Let’s get this straight first: I understand that race is a social construct and not a biological imperative. There is almost nothing separating a black man in South Africa from a white man in Germany except where they stand on the finale of Breaking Bad. The problem is that so few people subscribe to this scientific reality that it can’t put a dent racism’s swag, so we have to navigate it.
Unfortunately, some people think the best way to navigate it is to ignore it. As you might imagine, they’re wrong. It doesn’t work for that beer gut you can’t lose and it doesn’t work for racism. Here are three reasons why:
1) It’s not “natural”
“Natural” here refers more to how we’re socialized than how we’re born. Some things are so ingrained into the social and human experience that we can’t escape them. Worse, there’s no evidence to support any genuine interest in changing the condition as a society.
Take racism, for instance. While times are certainly better for people of color than they were in 1965, I think it’s safe to say that no one of any color is laboring under the impression that we’re light years away from “Whites Only” fountains and bus seats, or anywhere near a post-racial anything. In fact, the media has done great business trading in on society’s disinterest in genuine change regarding race by, in one breath, telling us the bad things racists do every day (George Zimmerman’s hunting license, Duck Dynasty’s semi-meltdown), and in another shoving more racist fodder into our collective value system (every episode of every Real Housewives show ever). Racism is inescapable. We are born into it and we die with it on our lips, all of us. Trying to change it is noble and necessary, but is often like trying to convince your depressed co-worker that Girl Scout cookies are bad for her after her boyfriend just dumped her and she’s all out of Blue Bunny Red Velvet ice cream.
So why doesn’t ignoring race work on a natural level? Mostly because we’ve gone too far with its meaning. If “race” only meant “color of one’s skin” then we might have stood a chance. Appearance is negotiable. Any ugly person can get it if they have to.
As it stands, we’ve allowed it to mean more than that. Now it means culture. It means value and belief systems. It means favored cuisine. It means One Who Talks To Screen During Movie. Now, black folks didn’t used to do any of these things based on the color of our skin. We just used to call it being “Massai” or “Dogon” or “Egyptian.” You know: cultural and sociological groups. Then we took a ride on some really shitty cruise ship and let somebody turn our perfectly good ethnicities into The Scarlet Gang Sign.
In short, it means more now, so to discount it is to discount a lot of other things that are valid and wonderful about being whatever you are, and as a species we’re well past the point of being trained otherwise.
2. It’s not what victims of racism are asking for
When people of color say things like “I don’t want my race to be a factor,” we don’t say that thinking white people can somehow turn off how they see color. We’re not asking you to be color blind; we’re asking for you to rank that feature in our dealings where it belongs, which is just underneath whether or not I think Superman should have worn his underwear on the outside of his costume in Man of Steel.
We’re not asking for you to discount our history and our struggles. We mean we don’t want you to show preferential or detrimental treatment to us because of it. We want to be considered for the people we are underneath our really slick hairstyles and awesomely hung dicks.
3. It’s unfair
Even wanting to negate race from a person – let alone being able to consider it seriously – is a sign of privilege. Let a black person be like, “I’m sorry, but I’m not going to allow my race to be a factor in how the world perceives me. Tough luck, racism.” You could literally watch the clock move on how long it would take for the machine of racism to rectify that glitch in the Matrix.
Try that exercise as a white person. Go ahead: take your stance against acknowledging race in your daily life. How long would it be before you HAD to deal with an issue of race? A day? A week? Would you even have to deal with it directly if you didn’t want to? Could you likely go all week without even talking to a black person who wasn’t serving you in a restaurant?
The answer is “Yes.” And while some of that is just the math of population, it shouldn’t be possible in this day and age to discount, not just the needs and concerns, but in many ways the very existence of 12% of the population in a country whose Commander in Chief is black and still has Oprah on television.
In conclusion, let me state that I’m not suggesting that white people suddenly start bringing it up every time they have a dinner party, especially if one of us isn’t there to back them up. Ignoring it, however, only perpetuates the problem. It didn’t work on your acne in high school and it doesn’t work on the socio-political behemoth that is racism either. Note it, define it, own it, confront it and deal with it.