Social Justice 101: Color Blindness

Since the civil rights movement, we as a country have been enmeshed in a struggle to understand how to move forward from our history of race motivated hatred, bigotry, and oppression. Today, many people (particularly those people who are privileged enough to be white), adopt a feeling that if we could all just stop thinking about race and stop judging each other on race, then all these problems would disappear and we wouldn’t have to worry about racism anymore.


The concept of color blindness has been around for some time now. This is the idea that we should not even see what people look like, what color they are, but simply treat them as human beings. On some level this is a nice idea. It rests on the desire to put the past behind us. Unfortunately for us, the past is not really gone at all and it affects the lives of every person in the United States today.


The first reason that color blindness is an unhelpful attitude is that it ignores the fact that historical prejudices have left large sections of the black population of America in poverty, without jobs, incarcerated, and otherwise disenfranchised. These cycles of poverty reinforce themselves. In a recent book written by Mahzarin Banaji, the concept of modern prejudice was revealed to be more about helping those with connections to you. Because people of color have traditionally been denied connections to powerful institutions, they don’t benefit from connections and personal favors in the way that many white Americans do.


In addition to these historical cycles of poverty, color blindness ignores the fact that many prejudices are still deeply held and that race does matter, particularly for people of color. African-Americans are incarcerated at much higher rates than their white peers, and are often given harsher sentences. Things like stereotype bias (the tendency of an individual from a stereotyped demographic to perform more poorly in testing when reminded of a stereotype) can hold back individuals of color by affecting their performance in traditionally white fields like math and science. Subtle types of bias exist that we may deny are even at play. In a sociolinguistic study, researcher Anita Henderson found that hiring managers were more likely to hire individuals who phonetically and syntactically sounded white. John Baugh conducted research which showed that individuals who spoke with an African-American speech pattern were more likely to be denied housing. By promoting color blindness, we ignore the fact that life has been made more difficult for individuals of color explicitly because of their color. We erase those experiences and do nothing to help individuals recover from them.


Overall the largest problem with color blindness is that it is passive. The forces that have created the race segregation and discrimination in our country for so long are far from passive. They have been as active as can be in the form of laws, community enforcement, segregation in education, lack of voting rights, and hundreds of other things. Unless we actively step up to fight those things which have served to push a large number of people in our country downwards, we are perpetuating the problem. Sitting idly by while others struggle to get out of the mess that we helped to make for them is the same as continuing to hold them down.


As Malcolm X said “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” We need to actively work to take the knife out.

More About Skeptech: Individual and Societal Responsibilities

So at the conference this weekend we spent a fair amount of time talking about censorship because hey, we were talking about the internet and censorship had to come up at some point or other. Zach Weinersmith (edited because I fucked up Zach’s last name. Sorry) of SMBC gave a talk about comics as a natural experiment in censorship and argued that we should have no censorship (except maybe yelling fire in a crowded theater) particularly of art, because art needs to reflect life, and the best art reflects ALL of life, not just the pretty parts.

We also talked some about Reddit and the r/jailbait fiasco. Some people argued that the subreddit never should have been shut down, because protecting free speech is more important and we should be able to talk about illegal activities if we so choose. Should we be able to shut down the r/trees (edited because apparently the subreddit about marijuana is called r/trees. Way to confused me guys) thread simply because marijuana is illegal?

These are all really important concerns, and I am most certainly a free speech advocate. However I tend to think that our morality should be more about harm than about rights. I don’t think we should do away with the concept of rights entirely because it’s incredibly important for the safety of minorities, but in general when you have to invoke a “right” to justify a harm, you’re doing something wrong. Something that was rarely brought up in these discussions was at what cost do we allow completely unrestrained free speech. Because there certainly are harms. Zack Weinerstein made the argument that with this unrestrained free speech, we now have the most tolerant generation in history, so it’s no big deal that certain parts of the internet are steaming cesspits of hate. But that completely overlooks the damage that that hate directly does to the people who have to witness it. We may be “more tolerant” of women, but if a woman gets harassed every time she logs on to her favorite website, that is a harm.

And in addition to that, what do we really mean by “more tolerant”? A lot of these websites normalize horrific behavior by arguing that they are tolerant. They say that cat-calling a woman is no big deal, that African-Americans are just practicing reverse racism, that slurs are simply free speech, but that they think everyone should be equal. This is lip service to tolerance. But if we can actively see online through their writings for all the world to see that they treat other people like shit, clearly they aren’t tolerant. And they normalize that behavior.

For some reason, this conference seemed to focus entirely on personal responsibility in terms of free speech. You might be exposed to any number of things, but it’s your job as a responsible human being to not be influenced by any of it if you don’t want to be (apparently). But here’s the thing: societies have responsibilities too. As skeptics, we should know by now that NO ONE is immune to the influences of society. All of us internalize the messages that get sent to us, no matter how hard we try to resist (hello eating disorder that reeks of internalized misogyny. How are you today? Oh you’re all my fault because I should have just made a better personal decision? Thanks). It has been well-documented how easy it is to influence people. And when you’re constantly bombarded with certain images and certain messages, there’s only so much personal choice that you have. That limits the amount of personal responsibility you can have.

Media has to be responsible for the messages it sends. Now I don’t necessarily think this should lead to government censorship of unpleasant topics. As a lot of people said, ignoring things doesn’t make them go away, and often bringing them out into the open can help us deal with them. I’m honestly less worried about some of the unpleasant topics and far more worried about some of the glamorized topics. Take for example binge drinking. We see binge drinking all the time on TV held up as fun and awesome and hilarious and completely normal. If someone has a predisposition for alcoholism, can we hold them completely responsible if they fall into the trap of alcoholism when they are seeing how great alcohol is all the time? Do we have to take some responsibility as a society for the pain caused that individual and their family? I think we do.

Society has some responsibility to try to create media that isn’t damaging. It should be free to discuss any topic it so chooses, but I think it’s entirely possible to legislate ADDITIONAL information be available about any topic that could be triggering or influencing in a negative way: for example if a TV show depicts rape, we could require that it includes a short discussion of the characters involved and why they acted in a negative way to deconstruct the negative actions they made. And as individuals, I think that we are entirely allowed to exert pressure on media to stop perpetuating shitty stereotypes and harmful messages. We are 100% obligated to be as careful as possible about the media we consume (tell TV networks when their shows are sexist, tell advertisers when they’re perpetuating rape culture).

We cannot always be critical consumers, even when we want to be. Oftentimes we’re lacking in the choices to be ethical about the way we consume media. If I want to watch a movie that is free of sexism and racism, I would be hard-pressed to find one. We need to exert some pressure on media to provide us with more options. Weinerstein suggested that when censorship is taken away, then more types of art flourish. I do agree with that, but I think that we also need to be active in promoting different types of art and different perspectives. We need to vote with our money, and I think as a society we need to discuss larger fixes to the problems of sexism and racism in media and on the internet. If an individual has only ever been exposed through the internet to individuals who say that a woman might owe you sex if you buy her dinner, are they entirely to blame if they rape someone? No. They have some responsibility, but not all of it. We are products of our society.

There is serious harm in unmitigated free speech. I don’t know what the solution is, but ignoring the fact that there are places on the internet that actively normalize hate crimes, sexism, racism, rape, cissexism, and homophobia is not helpful to anyone. We DO have an interest in trying to keep people safe from each other and safe from internalizing negative and destructive messages. I think that people who host websites and people who host other people on their websites need to be clear about what they will and will not accept: you OWN that space, and you can easily say that you will not tolerate bigotry. People do that in meatspace all the time. Why is it unacceptable online? You can get your own damn website and spew hatred. But we will minimize the damage that you can do.

I am so frustrated with the idea that individuals exist in a vacuum and that “personal responsibility” trumps all social issues. NO. Individuals should be held responsible for their actions, but their actions should be taken in context so that we know what led to the problem. If we simply keep pointing to bad behavior and saying “don’t do that” we’re just trying to take care of symptoms, not the etiology of the bad behavior. We are all a part of systems, and our whole systems are broken right now.