the problem with meritocracy and colorblindness…

Look, one of the colossal reasons that many Democrats and uber-left-wing, hipster, social liberals throw the word “racist” at Republicans is because of this whole “colorblind,” “meritocracy” thing some people like to espouse.

I’m a history major—an amateur by academic standards, but hear me out. This doesn’t seem to be too difficult:

If you drive people from their land; if you bond, kidnap, and enslave them; if you force them into second-class citizenry and incarcerate them at unprecedentedly inequitable rates; if you ignore, chastise, and exclude them all because of some long, deep-seeded racial hatred; if you do this for, let’s say, 400 years, then you suddenly decide to yourself, “hrm, that seems wrong,” it shouldn’t really be a surprise—I don’t think—when “equality” or whatever doesn’t just happen because you want it to now. (see image)

So one of the reasons that social liberals throw the word “racist” at certain Republicans is because of the belief of some that race and racism no longer make any difference to American society simply because, one day, a few more folks than the day before said, “hrm, that seems wrong.” And while colorblindness and meritocracy are indeed wonderful ideas, if they were actually reality then we wouldn’t still see wildly disproportionate rates of incarceration between whites and people of color; wildly disproportionate rates of wealth and leadership positions in our institutions; wildly disproportionate rates of access to basic things like education, health, and housing…

But we do see those things. We know all about them (or should).

And if you believe that we’re past the race-thing and that race no longer matters and all of those disproportionate rates of access to basic human things is completely colorblind and merit-based, then you have to admit that the reason those rates exist as inappropriately disproportionate as they do is because of some kind of inherent superiority of the white race. You have to believe that if the system is fair, right now, then the only possible reason that we see these awful disparities is because people of color must have something inherently wrong about them.

And that, I’m pretty sure, by definition, is racist.

I guess it just seems very simple. If you think America operates without regard to race, then you must believe that America is still (and in many cases increasingly) as segregated as it is because of the collective superior merits of white people.

And if you believe in the collective superior merits of white people—and if you especially act in ways that demonstrate that belief and perpetuate that notion (i.e. supporting colorblindness and meritocracy)—then, I do believe, that you are supporting a pretty racist idea.

The alternative, however, could be and I think should be recognizing that access to so many of the fundamental things that we all agree are awesome does not exist for all people; that more often than we might want to believe, access does not exist for people of color where it does for whites. We can’t even think about that significant stat if we don’t recognize race and color and history.

So when people on the left say “racist” about people on the right, oftentimes it is in regard to this seeming inconsistency in the thought-process behind colorblindness and meritocracy. And I guess I don’t see that this should be too difficult to understand, either.

Also, even if you’ve seen this before (see what I did there?), check this out again, please:

Teaching Whites about Trayvon.

From what I understand, children of color are taught how to navigate race and racism from an early age. White children, mostly, are not. And this seems inadequate for solving the complete problem.

Touré has written another powerful piece, “How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin,” in which he demonstrates how to prepare young black boys to understand and to accept the “the potentially fatal condition of being black.”

It’s compelling and it hurts me and it frustrates me.

And it’s absolutely a kind of sick privilege for me to have gone 20-some years never truly having had to learn about how to navigate race and racism as a white person or about how my peers of color have been taught this information—as a tool for survival—from a very early age.

But now that I’m beginning to see how race and racism is taught, for instance, to young black boys, I want to know:

Who is teaching young white boys and girls about Trayvon Martin??

Seriously. Is it so difficult to imagine that for every young person of color who has been taught explicitly about the ever-present possibility of racism and violence and oppression that there are two or three young white people who have not been taught explicitly about the responsibility of racial privilege, about the history of violence and oppression done by those acting in the interest of the majority, and about the moral wickedness, conscious or unconscious, of the institutions that have been structured by the legacy of that racialized privilege and history?

As powerful and, perhaps, soothing, as empathy and solidarity from white people for a victim or a family following a tragedy can be in any case of racialized oppression or violence, I don’t believe for a second that our work as white people is over at empathy and that we should move on with our lives until the next time we can hold a tweet-up, or a prayer service, or a town hall meeting in reaction to an act we will find just as offensive.

Because children of color are taught how to navigate race and racism. And because white children, mostly, are not.

And to me, that seems quite an imbalance of our total human resources in dealing with a complete racist reality, one which we find so deeply and morally challenging and anathema to something like Humanity.

I’ve seen in recent days a lot of extremely powerful images of Black children and adults in hooded sweatshirts holding signs saying things like “I am Trayvon Martin.” I’ve seen images that moved me to tears of Black women with the words “Am I next?” written across pregnant bellies.

And I’ve seen even some powerful images of white people with similar signs standing in solidarity and that’s an incredible, incredible thing.

But our empathy cannot end with solidarity. Or rather, our solidarity cannot end with empathy. In whichever case, I mean to caution that as white people our participation in conversation about race and racism and oppression cannot stop with tears and prayers and hugs.

Rather, our empathy and our solidarity must continue with the education of our own and especially our own children about these realties and possibilities—so that we never perpetuate these racist realities or give cause for others to fear us.

We must constantly remind ourselves and our young people about the responsibility of combatting always the depravities of racial privilege.

We must constantly remind our young people how to create thoughtful, healthy, antiracist identities through the awareness not only of heinous actions, but of larger structural problems.

And we must constantly encourage our young people to create authentic, cross-cultural relationships for the purposes not just of our own understanding but for the purposes of creating trust and collaboration and of dispelling the threats of racism that people of color are teaching to their own children about us.

When I got home from work on Thursday evening I went for a jog. I went for a jog along the scenic, river-walk path that curls by the river in the sundown town in which my wife and I just bought a home.

As I was jogging, I rounded one of the bends of the path along the river and I approached a young, Black male teenager, walking alone. He was not wearing a hoodie.

And as I approached him I wondered if this boy, like other young Black boys, had been taught not to trust me, to see me running toward him as a threat, and to brace himself for the possibility of racism and violence from me.

And as I puffed up the hill toward him I smiled and I said hello. And as we passed each other the boy kept his head down and he said nothing. And I guess I have to expect that this boy—probably fourteen or fifteen years old—had been taught or had otherwise learned that there exists in every case of an approaching, running, white male the possibility for racism and violence, and that in his mind I could be the threat.

And even while I try to do everything within the moment that I think I possibly can to not perpetuate that fear of threat, the education had already happened.

People of color recognize the importance of teaching their children about the unfortunate, ever-present possibility of becoming the victim of racial violence. And, again, it seems an inappropriate imbalance of our total human resources for dealing with an issue to expect that the impetus for the elimination of oppression must only be the responsibility of the oppressed.

Rather, please, whites must be willing and courageous enough to recognize the importance of teaching our own children about the ever-present possibility of being, or at the very least of being perceived as, the oppressor.

And while there are plenty of deep, structural inequities inherent in the institutions we interact with on a daily basis, the least we can do—beyond the empathy and the solidarity—is to educate ourselves and our own children about the realities of race and about the responsibilities of the unfair privileges we have been granted simply by the arbitrariness of the color of our skin.

What if…?

I don’t want it to be true either. But what if it is?

What if your favorite movie has no people of color in it because the movie producers and director didn’t think a movie without white people in leading roles would produce enough of a profit?

What if the Black woman serving you from behind the counter at McDonald’s was raised to distrust and even hate you for no other reason than your white skin?

What if your favorite major league baseball team built a development facility in a poor Latin American neighborhood for the express purpose of grooming 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old boys for the major leagues in order to keep player salaries low and to maximize profits for owners?

What if the Black Transformer really did die first?

What if slavery was able to remain a significant part of the American economy well into the twentieth century based on racist laws that criminalized the poor, Black experience?

What if the Native American mascot on your sweatshirt offends over four million people nationwide? What if it offends your neighbor down the street?

What if the percentage of people of color living in your town today is barely 5% precisely because of actual city ordinances—enforced well into the 1970s—that forbade Blacks from being in your very town after sundown?

What if Trayvon Martin was murdered because the color of his skin and the way he dressed made a racist guy with a gun uncomfortable?

What if companies that supply food on your own table exploit images of underrepresented and historically oppressed peoples in an effort to make a profit?

What if there is only one majority owner of color of any major professional sport?

What if you were able to secure a great loan on your house simply because your white skin has monetary value and was interpreted as safe and nonthreatening?

What if one out of three Black males between the ages of 18 and 30 are in jail right now because of a national history of racist legal policies and practices, which continue to be enforced?

What if you were able to complete a graduate school degree program because you were able to complete a bachelor’s degree because you were able to attend a well-funded high school because you were able to attend good public and private elementary and middle schools because you were able to be born to white parents who had amassed wealth because they had been born to white parents who had been able to amass wealth because they happened to benefit from growing up white in an era that was purposefully and cruelly racist and segregated?

What if white privilege exists?

What if we don’t live in a post-racial era?

It’s a difficult thing, I know, to reconcile the contradiction between what you want to believe and what actually is true. Smart people call this cognitive dissonance—“when new truths battle established beliefs for space in our consciousness.”

I don’t want it to be true either. But what if it is?

Hearing new information about issues of structural and widespread racial inequity, especially including white privilege, is made particularly challenging, and often painful, when that new information contradicts what we want to believe, what we have grown comfortable believing, and what we could always justify as long as it was in our best interests. And it usually was, if we think honestly and critically about it.

So what if this new information really is true? What if you come to find out that racism is ingrained in the system you live in, work in, raise a family in? What do you do about it?

“Because it’s fun” is not nearly enough.

I’m sitting at home on a lazy Sunday afternoon reading a bit of light child development theory and – Hey, my wife and I are expecting our first child in a few months and I’m a dork. What do you expect?!

Anyway, I’m sitting at home on Sunday reading about this cat named John Dewey who had some things to say about early childhood education, specifically the differences between “Education” and “Mis-Education.” And anyway I’m sitting here reading about how to structure an effective developmental learning program for a two-year-old by creating activities that:

  • Are based on a child’s interests and expands upon their existing knowledge and experiences.
  • Help to develop a new skill or skillset.
  • Add to the child’s existing knowledge of their world.
  • Prepare the child to live more fully.

Specifically, the short section I am reading suggests that just because a child’s activity is fun, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are engaged in any kind of learning.

Of course, there is a time for fun and a time for learning—but it got me thinking about—what else?—race and education and how college students learn. Hell, how any of us learn.

Luckily, I decided, I can answer most of the questions about my own multicultural education programs in higher ed that John Dewey asked about early childhood education activities:

  • How does the program/activity expand upon what students already know?
  • How does the program/activity help students to develop new skills or skillsets?
  • How does the program/activity help students to know more about their world?
  • How does the program/activity challenge students to live more fully?

Not bad questions to ask, are they? Especially when we start talking about programs that get after difficult, challenging topics like race, racism, white privilege, social justice, poverty, and racial equity?

Oftentimes, we know, we see or hear about programs in student affairs that were implemented or were allowed to continue because “It’s fun,” or because “Everyone likes it,” or because “It’s what students want to do.”

Similarly, we know, we also see and hear about programs in student affairs that were not implemented or were changed because “Talking about race is depressing,” or because “It made students too uncomfortable,” or because “Students don’t want to talk about racism.”

The similarities between childhood education and higher education are that they both intend to encourage new awareness and knowledge about the world and new skills to live more fully.

And I don’t understand my job as one that is supposed to coddle anyone.

So I guess I’m trying to say that the childhood education thing has got my mind turning about how to continue to structure more deliberately programs that build upon what students already know about these difficult topics, that encourage new skills at awareness and interaction, that develop new knowledge about the world, and that prepare students to live more fully.

And I don’t intend always that these programs or events will necessarily or exclusively be “fun,” but they will be things that students want to do and need to do for the sake of doing them and for the sake of learning. And if they don’t, then I’ll take it to mean that I didn’t do a good enough job preparing the program in the first place.

Because if we can make a two-year-old do something simply by structuring the right educational environment for them, we certainly can make grown 18, 19, 20, and 21 year-olds think about their world in ways that will prepare them to live more fully, as well.


*The book I’m musing about here is Theories of Childhood and is written by Carol Garhart Mooney.