Last fall, I lost a friend. In a single conversation, I went from someone he cared deeply about to someone he loathed. We didn’t argue or shout; our conversation was in text. He wrote a blog entry the night of Barak Obama’s election:

Barring a miracle, I fear I have just taken part in the last free election of the United States of America. As some laugh and rejoice, I am silent, seeing what is likely the end of everything my ancestors have fought to protect since we were colonies.

As I was one of those rejoicing millions, I wrote back, confused. “What are you afraid of?” I asked. “Is it because Obama is black?” His blogged reply knocked my socks off:

This has really simmered and burned me the last few days. I was accused of being a racist by someone whom I thought knew me better than that. If I had a nickel from every inbred bigoted two-bit Yankee who has told me "Well, you’re from the South, so you obviously hate black people," I wouldn’t have to work ever again . I *DONT* hate anyone based on their race or faith.. NOT ONE SINGLE PERSON ON THE ENTIRE PLANET. But you want to know who I *DO* hate with a vengeance??? People who *think* I'm racist.

Over the past two generations, Americans have been indoctrinated against the evilness of racism. Harper Lee, through the character of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, says “As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it - whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.”

For decades we’ve been told that racists are detestable, irrational people; racists are stupid, unthinking, uneducated, and are filled with hate and bile. Being a racist is not just bad, not just a character defect, it is horrific.

To many Americans, the mere suggestion that we might be sensitive to race is unacceptable, and is met with furious, heart-felt denial. In the face of such an accusation, many will argue that they are “color blind,” and that race plays no part in their decision-making process or interacting with others. Discussing this issue, another friend of mine wrote, “I don’t even notice when someone is of a different race! Race is not on my radar.”

This type of thinking is dangerous. It is a trap. Thinking that we are color blind is a self-deception that draws us further into racist thinking.

Xenophobia, or anxiety about strangers, is probably hardwired into our behavior. The fear of “the other” is found in almost every species on earth, from ants to elephants (Southwick et al 1974 ). Though it is a behavior that is often reinforced, xenophobia is not a learned behavior, but is something that every baby develops around the age of six months. (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007) Behavioral scientist Johan van der Dennen states that xenophobia “is a widespread trait throughout the animal kingdom, important because it helps to “maintain the integrity of the social group” and “ensures that group members will be socially familiar.”

But humans aren’t simple animals. We are intelligent, complex, social beings. Translated into human culture, our basic, hardwired fears are justified and rationalized, becoming what van der Dennen calls sentimental structures. Our lusty sexual urges become “eroticism”, our feeling of loss at the death of a child becomes “mourning,” and our anger becomes “hate.”

Our basic, hardwired emotions are the raw materials that we push into the mold of conventional symbols and abstract concepts. Though it is a behavior that is often reinforced, xenophobia is not a learned behavior, but is something that every baby develops around the age of six months, (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 2007) and it is our adaptive and necessary (Harris 2006) fear of “the other” that is the raw material from which racism is formed.

So, if we all share a basic xenophobia, does that mean we are all racists? It depends on our definitions.

Generations of social scientists have said have said that racism is a social dysfunction or pathology (Poussaint 2002). But if xenophobia is natural and adaptive, can we call it dysfunction? Tom Bouchard, director of the MinnesotaCenter for Twin and Adoption Research, points out that: "The genes sing a prehistoric song that must sometimes be resisted but which should never be ignored." (Lykken, 1998)

Culture is the framework on which we hang our xenophobia. Perhaps it is a type of hairstyle, someone who is too tall, too short, or too fat, or too thin. Perhaps it is the way someone pronounces a word, or their beliefs. Perhaps it is a different type of clothing, a physical disability, or the color of their skin. Anything that signals to us that this person is “the other” will cause a subconscious xenophobic reaction.

Our xenophobia can be resisted, but it must not be ignored. If we ignore it, we risk falling into the trap of color blind racism. Mark Halstead, Reader in Moral Education at the University of Plymouth, defines color-blind racism as “the type which most closely corresponds to what is commonly called 'unintentional racism.' Color- blindness falls down because it is based on an idealistic principle (that all people are equal) which may be valid sub specie aeternitatis but which fails to take account of the contingent facts of racial inequality and disadvantage in our present society.”

In the late 1970’s, sociologists suggested that racism could be fought by pretending that there was no such thing as race. Surely ignoring that one man was of one race and one was the other would be the best policy and would lead to true egalitarianism. William Julian Wilson, in his book The Declining Significance of Race (1978), wrote that, compared to the overt racial prejudice of the early twentieth century, racial barriers had “crumbled under the political, social and economic changes of the civil rights era.” Instead, barriers were “simply” those of socio-economic class.

What a relief! Blacks no longer had to worry about not being white! They could simply rise above social barriers by moving up the socio-economic ladder, just as so many of our white, European immigrant ancestors had done. Sure, there were still barriers against a poor, young black man to receiving an education, getting a job, and buying a house, but those barriers were because he was poor, not because he was black.

Striving toward the ideal of thinking “color blind”, American sociologists in the 1980’s sought to link clear societal failure of non-whites to anything other than barriers of racial prejudice, and national politics swung away from anti-discrimination laws. Since race was no longer a problem, blacks now had the same advantages and privileges as whites. Whites no longer had to even think about their unconscious xenophobia.

And that is the problem with being color blind.

In his compelling book Racism Without Racists (2006), Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes that the Color Blind ideology leads to fallacious thinking: it causes us to minimize racial disparities, to ignore white privilege, to think that racial segregation is natural, and to ignore our own actions that are racially discriminative.

"This color-blind racism ideology, comprised of frames, style, and racial stories seems suave, even genteel, but it is not," said Eduardo Bonilla-Silva in 2008 at a speech at SmithUniversity. "Color-blind racism is the most significant political tool available to whites to explain and ultimately justify the racial status quo." (Neale, 2008)

Americans live in a society that is imbued with messages about race. Interestingly, these messages work best on us when they are delivered below the radar, at an implicit level. When an appeal is explicit, people will react negatively because the appeal violated the norm against racism. (DiTomaso, et el 2002)

Every day of our lives, from infancy to old age, we are bathed in an acid wash of subconscious messages of racial bias. These messages of racial bias are most easily absorbed when we ignore their presence and they fly under the wire.

An example of unrecognized white privilege can be seen in the public blog post of science fiction author David Levine. In an internet-wide debate on characters-of-color in science fiction/fantasy genre fiction dubbed RaceFail09, authors, editors, publishers and readers discussed the reasons why there were not more characters of color portrayed in available science fiction and fantasy genre literature:

Levine wrote:

“I have sometimes included characters of color, and of races and cultures other than my own, in my writing. I've been trying to do it more. I recognize that doing so is fraught with peril and I have done my best, through critique and research and asking questions, to get it right. I also recognize that sometimes I will get it wrong, and if I do so in a published work I will take my lumps and try to do better in the future.
However. Your reactions to the written works and Internet posts of my friends who are also trying to do the same have made me question even the attempt. The height and breadth of the heap of spleen that I have seen dumped upon my friends is more than just "lumps" -- it's something I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. This slapfight, dogpile, shitstorm, whatever you want to call it, has been so severe that I am wondering if I should even try.”

Levine was answered in a public blog entry by abydosangel:

“You know what, sport? Them's The Breaks when you do something badly, and then your friends (like you are doing here) miss the point and make it about White Asshurt when they ride in to your rescue.
… Is this about getting it right, or people patting your wee head? Make up your mind which one it is, because if it's the latter, then I have to question your motives for writing a Black character at all. It will not guarantee you A Ghetto Pass, or Black People Like Me cred and finally - we don't need you to tell our stories. Not at all.
Am I being perfectly clear, white writers?
We do not need you to tell our stories and if you can't make an attempt without creating a three ring circus around your predictably bad efforts; we don't want you to.”

Is Levine acting overtly racist? No; in fact, he says that he sees that people of color are under-represented in science fiction and fantasy, and he expresses his desire to include more characters of color in his own stories. What Levine doesn’t recognize is that there are plenty of people of color who are writing great stories which include characters of color, but that these stories are not available to the general public because editors and publishers have historically been white males who overwhelmingly choose stories about white male characters written by white male authors.

This is the second half of white privilege; those with the privilege believe that they must be the ones to take action. Not enough characters of color in genre literature? It must be that there aren’t any people of color who write well. What’s a conscientious white writer to do? Since there is no racism, it must be the job of white writers to write more fiction that includes characters of color. Where Levine fails is in assuming that it is his job to write fiction that includes more characters of color, instead of joining his voice to others who are asking the publishing industry why they do not publish stories by people of color.

Throughout the internet discussion that was Racefail09, the notion that the lack of fiction written by people of color is due to unacknowledged racism is not only not addressed, but objected with such vehemence that one imagines if it had been face to face, blows might have been exchanged.

The reason that color blind racism is so dangerous is that it begs us to justify and minimize our racially prejudiced actions. People who strive for being “color blind” mistakenly believe that any recognition of race is racist. Since we know that we try to avoid overt racism, and therefore aren’t racist, we strongly deny that we react to race, even subconsciously.

Since we aren’t racist, the fact that there are more black men in prison than in college must be because black people break the law more than do white people. Since we aren’t racist, the fact that Hispanics pay the highest percentage of their income for their home mortgage must be because Hispanics are more poor and unreliable than white people. Since we aren’t racist, the fact that there are twice as many disabled Native Americans than the average US population is because Native Americans are uneducated alcoholics, and don’t take care of their health as well as do white people.

Certainly, it can’t be because our courts give prison sentences to blacks when they give plea agreements and probation to whites (Ziedenberg et el, 2002), that our banks charge Hispanics a higher interest rate than whites with the same income and credit rating (Zibel, 2009), and that our Native Americans don’t have access to the same level of rural healthcare that is available in similar rural white communities (Smedley et el, 2003).

Instead of striving for “color blindness,” we should acknowledge and celebrate the differences between cultures and race. Instead of denying our primal fear of “the other,” we should look it in the eye. We should readily and easily acknowledge that we sometimes make decisions and judgments that have a racial bias. If we do that, if we admit that we are only human, we can check our behavior for bias without a need for justification.

If we can accept that xenophobia is a part of being human, we may be able to begin to fight true racism. If we can accept the reality of white privilege and accept that our culture exudes a multitude of racially biased messages, policies and actions, then things can change. If we can look our unthinking racism in the eye without shame or anger, then we can honestly say that we may need to reassess our thoughts and our actions.

I commented on my friend John’s blog, “What are you afraid of? Is it because Obama is black?”
He replied:

This person put words in my mouth, and slandered me. I will not *EVER* be able to trust them again. And they have completely destroyed any chance of a relationship with me. If there is no trust in a relationship, then there is no relationship. They are dead to me.

We have not spoken since, and I miss my friend. If he could accept my words, I would say that I regret the distance that has come between us. I regret, John, that you see me as your enemy. I do not think that you are evil or vicious. I don’t think that you are a racist. I regret that what I said caused you pain. But here’s the thing, John – I do not regret my words. I would ask you those questions again, if I could.

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