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Commentary: Between racist and colorblind

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 18, 2009 - Several recent news stories have illustrated our inability to avoid extremism when it comes to racial issues. Take the Tea Party demonstrations: either participants are racist or not. How about the Newsweek article that examined children's racial attitudes? They are either colorblind or discriminate. Joe Wilson is either racist or does not have a prejudice bone in his body.

These are the headlines that we see. I understand the need to grab the readers' attention, but often the stories presented are no more complex than a collection of sound bites representing the "two" sides.

The real story lies somewhere along the continuum from racist _______ to not a prejudice bone in the body. In fact, the truth most likely resides at multiple points on that continuum.

However, we are limited in our scope of understanding these stories, because we have limited our view of White America. As discussed generally, Whites are either colorblind or racist. Because we fail to talk about Whites having any other racial attitude, it makes sense that, when it is reported that a White person is anything other than colorblind, it is suggested that they must be racist.

That presumption of racism only breeds defensiveness and puts people in preservation mode. Rather than having a conversation about how some of the signs at the demonstrations were perceived as racially insensitive, we are arguing over whether the people holding the signs and attending the events are racist. Perhaps some of them are, but the dynamics are much more complex than that dichotomy.

I must give credit to the Newsweek article by Bronson and Merryman in that they attempted to unpack the research on children and discrimination. They discussed the need for parents to talk to their children explicitly rather than in vague terms.

Colorblindness is also debunked in that we know children in their infancy attend to difference in skin color. Therefore, our attempt to "protect" children by not addressing race ignores that fact that they see it from early on. It is the adults' responsibility to help them wade through the meaning we have put on race rather than leave them to pick up cues along the way.

Our either/or attitude when it comes to race reminds me of how we, as a society, approach sex education. We teach abstinence or provide birth control. We argue over which is better rather than finding a middle ground. I think we wish we did not have to address the issue at all. "Maybe it will just go away. They'll figure it out."

We underestimate children and resist full disclosure. However, children will fill in the blanks either through their own observations and experiences or vicariously through others.

The same holds true to race. We must acknowledge the complexities rather than getting stuck in the "racist or not" dichotomy. We need to fully disclose the stories of the roles Whites have played in creating and maintaining our racist society. That includes telling the stories of Morris Dees, the Grimke sisters and other active anti-racists. Perhaps by offering examples of Whites who are along the continuum rather than at one of the extremes, we can begin to address the complexities of race in a new way.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.