Last summer I was lying on the waterfront, writing and eating cannoli with my husband. He said of a pistachio cannoli that the filling tasted like toothpaste. But it didn’t. I say that with so much certainty because I hate mint, so I would have never eaten a cannoli that tasted like toothpaste. It made me think, though: maybe the hubby was making the association between the filling and toothpaste because the filling was a green paste. Like that mind-game where we’re challenged to read the name of a colour that is written in a different coloured ink. The colour of the letters creates a bias in our minds that sometimes cannot be overridden by the content of the message, and we mix up the colour spelled with the colour seen. We don’t, however, have the same difficulty correctly identifying a colour spelled in black ink, because we consider black ink to be neutral.
This is the best way I can think to begin discussing the problematic term: “visible minorities”.
My summer after first year of undergrad, I worked for the Canadian government’s “Racism-Free Workplace Strategy” and I was charged with researching the origins of the term “visible minority”, which is unique to Canadian public policy. The first step for me was to gain an understanding of why the term was problematic in the first place. On first observation, it seemed like a useful term; describing a form of marginalization that was based on visible difference from the majority population. However, I came to slowly understand the implications of both being “visible” as a racialized people as well as, conversely, being “invisible” as a white person. And, since that summer, having been made aware of the issue, I collected more and more examples of instances of this specific manifestation of racism, which deprives entire groups of people of individual agency.
I hear comedy routines (both by professional comics and unintentionally absurd politicians) about screening white people in the airport only so that the screening program can be politically correct. As though emotional instability combined with a need for attention and the bad influence of a terrible person posing as a cleric is a risk to people of a single skin tone. Such that white guys who look like Anders Breivik are immune from typecasting, yet a woman’s relatively innocuous choice to wear a hijab is all you need to know about her entire culture.
But that’s me ranting… For the sake of clarity, I will choose 3 specific ways in which the phenomenon manifests, and use those to go into a bit more detail.
1) Employment: It’s no secret that people prefer to associate with people like themselves. Appearance is one of the easiest [read: laziest] ways of identifying kinship. Being white is not sufficient to fitting in, but, often, it is necessary . A person might have grown up down the street of his or her prospective employer and have lived in the same community for generations, but a non-white person’s skin colour becomes a beacon that he or she might be “an outsider”. At the very least, the racialized person will need to utilize a variety of secret-handshake-like trademarks of whiteness to prove that they grew up in, or were at least educated in, the “right” kind of communities. What is more, while people might sense their own prejudice against an “other”, and it might cause them some guilt, they will not see their lack of prejudice against white people as an advantage to a white person; and so this “invisibility” of whiteness is not understood as a manifestation of racism.
2) Keeping a tally: Remember the “Hip Hop White House” headline that took over Fox News for a few weeks a few years back? It’s almost as if there is a tally being kept of the number of black people attending White House events and that there was a maximum number that was acceptable at the White House at any given time. It’s a common refrain of racists that “minorities” are taking over. Leave alone the inherent irony of that statement, it is revealing of many truths about “visibility”; for instance, that racialized people are liable to being grouped together with any and all other racialized people, and that a few racialized people can seem like many, until the mere presence of anyone who is non-white sparks resentment and the Department of Justice starts investigating “reverse racism” in college admissions. It reminds me of an anecdote I heard from a woman comedian about being rejected from a gig because they already had a woman performing that night. It is not sufficient, nor is it any comfort, to be represented when one is being counted.
3) Forgiveness: My favourite recent example of this is the blame that racialized people incurred for Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 general election when they didn’t show up in the same numbers as they had for Barack Obama, while it was hardly noteworthy that white people of every demographic were hardly inspiring in their voter turnout and worse still came out in droves for Donald Trump. More recently still, the story of Doug Jones’ win in the Alabama Senate special election is black voter turnout despite that a more interesting story would seem to be how many white people were willing to vote for an alleged pedophile who believes women shouldn’t be able to vote and that Muslim people shouldn’t serve in Congress and on and on. It’s as though the visibility of one’s skin colour likewise makes every facet of the person’s character and behaviour more visible. Meanwhile, and by contrast, white people are legion and so people aren’t taking stock of their sins.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to be more than what he or she looks like, and so it’s natural that people would want to be invisible as far as their skin colour is concerned. But nothing, much less skin colour, should render bad behaviour invisible.
Posted in: Progress