Justice isn’t blind (part 1)

I’ve been doing lots of reading (too much reading) for my thesis, and I need a place that’s not academic-jargon-world to thrash some of it out. That space will be here. Sorry, friends, if talking about race is not your thing. You can tune out for the next few posts. I’ll let you know when it’s happy stories about cute kiddos again 🙂

In my last post, I talked about the existence of white privilege in South Africa. In a lot of what I have been reading for my dissertation, I’ve noticed a sharp contrast between US writers, who emphasize that present racial justice needs to take into account past racial injustice (and argues that those who claim to be “color-blind” are just perpetuating their privilege) and the South African writers, who really emphasize non-racialism and advocate for class-based policy. On the one hand, it makes sense. The South African population is 80% black, there is a very real chance that affirmative action-type programs will just be exploited by a few, wealthy black people, rather than helping the poor majority. This is true. This has happened. Point accepted.

But what has been bothering me today is this commitment to non-racialism. First, I didn’t even know what that was until I started my masters here. I never heard that word in the States. Secondly, I don’t like it. No one uses it the same way, but everyone says Mandela was committed to non-racialism. Sometimes they use it interchangeably with non-racism. It sounds a lot like, “color-blind” language, but apparently it’s not. Apparently its what we all fought for when we ended apartheid.

Here’s what I’d love to ask all these academics:

By “non-racialism” do you mean…

Do you mean,” We are striving for a country where no one mentions (or notices) the color of anyone elses skin?” Ok. There’s nothing really wrong with that idea. But you’d have to be blind. Or come up with very convoluted ways of identifying people in our multi-racial society. And it doesn’t really have anything to do with equality. You haven’t really achieved anything.

Do you mean, “We are striving for a country where no one stereotypes people based on the color of their skin?” That would be nice. But getting there is going to involve lots of intentional conversations with people who have different skin colors than each other, so that we learn the inaccuracy of stereotypes. And this will involve acknowledging the different skin colors of people.

Do you mean, “We are striving for a country where the best person can get a job, regardless of their skin color?” Maybe. I guess I would say yes, this is a good goal. We want to be in a society like that one day.  But if that’s our current goal, then it’s an unjust goal. Because some people have had more access to education, social capital and economic privilege than others, and so unless everyone (regardless of skin color) had equal access to all those things, then you’re letting the currently privileged group remain privileged. It’s a bad measuring stick because it assumes equality where there is not. It’s like saying, “We want to live in a country where the best person can get a job, regardless if they are male or female. In fact, we’re making a law that says both men and women can apply to any job, and the best candidate will get the job.”

And it is 1904.

And the job we’re talking about is being a pilot.

We do want to live in a country where anyone can get that job, but the reality is, unless you take into consideration the context (the fact that in 1904, pretty much only men had access to pilot training) then it’s kind of a useless goal. It’s a very pretty goal, and looks nice, but doesn’t really achieve anything.

Do you mean, “We are striving for a country where the color of your skin is no longer a successful indicator of your access to resources and life chances and social capital and income?” Then yes. I think that’s a good goal. I want a society where sociologists split the data every way possible and they still can’t predict someone’s race based on their income or education or any other variable, because everyone is flourishing, and everyone has access to those things. 

However, I would call that non-racism.

Achieving that goal is going to require acknowledging racial categories, observing where there are inequalities, and doing what we can to bring justice. 

Justice isn’t blind. 

(And all the invisible academic people are just floored by my logic and walk away to contemplate a complete paradigm shift.) But wait. There will be more. Stay tuned for part 2. 🙂 

This lovely little graphic has been floating around the interwebs and illustrates my point beautifully.
This lovely little graphic has been floating around the interwebs and illustrates my point beautifully.



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