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On colorblindness and cancel culture

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“I don’t see color; whether you’re black, white, blue, green, or purple, everyone’s the same to me.”

As a liberal, black student on a socially liberal campus — and a black person in general —  I’ve had my fair share of uncomfortable conversations with well-meaning liberals. But none are more predictably cringe-worthy than the ones that start with an endorsement of smurfs, martians and the people-of-the-eggplant. And for any who’ve been on the receiving end of such a statement, the speaker’s portrait can be painted from memory: the voice sports a too-big smile, the eyes glint with political correctness and the head bobs left-to-right with each adjective. The look is trying, so to speak. While these words and their delivery warrant their own articles — books, even — today, I am much more interested in the reaction to “colorblindness.” Reactions to colorblind rhetoric differ based on relevant contextual information that varies on a case-by-case basis. Thus, each interaction calls for a uniquely tailored assessment of the situation: in other words, nuance is a necessity. I worry that this nuance is too often ignored in favor of a formulaic response that is becoming increasingly popular: the general condemnation of the person in question as “hopeless,” “a lost cause” or “racist,” a condemnation most clearly espoused by the recent phenomenon of “cancel culture.”

While cancel culture is becoming a buzzword in the dorm rooms and common spaces of the traditionally disenfranchised, it still has some rounds to make; for those who’ve never heard of it, cancel culture is founded upon the principle that, once someone offends another egregiously enough on any axis of discrimination (gender, race, class, sexual orientation, etc.), they deserve to be shunned with no small amount of scorn and accusatory epithets. Optimistic practitioners believe that by throwing an offender into social timeout, they’ve taught them a hard lesson that’ll improve their relationship with their own privilege. More cynical exponents are unabashed in admitting that they couldn’t care less about the improvement of the offender; for this sect, cancelling is less about societal improvement than self-preservation (on the normative values of these stances, I currently make no comment).

Both types of cancellers can and do include statements of “colorblindness” as cancellable offenses, citing the profound ignorance of the speaker as their rationale for doing so. While I agree with their charge of ignorance — for to be “colorblind” today would be to ignore all of the ways that race continues to contribute to the organization and daily operation of society — I find cancellation to be hilariously irrational. If ignorance is the offense, why would a potential teacher intentionally and consistently put distance between themselves and the offender? Doesn’t this only incubate further ignorance?

Of course, the counterpoint to this is a strong and rational one: why must the oppressed explain their oppression to their oppressor? Is this not an added injustice? My answer is a resigned and cynical “yes: but such is life when prejudice is blindly dealt.” While I understand and agree that being forced to educate the ignorant is unjust, racism has never been fair, especially for the oppressed, so dwelling on the “fairness” of challenging it is a lost cause. And in a more pragmatic sense, if the offensive social habit is left to stand without the provision of an acceptable alternative, how will it be broken? What good will be done for the next racial minority who finds themselves on the receiving end of that ignorance? “It won’t” and “absolutely none” are the respective answers. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether they are satisfactory.

I also disagree with the implication that the ignorance behind “colorblindness” is always malevolent. In fact, I’d contend that what propels colorblindness is more often a well-intentioned naivete born of ignorance in its purest sense. When someone asserts their own “colorblindness,” at the very least they demonstrate that they believe that the ultimate goal of racial justice is a society in which color means little in comparison to a person’s character — in which people and systems are truly colorblind in their dealings — they’ve just jumped the gun a bit, missing the ways in which race is still a major determinant of contemporary circumstances.

Such an open-minded innocence as is often, though not always, held by the “colorblind” should be seen as an opportunity for the socially-conscious — clay ready to be shaped and fired into a mold for justice and equality — not as the “racism” or “prejudice” that cancel culture can sometimes misconstrue it to be. And in falsely vilifying naivete, cancel culture may even be counterproductive, as the scorn and condescension precipitated by the canceller may water seeds of resentment in the cancelee — opportunity becomes opposition; a failure doubled.

Like I said earlier, formulaic responses don’t work in delicate situations like those engendered by the discourse of “colorblindness,” so I want to be clear in saying that I am not offering a panacea; to do so would be to fly in the face of nuance. This article is merely a note from one potential canceller to another, asking only that we reconsider resorting to cancellation as our go-to solution. I worry that such a harsh sentence, once passed, won’t push the needle forward, but drive it into our eye.

Contact Logan Welch at ltw427 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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