On his popular television show The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert is fond of crowing "I don't see race!" Of course, we're meant to laugh at the comedian's pompous, know-nothing character. But, truth be told, I've met a great many Colberts--folks who believe they are colorblind and, therefore, unbiased when it comes to race-the sort that lean in close to mouth the word "black," as if noticing and naming race is inherently shameful. It is not. It is what happens after people notice race that is the problem. And I don't mean the moment of racial bias when someone makes a judgment based on another person's skin color. That prejudice, I think, is human and inevitable.
Mind you, I am not saying racism is unavoidable or excusable. I simply mean that whether by nature or nurture, human beings are predisposed to make certain judgments and to favor what looks and feels familiar. According to a recent article in the Daily Mail, the results of a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology reveals bias in our wiring:
But when we see someone of a different race do the same thing we make much less effort to empathize.
The newspaper also reports that participants in the bias study were all white males, which seems to give the conclusions a bias all their own.
If not part of biology, bias could be embedded in our being by the cues we receive from the time we are children. We are all--all of us of every race--inundated daily with the preferences of the majority culture. The Children's Research Lab at the University of Texas has studied the racial perceptions of white children age 5 to 7, many of whom had parents who preferred a "colorblind" approach to anti-racism. According to Newsweek:
They wanted their children to grow up colorblind. But Vittrup's first test of the kids revealed they weren't colorblind at all. Asked how many white people are mean, these children commonly answered, "Almost none." Asked how many blacks are mean, many answered, "Some," or "A lot." Even kids who attended diverse schools answered the questions this way.
More disturbing, Vittrup also asked all the kids a very blunt question: "Do your parents like black people?" Fourteen percent said outright, "No, my parents don't like black people"; 38 percent of the kids answered, "I don't know." In this supposed race-free vacuum being created by parents, kids were left to improvise their own conclusions-many of which would be abhorrent to their parents.
We have biases. That is not the problem. The problem is that these prejudices too often remain, in the words of opera singer Marian Anderson, "...like a hair across your cheek. You can't see it, you can't find it with your fingers, but you keep brushing at it because the feel of it is irritating."
No, prejudice is not the problem. It is in the thin space between bias and action where the trouble lies. Racism sprouts from that place where people fail to recognize their inherent prejudices as...well...prejudices and instead act on them as if they were truth. Here is the place where we as a society need to do our work. Unfortunately, we get tangled up in colorblindness and post-racialism. We make bias a moral issue and not a human failing. We don't see race. We don't see our own race bias either. And so, we do not see racism. And the work of equality goes undone.