Review of Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity
by Tim Wise 2010; City Lights Books
Andrew Rihn, Stark State College
(Published: November 5, 2013 )
April 2008. I am driving to Columbus, OH. I am 24. White. An undergraduate tutor. In the car with me is my friend Karl. He is in his 60s. Black. A veteran. Also a tutor. We work together in our campus writing center and this weekend, we are presenting at an academic conference for writing center workers.
Three weeks earlier, then-candidate Barack Obama gave “The Speech” – also known as “A More Perfect Union” – his major statement on race in the U.S. and also his response to the controversy drummed up over his connection to Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Along with my presentation notes, I carry a copy of this text, underlined and annotated, in case it should come up during our presentations. Despite our differences in identity and experience, Karl and I are both presenting on the dynamics of race and oppression and their relations to our work as writing tutors.
In Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity, author and acclaimed anti-racist activist Tim Wise details, critiques – and offers an alternative to – what he views as a dominant and destructive belief characterizing the so-called Age of Obama: that we are as a society “post-race.” He takes argument with what he describes as “post-racial liberalism,” a concept examined from two directions: first, a focus on public policy that follows the approach of “colorblind universalism,” and second, a critical look President Obama’s “rhetoric of racial transcendence.”
Race is not solely rhetorical, yet our understanding of race and racism is mediated by language, by the words spoken as well as those that go unspoken. Though Colorblind isn’t solely about rhetoric, the critical examination of language is a vital part of the book, and of critical race theory in general. Consider the foundational work of scholars such as Gloria Anzaldúa or Mike Rose, who provided narratives demonstrating how language could influence the formation and re-formation of identity, or more recent scholarship breaking down the function and logic of micro-aggressions (DeAngelis). Whether spoken or silent, our rhetoric affects the larger discourse, and in turn, that discourse affects the way we think and feel. The language surrounding debates about immigration in the United States, where human beings are regularly labeled “reasonably suspicious” or even “illegal,” should serve to remind us that rhetoric is never a neutral act, that speech can be a form of political action. Following this notion, Tim Wise asserts that Colorblind proceeds from “the notion that standing still is never an option so long as inequities remain embedded in the very fabric of the culture” (193).
March 2008. I am printing out a copy of Barack Obama’s speech on race for two reasons. 1) I haven’t watched the speech because I don’t have television and more importantly, 2) as a student of rhetoric, I know there is a difference between the power of delivery and the power of ideas. I want to be inspired by the latter, not the former.
A few weeks later I’ll be driving with my co-worker Karl. He will tell me stories about the overt, blatant, and institutional racism he encountered growing up in post-war America. He’ll tell me that at my age, he couldn’t have imagined a black man being elected President. He’ll tell me about how he fell in love with his wife. We’ll listen to The O’Jays and reflect on how complex life can be (“What can I do to get on the right track/ I wish they'd take some of these knives out my back”). We’ll speak as friends and I’ll wonder what that means.
In 2005, at the IWCA/NCPTW joint conference in Minneapolis, keynote speaker Victor Villanueva challenged the writing center community to recognize and confront what he called “the new racism.” Speaking as a rhetorician, he invoked Kenneth Burke’s four “master tropes” – metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony – and the ways in which they embed this new racism in different, and often reductive, language. “The ultimate reduction,” according to Villanueva, “is individualism” (6).
In Colorblind, Tim Wise addresses similar veins of obfuscation and reductionism, albeit approaching from a slightly different perspective. In Chapter One, “The Rise and Triumph of Post-Racial Liberalism” he sketches a brief narrative beginning with the “benign neglect” of the early 70s and culminating with Obama’s speech and subsequent election. Through this narrative we are shown the contours of “colorblind universalism,” especially as it comes into contact with public policy. These policies put faith in the metaphor that a “rising tide lifts all boats,” a metaphor President Obama has used multiple times (41, 57). However, by taking a colorblind approach to public policy, issues like racial gaps in access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare cannot be addressed. “Deprived of the critical context needed to understand the disparities we see,” Wise writes, “it would be all too easy for us to then embrace the individualistic and meritocratic narrative with which virtually all Americans were raised” (136).
Public policy has direct and material effects on the lives of millions, even though those policies are brought into existence through the use of immaterial rhetoric. It might be more accurate, however, to say policy is created through the confluence of multiple rhetorics: legal rhetorics, obviously, but also rhetorics of class, race, gender, and so on. One such rhetoric that informs colorblind public policy, according to Wise, is what he calls the “rhetoric of racial transcendence.” Looking at Barack Obama, Wise sees this rhetoric in both action and ascendancy, from Obama’s 2004 speech at the Democratic National Convention and his book The Audacity of Hope through “The Speech” and into his Presidency itself. This rhetoric emphasizes commonality at the expense of the specific, a transcendent masking of difference between constituent parts. As Obama put it in 2004, there is not “a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America” but rather, “the United States of America” (36). Or to put it into Villanueva’s words, race “becomes topos non grata, receding behind – and taking shape by way of – Kenneth Burke’s master tropes” (15).
October 2011. I’m at another writing center conference, this time a mini-local for those of us working in Northeast Ohio. The conference theme is “Negotiating Identity and Ideology: Writing Centers as Agents of Change.” I love it. Everyone who attends my presentation seems engaged. Everyone I choose to encounter shares my interests.
After lunch, a small group activity. Randomly chosen groups, so we meet new people. My group of four is visibly diverse in terms of gender, race, and physical ability. We’re given a paragraph of writing center scholarship that argues for the necessity of explicitly incorporating anti-racist work into the center’s mission. I’m already on board, but my three group-mates are skeptical. “Isn’t it a bit idealistic to think you can change people’s attitudes? And why do the authors make such a big deal about this ‘white privilege’ stuff?”
Of course, that’s not exactly what got said. I’m simplifying. Reducing. They made their points and I like to think I made mine. We all approached the topic thoughtfully but in the end we agreed to disagree. And as much as I enjoyed the supportive comments and interested Q & A that followed my presentation, it was the disagreement – the resistance to an activist anti-racist pedagogy – that kept me thinking.
That resistance to what I deem ethical and perhaps even necessary (as David Rothgery would put it) is what brought me back to re-reading Victor Villanueva’s speech, published as “Blind: Talking About the New Racism.” It’s an essay that knocks me on my ass every time I engage it. In it, he argues that race has become a taboo subject for public discussion. He theorizes that Burke’s tropes, having eclipsed a discourse that can actually name “race,” have made it so “we don’t know how to engage, don’t know if to engage” (11, emphasis mine). This tendency of disengagement functions as a sort of linguistic inertia: our language preserving its present state, our critical faculties lying dormant, our bodies unwilling to move unless acted upon. This resistance to change is often subtle rather than overt, and because it can feel safe rather than challenging, it has a certain magnetic pull. However, the tendency to disengage has serious consequences. By critiquing this tendency and illustrating the real harm done by such disengagement, Tim Wise’s Colorblind lays out an argument as convincing as it is sad.
In Chapter Two, “The Trouble with Post-Racial Liberalism,” Wise presents an impeccably researched refutation of disengaged post-racial and colorblind ideologies. When it comes to recognizing ongoing bias, he argues that the rhetoric of racial transcendence “finesses the truth,” making it harder to address the reality (77). Wise offers disturbing and compelling evidence that even unconscious, unintentional biases can have serious repercussions. In one study cited, police officers engaged in “shoot or hold fire” simulations, having to quickly decide their course of action when shown different images. According to the study, officers were more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than armed whites (84). In a study with similar life and death potential, doctors given hypothetical vignettes were less likely to prescribe life-saving medications to black patients than they were to white patients (122). These and other examples demonstrate that unconscious biases, themselves the products of structural silence and disengagement, can perpetuate structural racism across areas such as housing, employment, education, and healthcare. The public policy agenda of colorblind universalism by definition is “blind” to such racial inequities, and Wise argues is therefore unable to address continuing gaps.
Chapter Three, “Illuminated Individualism,” ends the book with a challenge to re-engage, arguing for a paradigm shift in the way we think (and talk) about race and identity – a paradigm shift as rhetorical as it is epistemological. He offers readers his own concept, “illuminated individualism,” challenging us to recognize that “we are made up of many identities, and that these matter” (157). Wise’s concept pushes us to think about ourselves as more than merely a collection of socially constructed identities. While embracing the fact that we are all individuals shaped by the life experiences unique to us, Wise acknowledges the important roles identities, such as race, play in shaping those experiences.
Furthermore, he challenges us to “weave into our personal thinking and our institutional settings practices, procedures and policies that take account of race and its meaning, and in recognition of that meaning, resolve to do everything possible to minimize the likelihood of discriminatory treatment” (157-8). He offers well-researched examples and concrete steps we can take in the fields of employment, housing, education and healthcare. But right now, I’m thinking as a writing center tutor. I’m picturing my workplace: our round tables, the intimacy of one-on-one sessions, the identities students (and tutors) bring to those sessions. I’m thinking about what we know about race, and how we know it. I’m thinking about what tutors say about racism, and how we say it.
Karl and I are driving home from that conference in Columbus, OH. We agree to take a detour so he can show places from his past. We drive through a small, affluent community. At its center is a small liberal arts university: the same university that refused to admit him in the early 1960s, explicitly because he was black. It’s forty years later; he’s not only earning his Bachelor’s degree, but working in the campus writing center. Tutoring students of all races.
I’m left thinking about a point Wise returns to throughout the book: the damage that silence about race can cause. In example after example, he demonstrates how not talking about race can allow white racial resentment to fester. He explains research showing that if white folks – like me – refuse to talk about race, people of color are more likely to perceive them as racist, not “colorblind.” Silence, in these instances, does not signal neutrality or transcendence. Just the opposite, it signals complicity with the dominant paradigm, and that paradigm is, sadly, a racist one. This means that as a tutor, I must remain racially conscious when I talk. It doesn’t mean I force the topic of race into every session; rather, it means I cannot hedge my bets or shy aware from talking about race, consciously or unconsciously. If I wish to confront racism and its effects, I cannot allow race to be concealed by Burke’s master tropes.
Finally, I am struck by one of Wise’s concrete examples of making illuminated individualism happen in practice. He suggests that educators “[g]et students to see academic success as part of a larger project to undo institutional inequity and white supremacy” (182). A lofty but laudable goal, especially for writing center workers who typically work with students for thirty minutes, possibly to never see them again. For students whose frames of reference have been reduced through metonymies like individualism, being exposed to more historically panoramic pedagogies and worldviews, to more racially conscious rhetoric and epistemologies, can make a tremendous impact.
It has for me.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987. Print.
DeAngelis, Tori. “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro Aggressions.’” Monitor on Psychology 40.2 (2009). Web.
Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared. New York: Free Press, 1989. Print.
Rothgery, David. “’So What Do We Do Now?’ Necessary Directionality as the Writing Teacher’s Response to Racist, Sexist, Homophobic Papers.” College Composition and Communication 44.2 (1993) 241-247. Print.
Villanueva, Victor. “Blind: Talking about the New Racism.” The Writing Center Journal 26.1 (2006): 3 – 19. Print.