By Jazmyn Taylor
Post-Racial. After race. A society in which we are beyond the race “issue,” where we don’t see it, don’t need it, and are better for it. The term has been popular since Obama’s first presidential election, but it has, more often than not, been used to say how we are not in a post-racial society. With the recent gun violence against people of color, specifically African Americans and Muslim Arab-Americans, it’s easy to see how people come to the conclusion that we are, at best, years away from post-racial. People are being profiled, stereotyped, harassed and killed due to bias and racism. It’s clear that we haven’t found that Elysian peace, and we are not beyond one of our country’s oldest woes. People agree that we are not in a post-racial society, but they feel that we should be.
But “we,” who? Who benefits if race disappears? Those for whom race was never a restrictive ascription, or those who have taken that which was given to them and created community, culture, and language? The idea of working to get beyond race makes race the problem, thus making people whose identities are restrictive, the problem. We see this through another popular conception, color blindness: “I don’t see color” effectively erases the identities that people hold dear. It means that one doesn’t see the way people of color exist in the world, how their literal skin color, language, and outlook makes them who they are. Furthermore, as Guardian contributor Zach Stafford says in his article, “The idea that we could somehow eliminate racism by ignoring race to some extent stopped people from talking about either, and allowed the systemic effects of racism to flourish in a space in which no one wanted to admit it existed at all.” We end up not only erasing identities, but erasing opportunities to talk about what really plagues us as a nation, and it’s not a simple as shades of brown.
When I look in the mirror, I see myself and sometimes explicitly think, “Black woman,” and I am fine with the ascription. When I walk at night in my small-town college and hear a slur, I don’t think, “I wish I wasn’t Black,” I think, “I wish racists could be tossed into oblivion.” They should be dropped into the black hole, not me. In my head it becomes about their perception, instead of my Blackness, being wrong. Race— that I am Black or that people are Latino, Native, East Asian, Desi—is not the issue. Personally, I don’t want to live in a place that forgoes my Blackness, whether that be my skin, hair, features, language, history, food, art, because that erases what we raced folks have managed to build. My race is not the problem; racism, or, what other people decide to do based on their perception of my race, is the problem. This means that as long as our collective solution to “the problem” culminates in fantasies of a race-less land, we’re telling people of color—people like me—that who they are is what needs to be fixed. That’s simply not true.
In their book Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, Barbara and Karen Fields parse out the differences between race and racism. It has become more common knowledge that race—the idea that people are separated into groups based on similar physical characteristics—isn’t “real” in the same way that DNA is real. It was constructed by a society that needed to divide people for a number of reasons, many being financial and property-based. Then came the pseudo-science. Then came the hate; racism is an after effect. The Fields say, “Everyone has skin color, but not everyone’s skin color counts as race, let alone as evidence of criminal conduct. The missing step between someone’s physical appearance and an invidious outcome is the practice of a double standard: in a word, racism” (27). Such outcomes look like a white hooded figure, like a song sung on a bus, like a purse clutched in the presence of the Other. Racism looks like opportunities denied, or opinions on the President of the United States. If we want to look for a problem, we need to look here at racist actions instead of the racial groups themselves, and solving it isn’t as simple as getting past the idea of race.
The larger problem with dreaming of a post-racial society is that it doesn’t adequately fix the problem of racially motivated violence we have in this country. For the moment, yes, taking a hypothetical eraser and wiping away what makes some different (and different from whom? Who is considered default?) would, at the very least, make those icky, uncomfortable conversations about race disappear. Everyone would theoretically have the same chance at a first impression because the main thing that would racially inform a first impression is gone. Stopping-and-Frisking would become a little more difficult. But we don’t have to imagine anew why eliminating color wouldn’t work because George Schuyler wrote about it in his novel Black No More (1931), where a Black man creates a procedure that turns Black people White. Socio-political shenanigans ensue, culminating in the discrimination of whiteness and the celebration of darker skin once everyone realizes that the Blacks-turned-Whites are in fact “whiter” that regular White people. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Simply erasing the race issue by being color blind or by pushing examples of those that have “made it” (foremost example being President Obama) doesn’t get at the root of the problem. And if we aren’t getting the root, it’s just going to grow back and be harder to weed. Again, we talk as if race is the problem when fear of difference is the problem. How that fear manifests, and the repercussions of action, becomes the real issue.
Also, because race is a creation older than the country itself and irrevocably a part of this nation’s foundation, trying to erase it is a project wanting of the help of the divine: it simply isn’t feasible. It’s in our history, in our cultures, and it’s not fair to those who have been raced and have, despite racism, created community and a shared history, to say that these things don’t matter. It erases the contributions that people of color have made to American culture; from music to food, to fashion, to science and technology, and removes the vibrant and varied communities that people belong to; not just because of topical color, but because of simply wanting places to exist unfettered. It’s a pandering to the default, to whiteness (which, as laid out by Matthew Frye Jacobsen, has gone through its own definitive processes). It puts us back at square one.
Thus, I propose that “post-racial” is an ineffective term. If it is meant to convey a society where racism—people and things that are racist— is eradicated, I would suggest a better term: post-racist. Keep the race, lose the hate.
If we are about equality and equity, we would forget these post-racial dreams altogether. No more talk, no matter how well-meaning, about working towards a post-racial society. Instead we can focus on racism, and make the separation socially important. I’d like to live in a post-racist society, where we no longer have to wonder whether young men are harassed and gunned down because their race somehow makes them more dangerous. It would be great to live in a society where young children of color can be just that – children – without having the fears of their parents instilled in them for safety. Where we can see the word “terrorist activity” and think of the violence against Muslim Arab American people and places as quickly as we think of Al-Qaeda or ISIS. I want to live in a society where I don’t have to worry about these things, and I can also see my friend’s race—as well as my own—and respect what they’ve been able to create. Post-racial just doesn’t encompass that sort of possibility.
Per our own words, we in America are about equality and justice for all. It’s time we make the effort to investigate how to make those words ring true and if post-racial isn’t the way to do it, post-racist might be.