The Color of White Eyes

Blurred Racial Vision in 2020

Dr. Donte Newman | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

As an adolescent, I was socialized and educated in predominantly black neighborhoods and schools. In these spaces, I learned that most black people view the world from a unique standpoint — a standpoint grounded in resisting white supremacy either consciously or unconsciously. 

After earning a bachelor’s degree from a historically black university, I studied and worked at predominantly white institutions where it became clearer that most white people also view the world from a unique standpoint — a standpoint grounded in reinforcing white supremacy either consciously or unconsciously. 

In this way, the social groups we belong to help shape our experiences and how we understand, see, and communicate in the world. 

The white standpoint is informed by what sociologist Joe Feagin calls the white racial frame. It encompasses racist images, narratives, language, ideas, facts, and fictions that most white people hold because of their socialization in a society where white is supreme. 

In navigating racially divergent spaces, I learned that everything in America is about race. The unvarnished truth is that only race can explain why most black and white people have disparate standpoints on racial matters. Based on my experiences, I have come to the conclusion that when white people say, “It isn’t about race,” it’s 100 percent about race. 

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Talking About Race

Some white Americans say that black people talk too much about race and racism. I couldn’t disagree more. Not only do we need to talk more about race, but we need to also critically examine the ways in which we talk about race. I believe this ultimately determines (a) who/what we see as the issue, (b) how we think about the issue, and (c) what we do about the issue.

When I am on Facebook commenting or liking my friends’ posts, I often see people talking about racial issues such as police violence against black people. I routinely encounter white users who deracialize police encounters in their posts — “George Floyd had a criminal record. The officers were only doing their job, race had nothing to do with it. And Rayshard Brooks resisted arrest. He should have obeyed the cops’ orders, everything is not about race.” 

Statements like those reflect how some white Americans draw on the white racial frame. Whether on- or offline, white people who propagate these messages are parroting white lies. 

Everything in America is about race. To paraphrase writer Ijeoma Oluo — it’s about race if black people perceive it to be about race; it’s about race if it disproportionately impacts black people. 

In California, black people makeup 6 percent of the population but account for 16 percent of police killings. In Nebraska, black people make up 5 percent of the population but account for 22 percent of police killings. In New York, black people make up 16 percent of the population but account for 46 percent of police killings. 

Police violence in America is about race from state to state. 

When some white people say “race played no part” in a police encounter that either left a black person dead, physically injured, sexually assaulted, or psychologically traumatized, they are demonstrating textbook colorblindness. 

Colorblindness is a white lie. 

Colorblind or Colorsilent 

Colorblindness happens when people pretend to not see or play down the significance of race. Proponents of colorblindness are largely white, which completely baffles me. How did white people become colorblind in a country where they consciously enslaved, murdered, raped, plundered, exploited, terrorized, incarcerated, kidnapped, unhoused, unemployed, underemployed, and created separate but unequal facilities for people on the basis of skin color? 

Colorblindness is a result of the white racial frame. It surged after Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he stated: “I have a dream that [black people] will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” 

Dr. King wasn’t advocating for white people to ignore race. On the contrary, he challenged white people to acknowledge race but to not discriminate on the basis of racial identity. He would regard colorblindness as a problem, not a solution. Because of some white Americans’ commitment to disremember Dr. King, we have yet to construct an America that is consistent with his dream. 

When white people disremember the past, it shapes how black people live in the present. Disremembrance manipulates historical figures and their ideas with the intent to create a clean future from a dirty past. 

So when white Americans disremember Dr. King’s ideas to make him a proponent of colorblindness, they are protecting themselves from the truth. Dr. King was not a colorblind advocate. He fervently repudiated white supremacy and supported race-focused policies to eradicate black socioeconomic misery. The perverse distortion of Dr. King’s ideas have turned his race-conscious dream into a colorblind nightmare. 

The privilege to be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin isn’t The America We Know. 

The America We Know authorized a no-knock warrant for three white police officers to fire over 20 gunshots with at least eight bullets striking an unarmed Breonna Taylor, who died on her own apartment hallway floor at 12:48am. Taylor did not receive medical attention for more than 20 minutes after being shot multiple times. The three white police officers who murdered Breonna Taylor are still free. 

The America We Know enabled three white police officers to wrongfully arrest Elijah McClain, place him into a chokehold, and pin him to the ground while paramedics unethically administered 500 milligrams of ketamine into his 140-pound black body—a dosage level for someone twice his weight. One of the officers told McClain that if he didn’t calm down he would get his dog to bite him. The three white police officers who murdered Elijah McClain are still free. 

The America We Know isn’t colorblind. The America We Know is color-conscious but conveniently color-silent. Some white people are color-silent because they see color but refuse to mention it in their racial messages. But the volume of color-silent white Americans has always been blaring to black Americans. Black people have expertise in decoding white people’s messages about race even when the color of our skin is not explicitly stated.

Colorblindness is a white lie. 

Copaganda vs. Coptopia 

Some white Americans have become competent in communicating anti-black racism without ever mentioning or blaming race. One way that white people accomplish this is through what sociologist Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls colorblind cultural racism. 

Colorblind cultural racism happens when people blame the perceived pathological behavior of a racial group as the reason for racial inequality. For example, some white people argue that racial disparities in police violence exist because it is common in black culture to perpetrate crime, resist arrest, and disobey cops’ orders. 

The colorblind cultural racism narrative functions to prop up behavior while downplaying the significance of race during police encounters. It is built on the tipsy foundation of a white fallacy because everything in America is about race. 

Colorblindness is a white lie. 

Are the 258 white people killed by Texas’s police officers responsible for their own deaths because perpetrating crime is common in white culture? Are the 141 white people killed by Arizona’s police officers responsible for their own deaths because resisting arrest is common in white culture? Are the 333 white people killed by California’s police officers responsible for their own deaths because refusing to follow cops’ orders is common in white culture? 

Only on rare occasions do white Americans express collective outrage about police violence against white people. My estimation is that some white people worship law enforcement so blindly that they overlook how police officers kill white Americans with impunity, too, albeit at a lower rate than black people. But this is bewildering because most white people do not ever interact with cops, so why do they respect and protect them even when they kill their own? 

Comedian Trevor Noah notes that some white people’s beliefs about law enforcement are influenced by copaganda. He describes copaganda as the process by which media depictions of white cops preventing and solving crimes in police dramas and crime shows help to shape favorable public perceptions of law enforcement officers.

Copaganda is embedded in the white racial frame, and it provides a standpoint from which most white people can interpret incidents of police violence.

But, how would some white Americans talk about police violence against white people if they weren’t manipulated by copaganda? Would an honest conversation about white victims of police violence taint their favorable image of law enforcement? 

If some white people weren’t brainwashed by copaganda, I reckon they would probably advocate to hold cops accountable because in the white psyche there is nothing about white culture or behavior that would provoke police to murder white people. I imagine the dominant narrative would center whiteness as righteousness by rejecting any notion that white behavior is pathological. Because white culture is innocent, then, law enforcement must be guilty. 

Yet, perceived black behavior is deviant in the white imagination, and therefore held responsible for police killings of black people. In other words, the perceived pathology of black culture is responsible for black deaths, not the pathology of police culture. Because black culture is guilty, then, law enforcement must be innocent. 

The purpose of copganda is to criminalize perceived black behavior in order to heroicize law enforcement for protecting public safety from so-called dangerous black criminals. 

But, black people experience police violence even when we are displaying the same behaviors as white people who are safely taken into custody. This validates that it’s not about behavior; it’s about race. This is why some black people reject the manipulative programming of copaganda because some cops are the criminals.

While white people are enchanted by copaganda, black people experience what sociologist Dr. Michael Eric Dyson calls coptopia. Coptopia is the fear of bodily or psychological harm when interacting with police officers. This fear stems from an inability to persuade police officers that we are human. 

Darren Wilson, the white police officer who murdered Micheal Brown in 2014, described an 18-year-old young man as “it looks like a demon.” For the record, demons are non-human and largely associated with evil. I cannot accurately describe how demons look, but in my imagination, they don’t look like Michael Brown, or any other black person. 

Black people are human, too. This is why we fear cops, because they can devalue our humanity with impunity. They are rarely arrested, indicted, and convicted for killing us. Our racial reality prevents us from accepting whitewashed media portrayals of cops. 

While copaganda makes white people see law enforcement as America’s Finest, coptopia is why black people see law enforcement as America’s Most Wanted. 

Police brutality is about race. Blaming perceived black culture or behavior as the reason for racial disparities in police violence is the essence of colorblindness. But the unpalatable truth is that colorblindness is colored by white supremacy. This is how some white people show their true colors even when they claim to be colorblind in off-colored statements about race. 

Colorblindness is a white lie. 

Oppression Without Oppressors 

I believe everything in America is about race. Race is always present, perceptible, and pertinent. Most white people have 20/20 racial vision but refuse to acknowledge race just to claim colorblindness. Even when they are color-silent, white Americans see black people, and they speak on how they see black people. After making racist statements, most white people deny allegations of racism because they never explicitly mentioned race. As Dr. Bonilla-Silva writes, the communication of colorblindness produces “racism without racists.” 

Colorblindness is a white lie. 

A white lie is often characterized as innocent or harmless — it’s said that white lies are told to avoid hurting other people. But white lies are neither innocent nor harmless, and they do hurt people. History informs us that white lies cost black lives. 

Colorblindness stymies racial progress. 

When some white people self-proclaim to not see race, it not only prevents them from working to dismantle systems of racial oppression such as police departments, but it also creates a false narrative that America is a post-racial society. 

Black people aren’t asking for a post-racial society; we are demanding a post-racist society. White people — communicating colorblindness by pretending to not see race, or downplaying the significance of race, doesn’t make you less racist, “non-racist,” or anti-racist; it makes you complicit in white supremacy.

We have yet to build an America that is congruent with Dr. King’s dream. It has been 57 years since his “I Have A Dream” speech, and black people are still judged by the color of our skin and not by the content of our character. 

This is The America We Know. 

“Let me say that we have failed to say something to America enough … However difficult it is to hear, however shocking it is to hear, we’ve got to face the fact that America is a racist country. We have got to face the fact that racism still occupies the throne of our nation. I don’t think we will ultimately solve the problem of racial injustice until this is recognized, and until this is worked on.” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

Dr. Donte Newman is a professor of Communication at Santa Barbara City College. He writes about race, whiteness, and white supremacy for The America We Know column. 

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