Saturday, September 08, 2012

"I Don't See Race."

Article first published as "I Don't See Race." on Blogcritics.


Once upon a time there was a man on a quest to solve the world's problems. He heard that there was a person who could solve even the thorniest dilemmas and sought him out. He finally found this Great Problem Solver and the conversation went something like this:

Seeker: I've been searching and searching for solutions to the world's problems.

Great Problem Solver: You've come to the right place.

Seeker: The first thing that has really been bugging me is racism.

Great Problem Solver: That's easy. I don't see race.

Seeker: Wow! I feel better already. What should we do about gender inequities?

Great Problem Solver: I don't see gender. 

Seeker: Interesting. I have to admit I've been having some problems with my wife, and...

Great Problem Solver: I don't see women.

Seeker: Um, OK, but my wife and I don't see eye to eye about how we should parent our kids.

Great Problem Solver: I don't see children. We're all just human beings.

Seeker: What? I'm getting the feeling that you really don't have any solutions to anything!

Great Problem Solver: I don't see you either. Goodbye. 

I once heard a professor describe some of the thinking and behaviors human services professionals encounter in our work as representing people's best efforts to cope with the problems in their lives. I've been thinking about this a lot in my observations about the various strategies people adopt to deal with the problem of racism in America. While I am generally critical of color-blindness, I'm beginning to see it as a perfectly rational expression of core American ideas. These ideas are echoed in the teachings of the Baha'i Faith.

Thinkers along the conservative to liberal continuum agree on the importance of race-neutral, constitutional principles of equal treatment under the law and that people should be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously phrased it. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts captured the essence of this approach to racism by writing, "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race." Even the all-Black girl group En Vogue belted out the virtues of being color-blind.

Such a perspective could be seen as having its spiritual corollary in many statements in the Baha'i Writings. For example, the Founder of the Baha'i Faith Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) admonishes us to "Close your eyes to racial differences and welcome all with the light of oneness." His son and successor, 'Abdu'-Baha (1844-1921) made the following observation during his sojourn in North America in 1912:

"...every man imbued with divine qualities, who reflects heavenly moralities and perfections, who is the expression of ideal and praiseworthy attributes, is, verily, in the image and likeness of God...Can we apply the test of racial color and say that man of a certain hue—white, black, brown, yellow, red—is the true image of his Creator? We must conclude that color is not the standard and estimate of judgment and that it is of no importance, for color is accidental in nature."

However, even the virtue of closing one's eyes to racial differences can go too far. "Not seeing" risks missing things that might actually matter. This includes real historical and contemporary differences in the degree to which power is shared and how it is practiced according to race in our society. Not seeing race can and often does devolve into not seeing racism either, even when it's there. One can also fail to recognize when a race-neutral approach may fail to produce the outcomes we claim to want and a race-conscious one may be what's needed.

In spite of what could be read as color-blindness language in the Baha'i Writings, Baha'i teaching and practice also include race-consciousness. For example, Baha'is are explicitly encouraged in our Faith to form multi-racial families. This is kind of hard to do if you don't "see race." Another example is offered by Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), Head of the Baha'i Faith from 1921 to 1957. He explains the logic of a race-conscious principle of how Baha'i select people to our local, national, and international governing bodies:

"If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated, it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favor of the minority, be it racial or otherwise...So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community."

The Baha'i Faith offers a model that attempts to harmonize the virtues of both color-blindness and color-consciousness. These two approaches do not have to be experienced as irreconcilable, mutually antagonistic schools of thought. It is how we see race and not whether we see it that is the issue.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org

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