Rod Graham: Color-Consciousness Not Colorblindness

Many of us grew up under the impression that “colorblindness,” or pretending not to see racial differences was virtuous. An important contribution of critical race theory, however, is the recognition that the colorblind philosophy is tantamount to ignoring racial injustice. This week’s guest on Sea Change Radio, Dr. Rod Graham, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and a contributor to The Editorial Board, espouses color-consciousness over colorblindness. We discuss the racial divide in America, what bridge-building across race might look like, and why majority rule cannot be counted on to advance the rights of a minority group.

Narrator  0:02  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Rod Graham  0:19  I think it’s also important that people who don’t share the experiences, who are not a person of color or not a woman, or they’re not queer, exercise some humility.

Narrator  0:33  Many of us grew up under the impression that color blindness or pretending not to see racial differences was virtuous. An important contribution of critical race theory, however, is the recognition that the colorblind philosophy is tantamount to ignoring racial injustice. This week’s guest on seachange radio, Dr. Rod Graham, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and a contributor to the editorial board espouses color consciousness over colorblindness. We discuss the racial divide in America, what bridge building across race might look like, and why majority rule cannot be counted on to advance the rights of a minority group.

Alex Wise  1:38  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Rod Graham Rod is a professor at Old Dominion University in sociology and criminal justice. Rod, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

Rod Graham Hi, thanks for having me.

Alex Wise So you are one of the newer contributors to The Editorial Board, Sea Change Radio listeners will be familiar with The Editorial Board’s founder John Stoehr who’s been a frequent guest on the program. And you’ve been contributing quite a bit recently, I wanted to dive into a few of the race-related pieces that you’ve posted on The Editorial Board and use that as a jumping off point for a larger discussion.

Rod Graham Okay.

Alex Wise The title of one of your pieces is dialogue won’t save America, but minor league baseball games and other group activities will that kind of struck me that idea of dialogue won’t save America because we always say things like that we need to have a conversation about race. It’s almost become a cliche to have this conversation about race. So here we are having a conversation about race, but why won’t conversations alone save America Rod?

Rod Graham  3:01  Well, we form friendships with people through shared experiences and activities. So in order to come together as communities, we have to do things together. And an intellectual conversation about something is not going to do that. It doesn’t mean that we can have those conversations. I mean, they’re they’re good for understanding another person’s point of view. And it might humanize people when you have this, these conversations. But I think even the evidence suggests that when people do studies of this, that in order for people to start working together, they need to have some shared experiences. So that particular piece was not entirely about race, although it can be applied to race, it was just more it’s the device of society we live in. And I think one of the reasons why that is is because people tend to associate with people just like them. But when you go into a minor league baseball game is such a piece of Americana right? It’s it’s a very democratic space. At least that’s what I saw in Norfolk. And I think it’s it’s like that across the country. And so you end up rubbing elbows with with people who would be very different than the folks that that you might spend most of your time with. And, and so going to those games, shows me a way that we can we could probably come together as a country. And the difference between like a minor league baseball game and a major league baseball game right there as class has kind of become a divisive issue because major league baseball games cost a lot of money now.

Alex Wise Yes, minor league baseball games cost what a major league game may have cost 50 years ago.

Rod Graham  4:36  That’s right. It’s, I mean, it’s a in especially in cities where you don’t so Norfolk is aI guess, you think of it as a midsize town. It’s like 250,000 people, but we don’t have a major sports team. So even if you’re wealthy and you want to take a taken a game, you’re going to go to that, that that ballpark. So you’re going to be there with people who are working class because it’s not that expensive, but then you’re also going to be there with people who are the doctors and lawyers. And businessmen of the town and they’re not in box seats. There may be some there, but people are just kind of sitting in the stands. So, it’s good for that. But it’s also that you’re getting people from different lifestyles as well, we have a pretty large, queer community here in Norfolk. And so people are coming to the games for that, you know, we’ve got it’s a segregated town, even in 2021. Really, I mean, there’s a black side of town, north or south Norfolk, and then there’s a white side of town. So it’s the case that generally white folks are living on one side of town and Blackhawks on the other. But at the baseball game, you know, you’re not doing that you’re just there with a bunch of people. So yeah, it’s wonderful for that day, the jumping off point for me for that piece, because most of my pieces, I tried to take the role of the sociologists like consciously, and so that there was a very well regarded and well known book written maybe about 20 years ago now. called Bowling Alone, by Robert Putnam, I think he’s at Harvard. And the thesis of his book was that we no longer have spaces like minor league baseball games, or civic associations, or bowling leagues, which is the title of the book. And we are not hanging out with people who are different than us. And we’re not developing those connections. And so he says that this is an angry with them, and most people do that is damaging for our democracy, to not have those connections. And, and so when I was writing the piece, I said, Okay, well, here’s an example of a way that we can come together using Putnam’s. thesis.

Alex Wise Rod, you also wrote a piece for The Editorial Board called “Anti woke liberals want to be heard and not dismissed. They deserve this, but they need to exercise a bit of humility first.” So I wasn’t really familiar with the term anti woke, how would you characterize an anti woke liberal? Is this just somebody who may vote democratic, but has some more libertarian leanings? So so when I mean, when I say woke, and I’m sure a lot of your listeners, and most people know what that means, in general, it’s like being aware of social issues, and possibly doing something about it, right?

Rod Graham  You’re awake, I guess, to oppression, inequality, sexism, racism, all that stuff. So I would certainly put myself in that category. But over the past, I don’t know, five or 10 years, maybe in the past five years, you’ve had a collection of people who are liberals, mainly progressives, maybe centrists who, who do care about a lot of those issues, but they don’t like the social justice activism portion of it. And so they these are, these are people that that would, I would characterize as anti woke, right. And so I was responding to a piece by a sociologist, John Torpy, who was who was complaining about, the fact that which isn’t true, and this is why I was writing a piece that, okay, well, people that they don’t want to listen to anybody else. They think they have the one answer, they’re not liberal anymore, in terms of tolerance, you know, and, and he was pushing back against that, and I’ve seen those arguments a lot. So an anti white person is is just that,

Alex Wise And is Torpy a white male?

Rod Graham  He is he is and most not all. I mean, some prime examples would be John McWhorter and Glenn Lowry. But yes, most of anti woke folks are those who don’t really have a literal stake in the fight. They care. I mean, I mean, of course, you know, straight people care about the lives of gay people, but but they’re not gay. And so they don’t necessarily have that same urgency. And so same thing with white people caring about, so he’s a white male, and a lot of anti walks, in my experience have been straight, and white, and also straight white males, most definitely.

Alex Wise  9:24  So I feel sometimes as a white male, that I need to be careful with what I might write on social media, I can share my thoughts maybe with my friends or my wife in a different way than I would publicly because I am a white male, and nobody likes to be shot down for who they are for identity, right? If my opinion about Andrew Cuomo, or Louie CK, or one of these Mee-Too Movement episodes that seems to pop up monthly. If I have an opinion about that, that differs with a woman then I’m not on equal footing in that discussion and as a white male, that’s unsettling and that’s one of the reasons why we see I think this anti woke movement is like this, this power base of white males who’ve had millennia of being on solid footing no matter what their opinion might be, no matter how crazy or how racist or horrible they are able to say it publicly without excoriation. And that’s kind of shifted. And I think that’s a good thing. But there’s a backlash and you can see it manifested in things like this piece by John Torpy.

Rod Graham  10:00  Yeah, and he has a… he makes some other points too, because he was focusing more on the anti racism aspect of it. And he talked about how we need to talk more about class. And the only way to do that is to allow people to express themselves. It’s not all about race. He was making some other points. But his main point about tolerance and being able to say things without your identity being an issue, you know, him being a white male, I think there’s some validity to that argument. So I wanted to bounce back and forth between agreeing with what a lot of what he’s saying, but also explaining, which you probably did better just now actually, why it is important that he tread lightly in those situations.

(Music Break)

Alex Wise  11:42  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio. I’m speaking to Rod Graham. He’s a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. So as a black man, and somebody who is in touch with issues of race on a sociological scale, and as somebody who’s politically engaged, how would you suggest that Democrats and liberals as a voting bloc, engage white allies who might feel alienated if in some ways that’s kind of I think this subset of anti woke liberals that you’re identifying? Does Black Lives Matter, for example, need white allies? And at what point do we draw the line in terms of being too doctrinaire, or not having a big enough tent?

Rod Graham 13:00 For me, I think that racism hurts everyone, as sexism hurts everyone. And so it’s, it’s important that people make that point that look, this is a shared fight. And I do think Torpy is right that sometimes, a lot of activists can can shut down conversations. And so some of the blame has to go on those activists. But there’s a reason why this is happening in the process. So in the process of activists, bringing in people to talk about these these social justice issues by saying, look, we all have a shared goal here. Because all of us wants these things. I mean, it’s it’s very few people who would say no, we, we like racial inequality, right? So we’re in the process of bringing people in, I think it’s also important that people who don’t share the experiences who are not a person of color, or who are not a woman, or they’re not queer, exercise, some humility. My experience has been so it’s a it’s a back and forth, right. I mean, there’s there’s, there’s work to be done on both sides. Where Yeah, we need to show that this these things that we’re fighting for benefit everyone. At the same time, people who are sort of outside that tent and would like to get in, they need to exercise some humility. And I’ll give a an example. That’s of exercising humility in why anti walks get upset, right. I’m sorry, not anti woke. So I woke people myself would get upset when people don’t exercise that humility. So I think it was about a year and a half ago. And there was this, this lightning rod on Twitter, her name, Sarah Rowell – I think I’m pronouncing that right. And she tweeted something about her mother wanting to keep her out of the sun. And I immediately recognize this, that this is a kind of colorism going on here where non white communities tend to favor people within their group that are closer to a European ideal. So don’t get darker skin, right to try to be as light as possible. And so and so. So that wasn’t so Rowell is Indian, I believe. And so but it also happens in black American communities not to the same extent it used to when I was growing up, but it’s still there. You know, being light skinned is considered more attractive thing, especially for women. So anyway, I quote tweeted this and I was like, Oh, you know, I feel this, right? I know what’s going on here. Now, what a lot of folks, this was a lot of white people a lot of white men did was say, oh, oh, this is not about race here. I mean, I tend, you know, everyone goes through this, this is, this is just wanting to change your appearance, you know, why, why you want to make smart race. And it was a very unsettling thing, because this was people who didn’t understand that you can’t equate a aesthetic choice to being devalued, because you can never reach a certain ideal and you’re scrambling to get it. I mean, it’s just that the two things weren’t together, it was very upsetting to me, because they were not black. They weren’t dark skinned. They weren’t in those communities. But yet, somehow they had the answer. And I think this happens often, when these people who I’m labeling anti woke are trying to engage people in these social justice issues. They don’t come in with a level of humility. And that’s very problematic. And I catch myself doing it all the time. I’m a guy who really is interested in male mentorship, and I’m concerned about a lot of guys being left behind in society. And so I want to talk about this. I have a lot of mutuals on Twitter, who are who are women. And I have to be careful to understand when they say, look, you know, a lot of these folks are in sales, or I’ve been harassed by some folks. And, and for me not to say, Oh, well, you know, let’s think about this differently. I have to be careful having that kind of conversation because I don’t have their experiences. I’ve never been sexually harassed. I don’t feel like you know, someone’s going to attack me violently. Because I’m a man. So I mean, it’s a little bit of both, but anti works really need to practice some humility, entering the conversation.

Alex Wise Just hearing you explain the Sarah Rowell issue on Twitter as an example of treading lightly I couldn’t help but think of Stephen Colbert’s original character on Comedy Central. And when he was the it was The Colbert Report, or The Colbert Report. And he was imitating Bill O’Reilly, he would often say, you know, I don’t see race. People say I’m white because I like Steely Dan records or something like that. It sounded laughable 15 years ago, and it’s funny, but then when we see some of the rulings from the white supreme court justices, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court now and it seems like they’ve kind of absorbed some of the absurdity of that, and they are lacking a lot of that humility. There’s a decade’s long fight against affirmative action in this country where we’re saying, well, we should all just be equal. Let’s just not see race. But that doesn’t seem like something that the majority party should be espousing. Does it?

Rod Graham  The other Democrat… majority race?

Alex Wise Sorry, oh, it’s not something for white males, for example, to be saying, if you wanted to say, you know, I don’t see race as much that’s different than if I said that, right?

Rod Graham  18:14 Yeah, I never thought of it that way. But yeah, I think that’s true. It would be like me, going up to a homeless person and saying, you know, I don’t I don’t see that you’re homeless? Well, I’m just gonna treat you the same as I would treat a person living in the mansion. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s easy for me to say that, yes. But meanwhile, that person is struggling with homelessness, and you know, so I guess I get what you’re saying.

Alex Wise As an add-on to that question:. I think of the problems with majority rule, for example, proposition eight, in 2008, I believe, or 2010 and California, which left gay marriage up to voters? Yes, California is a blue state, ultimately, in terms of presidential races. But this was an issue, which hadn’t really taken wing in the Democratic Party as much and so it was voted down. The point is, if we allow the majority to vote on issues that affect minorities, we’re going to get majority leaning rules, and the most vulnerable are not going to be helped. So it needs more than democracy, doesn’t it?

Rod Graham  19:36 That’s a tough one. Because on the one hand, I do like the majority rule in most cases, but I guess if it’s a moral issue, then that that puts it on a different plane. But I think ultimately, yeah, no, no, I actually don’t agree. I think ultimately, we have to find a way to convince the majority that it’s in their best interest, or, or at least doesn’t hurt them to vote for things that we care about. Because eventually you might get to the point where you know who you don’t want to get to the point where we were consistently. Letting the minority decide what goes for a society that’s no longer democracy. I forgot what it’s called, then I was an oligarchy or something. But we don’t want that. So I think it would be I would err on the side of moral suasion and try to convince people that they should, they should do what’s right, even if it takes longer.

(Music Break)  20:33

Alex Wise  21:05  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Professor Rod Graham, he teaches sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. So Rob, you have another piece called “Color consciousness, not color blindness.” And that kind of speaks to what we’re talking about, like we shouldn’t be colorblind. But we should all have an idea of what it’s like to be someone else. That was what I think was so severely lacking in our body politic during the Trump, age was were among Republicans. Empathy was almost a dirty word.

Rod Graham  21:54  Yeah, that’s amazing. So the piece may not necessarily have been about may not have taken that angle. But you’re absolutely right. I mean, I’m surprised at how you know, it, compassion has become something like a dirty word. Now, it’s really it’s really something. But, you know, I, you know, I think people when they’re afraid, you know, they might do things that they otherwise would not, would not do. I think that the Trump presidency is just a harbinger of things to come. Because you have a lot of people who are a lot of white people who are strongly invested in being a white person, all they won’t, they will not say it like that, they’ll say things like, this is my country, and you know, that this type of thing. And so they, they can stick their thumb to the wind, and see that, look, this is going to be a very multi-hued country, increasingly so. Right. And it’s not just a demographic thing. It’s also a social or cultural thing, where, there’s this push by a lot of people to dissenter, white Americans, in place them alongside other groups in society. And if you’re used to being the center, then when you’re placed on an equal plane, it seems like a loss to you. And so you’ve got all these social changes, these cultural changes, these demographic changes, you’ve also got, which will come out and a piece of the editorial board, I think, on Wednesday, where I talked about, you know, the white working class is just losing ground, especially white males.

Alex Wise And we know what happens when we have fear, we have ugliness, fear can lead to violence and, and divisiveness. And almost any kind of confrontation you have with anyone that turns ugly, is usually fear-based.

Rod Graham That’s right. So the lack of compassion is more because they’re afraid of what’s going to what might be coming doesn’t have to be that way. No one has to be that invested in their race, to that extent, but you know, some percentage of people in American society are

Alex Wise Right and I think that’s why we need to look at what is called color consciousness. You write “colorblindness is aspirational and has value but it’s removed from reality. It does not stop people from being blind to race. It does, however, blind them from seeing racism.” And then you go on saying “the myth of colorblindness binds not just white Americans, but all Americans to our racist past. We cannot address the effects of past racism and current racism that are ingrained in our institutions and policies. If we do not open our eyes and see race we need to be color conscious. That’s one of the real problems that we get when we talk about like reparations and looking at our racist past is people want to say well, they hate America. They don’t like what this country stands for then leave but our past is in arguable.

Rod Graham  24:52  That’s right. And it has demonstrable effects on the on the present. I mean, we can we can see this. I think. A lot of a lot of colorblind folks, though, were like me, we grew up in a time where, you know, the the narrative was to be colorblind, you know, follow Dr. King, you know, content of our character type of thing. And, and that’s, that’s wonderful. That’s wonderful. I mean, who’s gonna disagree with that? But like, you just quoted, it’s aspirational. And so you have to look at the real effects. And once you deal with those real effects, then it becomes possible to be truly colorblind, but we can’t be that yet. And that’s what I think I find so troubling with like, John Roberts-type ruling, I’m singling him out, but it could be any of the six conservatives on the court is that so much of their approach to race is aspirational. And then it’s cloaked in pragmatism, coming to like the Voting Rights Act. Oh, we don’t really need that anymore. Because, you know, it’s not 1962 anymore. We’re not, you know, Jim Crow’s over. But the reality is, look, it’s state by state that have put very difficult barriers for the most vulnerable of our population to express their franchise.

Rod Graham Right, that’s, that’s what’s been happening. And if you’re colorblind, this isn’t about race at all, it just so happens that the people who are going to be hurt the most by this, just so happened to be people of color. So yeah. It’s really something it’s really something, but I am, I’m the type of person so on Twitter I, I can be pretty, you know, snarky and whatnot. But in reality, when I’m talking to people like now, when I have these kind of conversations, I tend to try and understand the reason why people think the way they do because I don’t necessarily think it’s always about people trying to be racist or trying to hurt others. I think people truly believe that we should be colorblind. And they don’t like the fact that this value that they have is being questioned. It seems counterintuitive. What do you mean, see color? Isn’t that going to mean that you’re discriminating against someone? We shouldn’t do that? Right. And so it can be, it can be hard sometimes to get people to understand what is meant by being color conscious and how it works. But you know, it’s possible. That’s why I use the homeless example. I mean, it’s, it’s quite silly to not see that that person is different than you, right? Or imagine someone you know, who’s from a different country. I mean, they’re from, they’re from New Zealand, right? And so, recognize that it’s not going to kill you to say, Look, you’re from New Zealand, it might mean that something is a little different here. There’s nothing wrong with that. Right. So I just think we just have to have that conversation. To get people to understand being color conscious doesn’t necessarily equal being prejudiced or discriminatory.

Alex Wise Well, really appreciate your work, and I hope we can continue the conversation. Rod Graham, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Rod Graham Thanks for having me, Alex.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our Intro Music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Lettuce, the Meters and New Birth. Check out our website at Sea Change to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.