Monday, June 07, 2010

Hysterical Color-Blindness: An Emerging Epidemic?

Readers of this blog know that I've coined the phrase "hysterical color-blindness" in order to describe a psychosocial phenomenon I find both fascinating and deeply disturbing. If you're unfamiliar with the term or want a quick primer read here. I've decided to start compiling stories that I believe reflect this phenomenon and sharing them with you in the interest of ongoing dialogue and reflection. I'm hoping to develop this idea further and at least get some good posts out of it, if not a few presentations or even that book people keeping telling me to write (I don't have patience to write a book but maybe that will change).

I'm going to start with the following story (yes it's Arizona again):

The creators of the "Go On Green" mural, covering two walls outside the school in Prescott, 100 miles north of Phoenix, said they have put up with two months of "racial slander" from motorists driving past.

The artists blame the backlash on Steve Blair, a local councillor who used his radio show to campaign for the mural's removal.

Other residents have described it as "tacky", "ugly" and "ghetto" since it was unveiled at the end of May.

"I am not a racist individual," Mr Blair said on his show show last month. "But I will tell you depicting a black guy in the middle of that mural, based upon who's president of the United States today and based upon the history of this community, when I grew up we had four black families - who I have been very good friends with for years - to depict the biggest picture on that building as a black person, I would have to ask the question, 'Why?'" (Read the whole thing here)

So let it rip readers. What do you think about this story? Who is right? Does Mr. Blair have a point? Have we returned to a time when the mere exposure to the image of a black or brown person provokes outrage? What if your child went to this school?


  1. Shahruz10:59 AM

    Thanks for this post Phillipe. I happen to be a mural appreciator and I don't think it should matter if they painted a rural Chinese farmer as long as it looked good and was uplifting. But as far as this goes, at the very least, his complaint represents the norm in public murals. Go to Roxbury or Chicago's south side. You would have a very tough time finding a mural there with a white kid on it and I think if they were upset about a white kid on a mural there it would not be as big of a deal. The Arizona people calling it "ghetto" is somewhat close-minded and ignorant, but not unfounded, as this style of mural is popular in inner city areas. The shouting of racial slurs however, shows the motivations of some of the residents.

  2. Thanks Shahruz. My understanding is that the children depicted in the mural are real kids who actually go to the school. The mural is not some form of political correctness in a majority white neighborhood.

  3. Rick Schaut5:24 PM


    It seems that we've allowed the distinction between bigotry and racism to become horribly blurred. Racism involves either a belief that one race is superior/inferior to another or the promotion of policies and ideas that have a disproportionately negative impact on minority races.

    The root of bigotry is ignorance. Indeed, a friend of mine once defined a bigot as someone who is ignorant of his own ignorance. As it pertains to race relations in the United States, there is a great deal of ignorance among descendants of white Europeans about a number of aspects of African-American culture. Very few white people, despite having many friends who are black, have ever had to interact with black people in a setting where the prevailing cultural norms where African-American rather than European-American.

    The distinction between racism and bigotry combined with the fact that we've allowed this distinction to become blurred provides a framework for understanding and recognizing hysterical color-blindness as a phenomenon that occurs when people, either rightly or wrongly, seek to avoid the stigma of racism by denying their bigotry.

    I'm reluctant to apply this line of reasoning to this particular incident. I think people are capable of drawing their own conclusions, and getting too far into details of this incident gets too close to backbiting for my comfort level.

    What I do wonder, however, is how do these points apply to Shoghi Effendi's "dual crusade" from the Advent of Divine Justice? How might we apply Shoghi Effendi's counsel to this incident? Is there not some benefit to approaching incidents like these as an outcropping of the fact that people just don't know any better? Does upholding the distinction between bigotry an ignorance provide a means through which we can address the ignorance without condemning people for their lack of understanding?

    I'd be very interested in your thoughts on these questions, and I'd propose that the discussion is worthy of a top-level post.

  4. Anonymous6:20 PM

    A sad story.
    Much as I agree with your exploration of what you call "hysterical color blindness", I think this particular controversy may be a horse of a different color (pun intended). It's about stereotypes and prejudice , conscious or unconscious, that are still deeply held in the American psyche.
    An old song described these color lines when it was consistently legal and overt.
    " If you're white, you're all right;
    if you're brown, stick around;
    if you're black, go back, go back, go back.

    We have had a lot of progress since then, but stereotypes still remain.

    Nobody pretended the boy as he was depicted in the picture was not brown, or that no-one noticed he was brown; no one acted like a brown person was not in the picture, or felt his color was irrelevant.
    Rather, the objection was: a brown person/child should not be in the forefront in a picture about the environment, representing this school; He makes it ugly.
    Then there was the rationale offered for changing the mural to lighten his complexion: " it is not racial," it was "a matter of lighting", they wanted a more cheerful image. So: the lighter the complexion, the more cheerful the person appears? (No sinister black male images need apply).
    Judith W

  5. Thanks to everyone who has waded into these waters so to speak. The distinction between racism and bigotry is interesting, but it's not clear to me how that's important in this case. Maybe you could say more about that Rick?

    Judith, I think that this represents hysterical color-blindness because of the effort to somehow "erase" the reality that there are kids at this school and in this community that are not white. Thus the need to "lighten" the mural. The whole, "this isn't about race" rhetoric is another sign in my opinion. Remember that an aspect of hysterical color-blindness is the pathologizing of color-differences among human beings. It's not just about denying color differences, it's the underlying mental process that contributes to the denial that matters.

  6. Anonymous11:20 PM

    Thanks for clarifying your concept/definition, Phillipe; that is very helpful, and I agree.

    And this concept certainly opens a space for asking: in what manner can and should we Americans travel the "long and thorny road" Shoghi Effendi states we must traverse, together, to eliminate the effects of such a "long standing and virulent " form of racism?

    One thing I've been reflecting about recently: If, as Baha'u'llah states, the whole world is in reality one soul in one body, then any spiritual or moral disease we see afflicting anyone else in the world is, to some extent, a part of me. This reflection helps me eliminate some finger pointing or pontificating and mitigates my self-righteous tendencies. (I hope).

    judith w.

  7. Rick Schaut12:34 AM


    I'm not sure where to begin, in large part, because I'm not sure whether you agree with my assessment that hysterical color-blindness "occurs when people, either rightly or wrongly, seek to avoid the stigma of racism by denying their bigotry." Coming to grips with cultural differences requires acknowledging one's own ignorance, and, therefore, one's bigotry.

    If we equate bigotry with racism, then people who do not believe one race to be inherently superior or inferior to any other race cannot come to grips with their ignorance and the bigotry that inherently arises from that ignorance. This is, I believe, an accurate description of the "underlying mental process" you mentioned.

    Now, this is a comment on a blog post, so I'm leaving a lot of blanks that I think you're capable of filling in--things like oppression and subcultures, and how members of the majority remain largely ignorant of even the existence of the subculture let alone what the differences are.

    The larger point is, if the dynamic that's created by this blurred distinction between bigotry and racism is an inherent part of hysterical color-blindness, then we ought to see this dynamic in play if this particular incident is an example of hysterical color-blindness.

    As I said, I'm reluctant to get into too deep a discussion of any particular individual's behavior, but I will say that, any time someone feels compelled to state, "I am not a racist individual," that's a pretty strong clue that this dynamic is in play. There are a couple of other statements of Mr. Blair quoted at the end of the article that also provide some rather strong clues.

    I'm going to stop here, but I hope it doesn't end the conversation. I also hope this helps to frame the conversation in a constructive way.

  8. Rick, I think that I'm beginning to understand your thinking better. Of course your comment hasn't ended the conversation. We're just getting started! I also appreciate your effort not to engage in back-biting. Any reference to specific issues or individuals on this blog is purely for the purpose of setting a stage for reflection on fundamental issues.

    Judith, I hear you.

  9. There is an examination of a special case of these issues at Bahá'í Faith and Native Americans. This is specifically about challenges in cultural norms between minorities and majorities in a Baha'i context as well as the challenge cultures - majority or minority - face encountering Baha'i principles.

    There is interest in expanding this segment of the article in a stand-alone article and shrink the part in the NA section.

    But addressing the broad issues being raised here... the problem with a definition of bigotry based on ignorance is that it presumes a degree of superiority among some who have figured out they are ignorant and done something about it and those that haven't. And while people who have gone through such a transformation matter (again, back to the article linked) it also implies a degree of ... superiority and or mixed with guilt over the situation oppression of minorities (which then brings up also an aspect of romanticizing the minority position.)

    I'm familiar with the term color-blindness and it's mis-use (like PC language) but hysterical color-blindness seems to use a kind of terminology that invites questions of women's issues. "Hysterical" seems purposely dismissive.

    Anyway, that's some more to think about.