white folks, as well.  Then, as I fight against the system alongside the oppressed, I must realize that they have been fighting long before I came on the scene, and that ultimately the struggle will cost the oppressed more.  


Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

Feagin, J. R. (2006). Systemic racism: A theory of oppression. New York: Routledge.

Frankenberg, R. (1993). White women, race matters: The social construction of whiteness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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