"Stop writing about race, or I'll fail you!" warned my writing teacher at NYU. He was a crotchety middle-aged man named Mr. Dunn. He was responding to a scene I had written about two African-American characters debating about how to fit in at an all white school. The scene wasn't particularly provocative, but regardless, it invoked Mr. Dunn's full wrath. He insisted I rewrite it entirely or he'd give me an "F."
Since I had little choice, I rewrote the scene into a really boring shtick about a father intercepting a love letter he found in his daughter's backpack. It was a total piece of crap. Honestly it was one of the worst things I've ever written, but Mr. Dunn gave me an "A" for the redo. Later he pulled me aside in his office.
"Look, kid, I'm trying to help you. Talking about race just gets people pissed off. If you continue to write about it, you'll spend your whole life being attacked."
I felt like telling Mr. Dunn that pretty much happened anyway because of my race. He continued, "You know, I don't really get why you people are so obsessed with the topic anyway. You need to get over yourselves and focus on being human beings."
Last week, I thought a lot about Mr. Dunn's words. They came to mind after I wrote a post about the White Oscars that generated a long thread of comments. Although the positive responses to my post far outweighed the negative ones, there were some common themes with the folks who disagreed with me.
To paraphrase one typical suggestion: "Dear myopic idiot, the key to ending racism is for people like you to stop whining about being snubbed by the Oscars and start learning to be 'colorblind' like the rest of us."
Or this one: "Racism is a fantasy in the minds of black people. Slavery ended a long time ago, get over it, bro!"
The notion that it's time for people of color to stop talking about racism is a common refrain among many conservatives and social critics these days. Indeed, many older, white Academy members who defended themselves vehemently in the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy claimed that they were "colorblind" in judging the merits of films, with many going as far to say they were "sick to death" of talking about race.
This, of course, begs a pertinent question: Should our goal be to make race consciousness less a part of our lives, and is forgetting about race really a valid solution to our ongoing problem with racial conflict?
From my perspective as a mixed race person, I think the answer is a definitive "no."
For one, I have an issue with the notion that people are truly as "colorblind" as they claim to be. That is not to say that every white person is a closet bigot, or that one cannot transcend racial prejudice. Far from it. We can overcome our racial biases - but not by pretending that they don't exist. Prejudice is, in fact, something we're all born with and must strive actively to overcome - and we need to be honest about that.
At the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, there's a hallway where two closed doors block the visitor's path. One door has a sign above it that says simply: "Prejudiced." A sign above the other door reads: "Unprejudiced."
A nearby sign indicates that the visitor should choose which door to go through. Of course, everyone tries to go through the "Unprejudiced" door, only to discover that they can't - it's locked. The Museum does this to demonstrate to visitors that no one is truly "colorblind" in this world - everyone is fully capable of bias and racism. It's an amazing visual lesson, and it's no surprise that practically no one gets the "door test" right the first time. You cannot solve a problem that you don't think exists. Whether it be racism, income inequality, or global warming. Solutions have to begin with the truth.
There are numerous studies that show that the reality of racism is still very much with us. A recent study, for example, shows that even with all things being identical on two resumes, merely applying for a job with an African-American sounding name can lead to 50% less call backs from employers. If all it takes is the sound of a black name to trigger a biased response by employers, then it's hard to deny there's a problem. Similar studies highlighted in this video I made for Brave New Films show this same disparity in housing, health care, sales and simply driving a car. Prejudice is not a fantasy. It's an ongoing problem that continues to affect people's lives in countless tragic and untold ways every day.
That is not to say every claim of racism is true, but it is ridiculous in light of so much well documented evidence to argue that every claim is patently false. "Colorblindness," in this context, is really just a form of willful ignorance.
My other issue with the "colorblind" solution is that it tends to assign a moral value to being racially "invisible" and complacent in society - as if the road to happiness lies along the path of absolute assimilation to a non-ethnic persona ( i.e. the less "black" or "Latino" you act, the better) and keeping one's mouth shut about any racial problems.
I take great exception to the notion that people of color need to stop being so ethnic. There's a long inglorious history of trying to whitewash the color out of minorities to make them "fit" better into white society. One has only to look at the horrors of the forced assimilation of Native Americans who were rounded up as children, sent to reeducation schools and stripped of all their Native American traditions. Forced to act "white," most of these individuals were utterly devastated by the traumatic experience of having their culture and families taken from them and never fully recovered.
The way my teacher reacted to my scene about race at NYU isn't all that far removed from the failed assimilation experiments of the Old West. The goal is the same, to make race disappear.
I saw the flaws of this instinct in my own family. My mother was a white woman from Denmark, while my father is mixed black/Latino from Trinidad & Tobago. My mother was an idealistic crusader when she was young. In the 60s, she stood up to her own bigoted parents to marry my father, who was a doctor. They divorced when I was very young, however, and my experience growing up in their two households was literally night and day.
My mother always preached a very enlightened view of racial politics. She told me that race was an artificial construct that didn't matter and because I was mixed race, I shouldn't think about having any sort of a racial identity at all.
"You're not anything," she often told me, "You're just Scott - be yourself!"
This sounded very noble, but in practice, race was a far more complicated issue for us. For one, just because my mother liked to think of me as having "no race" didn't mean anyone else did. The kids in my mostly all white neighborhood knew my father was black. They'd taunt me racially all the time, calling me "Niggerano" instead of "Marcano". No amount of denial could change the fact that others saw me for what I was: a person of color.
My own Danish grandmother, who lived with us, was a terrible bigot who could never really accept me as her own flesh and blood. My grandmother hugged me through clenched teeth and always said terrible things about me and my father (in Danish) to my mother. Her last words to me before she died was a warning to not have 10 kids! - I guess she assumed that's what all people of color do.
Interesting enough, while my mother insisted that I should be "no race," she took great pride and joy in her own European culture and heritage. She spoke Danish at home to her mother, cooked Scandinavian food, consumed Danish books, music and film, hung posters of Norse mythology around the house, and insisted the family make annual summer trips to the Danish themed tourist town of Solvang. It was okay for her to be Danish, but I was not allowed to be anything. Like the title character in Ralph Ellison's seminal novel by the same name, I was treated as though I was the "Invisible Man" in my own home.
My father, on the other hand, encouraged me to take pride in being a person of color and to explore my Trinidadian and Latino roots. Over time I followed his advice and explored my South American and Caribbean heritage through personal friendships, travel, and reading. I went to Trinidad and connected with my Trinidadian relatives. I traveled throughout South America and Mexico. Learning who I was as a mixed race person became a great adventure of discovery and an infinite source of pride for me.
However, it also became a point of intense conflict between me and my mother. The older I got, the more it became painfully obvious that while claiming to be "colorblind" my mother was, in fact, all too keenly aware of other races. Over time, her politics became increasing conservative, as did her insistence that I never discuss my race or any problems I might be encountering because of it.
Finally, my mother moved to a small Mississippi town and insisted that I not reveal the fact that my father was black. She did this more out of fear than racism. The town was full of bigots and she wanted to fit in. When I spoke out against her neighbors who called black people "nigger" every time they were out of ear shot, my mother disowned me for awhile. We ultimately reconciled, but it was a difficult journey for us.
I share this personal experience to demonstrate the fallacy of trying to erase the "color" out of people. I see this happening more and more every day in this country as people play the game of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" when it comes to racism.
When people of color speak out about the White Oscars, over-criminalization and police brutality, we're called "obsessed," "whiny," and "myopic." It's even absurdly suggested that pointing out racism makes us racist just for bringing it up. Conservatives politics demands a virtual "code of silence" on race matters from blacks, Asians and Latinos within their ranks. The mantra seems to be: Racism does not occur, people of color should minimize their ethnicity, and no one has any bias at all. Ever!
How ever appealing it may be to claim that everyone is just a "human being" and all our fretting about problems of race will be solved if we stop talking about it - this is a terrible mistake. Racial problems don't evaporate because you simply refuse to discuss them.
There are genuine racial conflicts in this country that need to be sorted out. In contrast to people like my old writing teacher at NYU who would fail anyone who dared speak on the issue, I think we need to speak our minds about race. Demanding a colorless society is not the answer. In fact, we need to become a more colorful society and a more tolerant one as well. We need to cherish our differences - not attack them.
America is a melting pot of different cultures, not one monolithic non-ethnic one. Hiding from race and it's complications won't make this country more harmonious, but respecting everyone's color will.
But that's just my opinion, as a mixed raced human being.