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Unmaking Race: Part Two
Why seeing color isn't seeing race
Sometimes, when I say that I am a race abolitionist, I am accused of embracing and worse, advocating, the reprehensible attitude of color-blindness. When they level this charge, I take my interlocutors to mean that in denying the existence of race, and advocating its abolition, I am willfully ignoring racism and injustice, turning a blind eye to the racialized atrocities of the past and the injustices of the present.
Anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with my work will recognize how ludicrous this charge is. Denying the reality of race and wishing to abolish it is in no way tantamount to denying the horrors of racial injustice. In fact, I think that the very opposite is true. And the knee-jerk assumption that I am on the same team as people like Christopher Rufo and Ron DeSantis is both wildly incorrect and deeply offensive.
In this essay, I am not concerned with the idea that denying race entails denying racism. Rather, I want to show why the term “color-blind,” although catchy, embodies a damaging confusion about the nature of racial ideology—one that contributes to the persistence of the toxic fiction of race.
So, here goes.
When I say that I don’t believe that races exist, the most common response is incredulity. It is as if I said that the earth is flat. Surely, I can’t be serious! All that I have to do, they assure me, is open my eyes and look. People look different. It’s easy to spot who is Black, who is White, who is Asian, etc. The physical differences between racial groups are right up front and plain to see. The idea is that we can see race. Race, they say, is inscribed on our bodies, and to deny its reality is either willfully dishonest or painfully obtuse.
But remember, there was a time when most people believed that they could see that the earth is flat. Appearances can be deceptive. Sometimes appearances are deceptive because we seem to perceive things that aren’t there. Hallucinations are like that.
Optical illusions also lead us astray. Even though the moon seems huge when hanging low on the horizon, and seems to shrink as it ascends into the sky, neither the moon nor the moon-shaped patch on your retina are actually changing size. Instead, the illusion is caused by our brain misinterpreting what our eyes tell us. Our eyes don’t deceive us: our brains do.
The moon illusion occurs because the automatic mechanisms that the brain uses to judge the distance of objects misrepresent how far away the moon is relative to other objects. We can’t turn the illusion off, no matter how hard we try, because those brain mechanisms function automatically. When people claim to see race, they are also in the grip of an illusion. But we “see” race not because of automatic brain programs, but rather because we have been marinated in a racial ideology that has become second nature to us. We can’t unsee the moon getting smaller as it rises, but we can unsee race if we are prepared to make the effort.
When people think that they can see race, it’s not that their eyes are deceiving them. Rather, as in the case of optical illusions, they are misinterpreting what they really do see. We really do see differences in skin color, hair texture, eye shape, and so on, that are associated with racial classification. Nobody denies this. But it is a mistake to think that this means that we see race.
Why think that a person’s appearance does not equal their race? Let me introduce you to Ellen Kraft. Ellen was born an enslaved woman during the 1820s in the state of Georgia. She was married to William Kraft, an African American man who was enslaved on a different plantation. The couple hatched an audacious plan to flee to freedom. Ellen, who was very fair skinned but nonetheless classified as “negro”, would disguise herself as a wealthy white man, William would pretend to be her slave, and they would flee to the North. The couple succeeded at this hair-raising exodus, and they eventually chronicled their story in a book that they co-authored, titled Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom.
When the Fugitive Slave Act came into effect in 1850, Ellen and William sailed to England, where they became important figures in the abolitionist movement. After the Civil War they returned to the US where they purchased a plantation on which they established a school for those who had been recently freed from slavery.
What does this story have to do with race abolitionism? Obviously, Ellen and William’s plan could not have worked if Ellen had not appeared to be White1, even though by the standards of the day—still very commonly invoked today—Ellen was Black. Put succinctly, the idea was (and is) that although Ellen looked White she really was Black. In contrast, her husband looked Black and really was Black.
The distinction between how a person looks and what they really are is crucial for understanding how racial ideology works. Anyone who endorses this distinction implicitly accepts the view that one’s race is not determined by how one looks. Race is supposed to be about what you are, not how you appear.
Here’s a possible rejoinder. Ellen Kraft had White ancestors. She was fathered by a White plantation owner, and her mother was likewise conceived, and this accounted for her fair skin. So, the argument goes, she should not have been considered Black. Rather, she should have been considered as being mixed race, which was entirely consistent with her appearance.
This move makes the problem worse rather than dispelling it. If we retain the idea that race is determined by appearance, given that Ellen successfully passed as White, one must conclude that there is no distinction between being mixed \ race and being White. The argument is self-refuting.
To make matters even worse, it is possible—even probable—that William Kraft had White ancestors. If this was the case (and even if it wasn’t, given that slaveowners commonly raped enslaved Africans and conceived children, there were and are many African Americans with White ancestors), then the very same pattern of reasoning entails that there is no distinction between being Black and being mixed. Then, by the logical principle of transitivity (if a = b and b =c, then a = c), it must be the case that there’s no distinction between being Black and being White, and the whole argument collapses into absurdity.
I am using racial terms such as “White” and “Black” only for ease of expression. Please put imaginary scare quotes around them.