The Paradox Of Colorblind Racism

Feb 11, 2020

Nakia Wallace (center), a Cass Technical High School student in Detroit, and other protestors in support of affirmative action, gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Credit Susan Walsh / AP Photo

A speaker coming to Western Michigan University says the country has a problem with “colorblind” racism. Meghan Burke defines that as, "Ways of talking and thinking about race that affirm our belief in individualism and (often imagined) cultural differences, without recognizing the many remaining barriers to equality."

According to Burke, "Colorblind racism says, 'No, that's not a thing; that's not there. If I'm a good person and if I don't do anything intentionally that's harmful, then I must not be part of a racist society or contributing to unfair and really undesired, often, racial outcomes.' But if we think a little bit more carefully, I think that we're able to see how that is the case and then try to think about ways that we might act in way that's better-aligned with our intentions and our goals."

Credit Polity Books/Wiley

Burke is an associate professor of sociology at Illinois Wesleyan University. She's the author of the recent book The Paradox of Colorblind Racism (Polity Books, 2018). Speaking via Skype, Burke said the notion that race is no longer relevant gets in the way of building a more just society because it fails to acknowledge “white privilege” – the unearned benefits that white Americans get that others do not.

"It's a description, not a condemnation. And I think that the better that we can get comfortable with just understanding that reality and then thinking about how we can be thoughtful allies in work for racial and social equity, that that's not really something that we have to be as anxious about as I think too many white folks unfortunately are."

Burke says the problem affects nearly all aspects of American society, including law enforcement and health care.

"It remains true everywhere that much more work still needs to be done to start from the question of how and in what ways racism is operating in any context rather than trying to wiggle out from under it and saying, 'No, no, no, there's no racism here.' I think that that's a far less tenable position and it would be a much healthier for us to ask how rather than if racism is operating."

Burke is a native of Battle Creek. She will speak about the issue Thursday, February 13, at Western Michigan University. Her presentation in Room 1910 at Sangren Hall starts at 5 p.m. It's sponsored by WMU's Department of Sociology, the College of Education. the School of Communication, the Lee Honors College, Intercultural and Anthropological Studies, the Alpa Kappa Delta International Sociology chapter, and Western's chapter of the Honor Society.

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