Saturday, December 04, 2010

Hysterical Color Blindness and History

A while ago, I introduced the concept of hysterical color blindness as a psychospiritual condition that can result from adherence to the ideology of color blindness (note: I am not saying that everyone ends up this way but some do). This is what I said at the time:

"The problem with color-blind ideology is not the goal of ending color-based judgments of human beings. Who could disagree with that? The problem is that when we claim not to see color we are not being truthful. How can an effort at social change be healthy or effective if it is based on an untruth?

"Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized" (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 384)

I believe that there are Americans for whom long term insistence on the untruth of not seeing color has effected their ability to see racism itself. Not only that, but they insist that others join them in this not seeing. This is why they get so upset when people bring up the possibility of racism. I refer to this state of being as hysterical color-blindness.

Let me repeat that reasonable people can disagree about whether particular incidents or trends in America are based on racism or not. What I am describing is a completely different phenomenon. Hysterical color-blindness is anything but reasonable. It is the insistence that race not be discussed and the denial of the truth of racism even in the face of supporting evidence."

I've wondered since then whether or not hysterical color blindness represents an emerging epidemic and cited at least one of example of how this state of mind might impact social policy. It would seem that hysterical color blindness also has implications for how we understand our history:

"ATLANTA — The Civil War, the most wrenching and bloody episode in American history, may not seem like much of a cause for celebration, especially in the South.

And yet, as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.

The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

In addition, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some of its local chapters are preparing various television commercials that they hope to show next year. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one ad from the group’s Georgia Division.

That some — even now — are honoring secession, with barely a nod to the role of slavery, underscores how divisive a topic the war remains, with Americans continuing to debate its causes, its meaning and its legacy.

'We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons, explaining the reason for the television ads. While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.'"(Read the whole thing here)

Efforts to minimize the significance of slavery and in some cases outright deny it was the reason the South seceded from the Union are amusing in light of the fact that folks who actually lived at that time knew exactly why they were seceding and said so. For example, leaders of South Carolina signed a "Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union". Among other things this document states the following:

"In the present case, that fact is established with certainty. We assert that fourteen of the States have deliberately refused, for years past, to fulfill their constitutional obligations, and we refer to their own Statutes for the proof.

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: "No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due."

...We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that "Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free," and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction."

While it is fair to suggest that the South seceded from the Union due to an assertion of states' rights, the question is right to do what? To own enslaved Africans! If the very folks that some white Southerners wish to honor and celebrate today could travel through time and hear what their descendants and admirers are saying about the war they fought so hard to win, they might be surprised to hear that it wasn't really about slavery.

In order to white wash the Confederate cause (pun intended), a person must deny the reality that the Confederacy was formed to perpetuate that "peculiar institution" of inhuman bondage called slavery. You cannot celebrate the Confederacy without also celebrating its reason for being. To suggest otherwise is to apply hysterical color blindness to history. It's not enough to deny the significance of racism today, you now have to project that denial into the past.

I suppose the next series of celebrations will be to honor all that vigorous opposition to desegregation during the Civil Rights era. We'll hear that those White Citizens' Councils, police armed with clubs, dogs, and water cannons and angry mobs screaming at little black kids trying to go to school were really heroic acts of defiance against a tyrannical Federal government and a defense of states rights. Right to do what? I think we all know.


  1. First of all thanks for providing us the rationale used by South Carolina in the "Confederate States of America - Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union". I saved it to use as a reference tool the next time that I hear 'the Civil War was about state's rights not slavery'. I always reply 'the state's right to own slaves' and these college educated people reply 'I learned in history class that it was about state's right and most stick by this belief'. I believe that some of this rises out of our habit of understanding the past through present use of terms. Hence, state's right has evolved into the idea of state vs. federal regulations and people don't even consider how the term was used in the mid to late 20th Century in regards to segregated schools and restrictions against women rights.

    Although I have seen tremendous gains in the area of 'race' in the US, prejudice has not disappeared. If we don't recognize and identify it inside of ourselves, we continue to follow our ingrained beliefs and attitudes. I was a child in the 1950's and early 1960's and heard horrific comments made about African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Communists, Socialists, and other minority groups. How can one expect that these attitudes and beliefs don't permeate one's inner world? They do. There is still an attitude that minorities have to prove their worth by most white people that I've come in contact within my family, neighbors, friends, and co-workers. A white man is given much more latitude to make mistakes at work before he's seen as incompetent; a white women can't make as many mistakes as a white man but more then a black women or man.

    Prejudice is still there in many forms and we do need to openly speak about it.

  2. I don't think it is hysterical color blindness that we are seeing, but an intentional effort to ignore racism in order to continually perpetuate it. This mantra of "states rights" and "less government" have always been about making the government so powerless as to render it unable to protect itself from fanatics who would implement one oppressive law after another if they took the reigns of government.

    Underground racism and xenophobia is the most dangerous of all. Codewords replace the open hostility that used to define a bigot without any question. But now, seemingly reasonable and good people use these codewords and most of the time have no idea what they mean. This allows the codewords to go mainstream, and enter the mainstream consciousness. Phrases like "welfare queen", "international bankers", "elitists", all have a group of people attached to them, and it acts as a sort of "wink wink" to the supporters of the people who say them, as if to say "you know who I am talking about."

    If we would allow diversity to exist, and acknowledge that people do have different colors to their skin (not sure about different races, as all people can be linked to a common mother in Africa), and acknowledge that people have made policies favoring or oppressing people based on skin tone, and that people do indeed have prejudices toward people BASED on the fact that of how they look (not on how they "act", which is another codeword for "but I really mean their skin color"), then that will take away the power from people who intentionally pretend that they don't see color, yet are the very ones perpetuating racism by ignoring that it exists.

  3. Hmm, rather scary contemporary trend to celebrate states' secession with parties, etc. What is very true is that we can get ambushed by concepts that are half-truths or outright lies when we don't know their historical roots. We are a nation sadly lacking in awareness of our historical roots on so many fronts, race being one of the most important. Thanks so much, Phillipe, for posting facts that can be shared in conversations all around. I'm sending this to my younger son living in Virginia.

  4. Thanks Druzelle, Ann and Matt for sharing your thoughts. Ann, I too found it interesting to read the document that I cited which I had never heard of until very recently while reading the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me". You cannot read that document and reach the conclusion that secession (certainly for South Carolina) was about anything other than slavery. Matt, I think that there may be some whose actions are deliberate as you say but I think for many it is not but operates more subconsciously. Denial is a powerful psychological defense mechanism. Druzelle, glad to see you found this post useful and will share it with your son. When people see someone waving the Stars and Bars they need to remember what it symbolizes.

  5. I'm still not sure of the usefulness of the term "hysterical colorblindness" as there is little of the action of hysteria one sees in such actions. That it is willful blindness to the truth I have no doubt and so echoes the term "hysterical blindness" but that's a pretty antiquated, and marginally loaded, term.

    But I do thank you for pointing out how clearly saving slavery was kneaded into the rebellion, I'd always assumed so but it's good to see facts, and the North's inability to live up to their "responsibilities". I'd not appreciated that the North's style of actions had been raised to such a point that it mattered so much. I knew of things like the underground railroad and similar actions but didn't think they were active in the national psyche on both sides.

    It's also interesting that the North had openly practiced slavery a generation or so earlier. Many millions of lives - both white and black - could have been saved if the South had also made the change. I wonder what was different about the motivation of the North vs the South to do so. I see that the South was more dependent on it but not about why the North rallied to emancipation and the South didn't. Of course the North wasn't perfect by any means, but it did do something the South didn't and I don't think it can be explained just because the North needed it less. I wonder.... I'll note that the North also seemed to be a place where certain awakenings of religion were more focused I think... Millerites, Mormons, Christian Scientists... These were all born in the North (I checked). I wonder if there was some environment of greater spiritual atmosphere in the North.... but surely even if such movements were part of the reason there should be more plain evidences of the reasons for the difference between North and South... makes one think....

    And it is interesting that the though the Civil War was not directly above board about ending slavery that it was accomplished in various waves of reform during and after the War, which Abdu'l-Baha open advocates as a reason to laud the white for advancing.

  6. The North, IMO, had no spiritual superiority over the South, nor did it have a moral superiority. It had a manufacturing superiority.

    The Industrial Revolution left England with no longer a pressing need for slaves, so they passed the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. The British government paid compensation to slave owners for the loss of their slaves in 1834 (the Bishop of Exeter and three colleagues were compensated for the loss of 665 slaves).

    Likewise the Industrial Revolution left the North with no need for slaves - they had water-power and machinery for their industry and their farming was not the vast acreages of the cotton plantations. But the North needed the cotton for its mills, and did not like the way the South - which produced 75% of the world's cotton was exporting it and setting prices.

    Slavery was indeed the motivation for the Civil War, but not primarily because of moral or spiritual drivers. Slavery meant energy, as oil means energy today, and allowed a highly labor-intensive crop to be produced inexpensively. The underlying motivation of the principal players in the North to abolish slavery was economic; the primary reason for the plantation owners in the South to maintain slaves was economic. For example, the Confederacy thought that Europe would support their succession if they threatened to not ship any more cotton, despite Europe's disavowal of slavery. They trusted that money would override principles. [Instead Europe developed cotton production in many other countries with hot climates and cheap (read "slave") labor - breaking the South's monopoly and devastating its post-war economy.]

    It was all about slavery, but, alas, it was not about justice.

  7. SMK and Reed, thanks for weighing in on this. It is true that the motivations for the North were complex and not entirely about ending slavery. There is significant denial in the North about its own legacy of slavery and racism. In that regard the North is not morally superior to the South. However, the implications of what the North did certainly toward the later years of the war was the abolition of slavery. There was no such implication if the South had won the war. I think that is a difference that matters a great deal. I think it also minimizes those whose motivation for fighting in war was abolition of slavery whatever the motivations of politicians or the business class who were not necessarily the folks who actually did the fighting.

  8. "believe that there are Americans for whom long term insistence on the untruth of not seeing color has effected their ability to see racism itself. Not only that, but they insist that others join them in this not seeing."

    I really agree with this, and it's one of the major reasons I tend to side eye people a bit if they describe themselves proudly as 'colour blind'.

  9. Bill Leonard1:08 AM

    Phillippe when I read your blog, I thought to myself that I ought to mention the book "Lies My Teacher Told Me". I see that you have read it. The book is a primer for anyone that is interested in the racial history of America. I was amazed at the white wash and derogatory racial terms that have come into existence and accepted as fact such as carpetbagger and scalawag.