Racism is Real, and Colorblindness is Racism: Truths from a Black Feminist Anthropologist

(Savage Minds is pleased to run this essay by guest author Bianca C. Williams. Bianca is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado, and holds a PhD in anthropology from Duke University. She is the author of “Guard Your Heart and Your Purpose: Faithfully Writing Anthropology,” and of the forthcoming Duke University Press book Exporting Happiness in which she examines how African American women use international travel and the Internet as tools for pursuing leisure, creating intimate relationships and friendships, and critiquing American racism, sexism, and ageism.)

After weeks of traveling for conferences, and finally getting to my sister’s home for the holiday, I’ve been trying to relax. To peacefully give myself over to this season of thanks. Even now, after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson, there is plenty for which to be thankful. However, watching the coverage of the protestors on television and observing conversations on social media has been anything but peaceful. I spent a day and a half trying to find an effective way to communicate the pain, frustration, anger, sadness I was feeling to my friends, peers, and colleagues online, particularly those that seem to live in an alternate reality. They live in a reality where privilege, or at least blissful ignorance, keeps them from seeing how racist institutions and a “race-neutral” criminal justice system continues to oppress their friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Below, I include a modified excerpt of the message I wrote to my Facebook community, and then I offer how my thoughts might be relevant to my beloved discipline of anthropology:

“I have to say something to my FB friends who are still in denial about the significance of this moment. I recognize that some of you will never fully understand what it feels like to live in a world that overtly and subtly tells you that you lack beauty, are intellectually inferior, and are less than in almost every way. That you are so dangerous that simply walking past others, or speaking your truth, can make them uncomfortable. Uncomfortable enough that they may kill you. Or not hire you. Or not want to live next to you. Or not sit with you in the cafeteria. Or not want to study with you. Or not want to work with you to change systems of power that not only oppress you, but oppress them too.

Some of you grew up with me. We went to the same schools; we lived in the same neighborhoods. I’ve stayed at your houses, I’ve laughed with your families. Some of you work with me in this beautifully tragic institution called “the academy,” and desire to make a difference in your students’ lives, just like I do. So I ask, if you know me and respect me, can you for one minute sit quietly with yourself and think that possibly the racism and sexism I write about here on social media, that I teach about in my classroom, is real? That there is a great possibility that the reality I experience and describe is real, even if it’s not YOUR reality? That those in the streets screaming and protesting experience the same world you live in, but in a drastically different way. That there is something wrong with a world where YOU can walk around and ignore the realities that we LIVE everyday. That when you hear us talking about it, you think we’re simply violent, crazy, hysterical, irrational, or unreasonable.

For one moment, just think, what if the things we’re saying are true? What does that mean for you? What does that mean to you? What will you do about it?

I understand the urge to cling to colorblindness. It’s fuzzy, warm, and feels safe. However, colorblindness is racist. This idea that you want us all to get along and only see each other as human beings, and not discuss or acknowledge the huge differences in our racialized realities is wrong. It. Is. Racist. No, you’re not a member of the KKK, or some other public white supremacist group, but you’re still wrong. And not all of you are white. Some of the racist sentiments, particularly anti-Black sentiments, that have shown up on my timeline are from folks of a variety of racial backgrounds. I know learning that colorblindness is racism may be a hard truth for you to swallow, but the idea that you believe that my Blackness has absolutely nothing to do with who I am, or that your whiteness, Latino-ness, Asianness, Native-ness has nothing to do with who you are, is wrong. And beyond that, it is a dangerous notion. If you love me, and respect me, than that must include my Blackness. To look away from it, to try and dissect me from it, only harms you and me. If you want to learn more about the limitations of colorblindness, or why it’s not an effective practice for social change or the fight for equity, check out Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” Tim Wise’s “Colorblind,” or watch any video produced by Jane Elliott.

Some of you may never get this. But there are some of you that may begin to try to understand. Today. Tomorrow. Next month. I just had to try, because trying is what I encourage my students to do every day. And if I want them to try as they sit with their families during the Day of Thanks, then I felt I had to try publicly also. I wish you all the best during this holiday, and I hope that you find it in your heart to listen, believe, and grow. Peace.”

I know this type of truth-telling may be a bit much for a social media conversation, or even a Savage Minds blog post. But folks are dying in the streets and in their homes. I envision anthropology, particularly my Black feminist anthropological roots, as tools for troubling oppressive systems of power. I became an anthropologist because this discipline always felt like the best place to use life experiences and personal narratives to provide contextualization and shed light on a variety of truths. While you may not agree with or understand others’ rage, sadness, or frustration in this moment, isn’t it our responsibility as anthropologists to at least begin to try? If we, who are trained in ethnographic methods such as participant observation, who value being “on the ground” and “in the field,” whose disciplinary mission is to understand human beings, culture, and traditions, are not interested in figuring out why there is a troubling and explicit racial divide in how our nation is experiencing this moment of injustice, then who will? This moment should be a call to action for us. Now is the time for you to use your anthropological skills and superpowers for more than simply writing papers. It is time to influence your circle. It is time to speak when it is required, and to deeply listen when it is not. For if we ask this of our students, shouldn’t we be doing it also?


I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “Racism is Real, and Colorblindness is Racism: Truths from a Black Feminist Anthropologist

  1. @RenAnd AndRen: I don’t think anthropologists are interested in culturalist arguments – it amounts to victim blaming and regardless, the fact remains: there is a history and structure that oppresses people disproportionately. Also, I think that your interview/book represent older arguments than what Bianca Williams has to say.

  2. renren links to Reason, so I think it’s only fair. http://pando.com/2014/07/24/as-reasons-editor-defends-its-racist-history-heres-a-copy-of-its-holocaust-denial-special-issue/
    Riley is on the editorial board of the WSJ, and the book is published by Encounter. Caveat emptor.
    If you want to make these sort of arguments seriously then you have to go to the left not the right. See Derrick Bell’s arguments against the Brown decision. Right wing Burkeanism is colored more by greed than honest pessimism.

    As for the post itself, the mannerisms of American suburban or middle-class “emo”-ism for lack of a better term, of pained liberalism, are hard to take.

    “I spent a day and a half trying to find an effective way to communicate the pain, frustration, anger, sadness I was feeling to my friends, peers, and colleagues online, particularly those that seem to live in an alternate reality.”

    Americans excluding immigrants regardless of race or class live in an alternate reality. The US has been openly at war for almost all of this century, and less openly since at least 1945. Racism is real and current. The existence of the US base at Guantanamo is proof of that, ignoring what’s happening there at the moment. And if I had to choose between a black American man or a Palestinian man in the West Bank or Gaza which would be safer?

    Most whites are racist, at least “just-a-little-bit”. Most men are at least, “just-a-little-bit” sexist. Both are a given. Years ago when I forgot -literally- that the woman I was seeing at the time was black, it was a happy surprise; I’d never assumed. But liberals assume, and lie to themselves, and they’re always shocked by the racism of others. In 2008 they were shocked by this http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/on-road-western-pennsylvania/
    The friend who showed me the story was smiling ear to ear because he knew it meant Obama was going to win.
    “We’re voting for the nigger”. The battle-hardened recognize progress when they see it.

    It’s also that having grown up as a white kid in a mostly black neighborhood the soft lectures of black people now ensconced in the world of comfortable and sincere white liberalism directed at their equally earnest white peers, also is hard to take. Academics who make claims to righteous anger often want it both ways: indulging the bourgeois pleasures of the groves of academe while writing about storming the walls of some fortress elsewhere, if only in their imagination. And more and more the academy is treated like a church, not only a place apart but openly and clearly above. And what’s the politics of that?

    A paragraph from a piece I found through the Savage Minds twitter feed.
    “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK” From a list of things the author did not expect.

    “I didn’t expect to have to wrap my arms around Leo, a Chicano student who stood shivering and sobbing in front of Poughkeepsie police after getting jumped on Raymond Ave by kids he called “my own people.” Didn’t expect to take him to the police station and have the questioning officer ask Leo, “Why do you use the term ‘Latino’? Can you tell me what country the boys who jumped you were from?” The officer told Leo that his partner was Colombian and could tell where a person was from just by looking at them. Leo told me that he felt “most Chicano, most Latino, and most like a Vassar student” that night.”

    What kind of life would a Chicano kid in the US most likely have had to be shocked to be jumped by “my own people.”? And what bubble would he have to have lived in to say that he felt “most Chicano, most Latino, and most like a Vassar student” after being shocked again by the cop’s question? Vassar is part of a very specific bubble, an east coast prep-school college.

    The politics of all of this is not only conflicted but confused, by a very American unwillingness to face the conflicts in one’s own life.

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