Home > Personal, Social Justice > Race, Privilege, and Color-Blindness: A White Boy's Perspective

Race, Privilege, and Color-Blindness: A White Boy's Perspective

Responding to a previous post titled “Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop,” a friend asked me: “Why do you like to discuss race?  I’m curious about that more so than the race issues themselves—what’s your own background anyway?”

Here is my response.  Before you read it, you should know that i hereby acknowledge that a) i am white, b) i have been white my entire life, and c) i still carry a LOT of naivete around the subject of racism and oppression. That said, i think there are obviously a tremendous amount of cultural taboos that continue to cloud this subject, and i have always been a fan of trying to look at those spaces between us where most spend a lavish amount of time and energy trying not to see. I have largely grown up in the cultural vacuum of identity politics, in which you are not allowed to say anything about anyone else’s experience, culturally or personally, other than your own—and so i feel like i am sitting on the end of a particularly wobbly branch, completely unsure if the winds will knock me off.  But i guess this is an effort to cut through my own fear of personal expression, and probe a bit deeper into the sensitive wounds that continue to exist beneath our cultural scabs.

Why do i like to discuss race—that is a really difficult question to answer!  A quick response might be to say that i think part of it has to do with my relationship with music and trying to take a “trans-genre” approach to djing.  Music has long been a sort of window into other cultures, perspectives, and ways of being for me.  And as i see it, the “conscious dj” has an enormous amount of responsibility when it comes to not just playing music that sounds good and has a catchy beat, but having a very real, in-depth understanding of the artists and cultures s/he is representing.

Being a good dj is sort of like being a cultural archivist (for good examples, check out Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing, De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising, among many others). DJ’s are usually looked to for their cultural expertise, as they are typically the ones who are most passionate about music and music culture, and therefore the most knowledgeable. They tend to represent some form of “lower-left quadrant” mastery, and are looked to for this expertise, in much the same way that listeners form kinships with certain music reviewers who are trusted for their meta-perspectives on cultural trends and innovations. In this sense, dj’s are rather like the “Mavens” described in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, acting as trusted cultural experts to help expose people to artists they would never have been exposed to by the mainstream industry-controlled channels—and in order to live up to that responsibility, he or she needs to be exposed to as many different subcultures as possible.  And once you start stepping into subcultures other than your own, you inevitably bump into the often tricky business of race and racism.

For example, i find it fascinating that, in hip hop culture, just about any race can find acceptance as a dj, but it is very very difficult to gain the same level of recognition and acceptance as an mc if you are not black. I think much of this has to do with economic advantage—turntables, mixers, and crates of records are expensive, and it’s no secret that black communities have historically remained on the shit end of the socio-economic stick.  (In fact, hip hop as an artform exploded throughout New York City following a massive two-day blackout in 1977, during which the looting of music stores by impoverished blacks brought new technology to poor neighborhoods and ghettos for the first time ever.)  Because technology is so expensive, yet everyone is born with a voice, it is much easier for the art of rapping to remain anchored in ethnocentric thinking—making it more difficult for non-black mc’s to be accepted by the hip hop community.

So there’s one example of my interest in race and racism, from an artistic perspective.

On a personal level, i guess it comes down to becoming increasingly aware of my own “white privilege”—which is why i find the question fascinating: “Have you had any experiences which forced you to deeply acknowledge, confront, or even simply feel your skin color?”  My guess is that, for most white Americans (at least those who have not traveled beyond the borders of the U.S.) the honest answer would be “never.”  Which is a bit of a luxury, you know what i mean?  Most minorities are made to feel the color of their skin on a daily basis, from subtle cultural biases to flagrant racial profiling.

This is why when people ask me why i moved from Boulder to Denver, i often half-jokingly respond “too many white people.”  Or, if i’m feeling a little more socially lubricated, “too many self-assured white people who think they are above racism, without ever having to interact with people who don’t look like them.” I can be an elitist asshole when i am socially lubricated.

I remember the first time i ever felt the color of my skin.  I was in 9th grade, and though i came from a pretty racist family, my mother and stepfather were very careful to keep me away from such toxic values.  As a result, i was raised to be “color-blind” to questions of race.  It was all very naive, as i was largely unconscious of the struggles minorites were experiencing every day.  I think there is a sort of expectancy for post-amber whites to become “color-blind” to racial differences—especially in the zeitgeist of postmodernism.  But i think that such “color-blindness” is a sort of covert racism—after all, the only people who can afford to be “color-blind” are the ones who never have to even think about the color of their skin.  The ones who aren’t forced to confront their own identity on a daily basis in the same way that minorities are.  “Color-blindness” is just another perk of white privilege, along with mortgages, small classroom sizes, and free access to the country club pool.

Then, the Rodney King trial went down.  Four white cops beat a black man within an inch of his life, with no reasonable threat made to them.  Although a bystander recorded the entire incident, the four white cops were found innocent, the entire city of Los Angeles exploded in mass riots, while many other parts of the country trembled in the aftermath. It was as though decades of repressed anger and rage had exploded through the whole nation, and people were finally given license to say something about it.

A few days after the riots began i was sent to the vice-principal’s office.  I was late to school that day. Clumsy and awkward, i walked across a row of seated students and accidentally stepped on some black kid’s foot. (Again, my identity politics made me hesitate to say “on some black kid’s foot,” because the phrase “some black kid” may sound condescending or lead the reader to believe that skin color is my primary way of relating to him as a human being, and that all my culturally-inherited fears and half-truths around the word “black” color my perception of “black people” in general—thereby making me only able to see their blackness, instead of their full humanness.  But as it turns out, his skin color is about the only thing i knew about him as a human being, other than the fact that he definitely had a foot, and that i had indeed stepped upon that foot. But i couldn’t very well describe him as “some footed kid’s foot;” that’s just redundant.)

Anyway, i accidentally stepped on his foot, and was promptly reminded that i was, in fact, a stupid motherfucker. As if i didn’t already know. I stammered a nervous apology and took my seat at the end of the row.

After detention at the end of the school day, i was walking alone down the sunlit hallway connecting the cafeteria to the classrooms when i saw the kid whose shoe i had earlier accidentally stepped on.  He was with about a half dozen of his friends, all human beings who happened to be black.  He pointed me out, and they all ran at me.

There was a very funny episode of the animated series Boondocks in which one of the characters said: “I’ve said it before, expensive sneakers are like $150 land mines. Step on one and BOOM! A perfectly rational black man can explode.” This whole thing kind of reminds me of that.  (I should mention that i edited out of the quote the part that referred to these shoe-related explosions as an example of “nigger moments,” because that is an identity politic i am particularly sensitive about as a white person, and personally think that is a cultural taboo that whites should continue to respect.  But i included it in this parenthetical because i am edgy like that.)

Next thing i knew, the dude i stepped on punched me in the jaw, and i dropped to the floor like a sack of meat, whereupon they all proceeded to kick the living shit out of me—in the ribs, in the back, and in the head.  Fortunately, just a minute or two into my beating, Taharka—another melanin-abundant guy and the only name i remember from the entire incident—pulled them all off me, and brought me to the nurse’s office.

It was horrifying.  I was just a bit bruised up, no real damage at all, but i was so shocked and confused—i was fourteen years old, i had never hurt anyone, i was just a shy and socially awkward white kid trying to keep his head down and avoid being noticed by anyone.  But on that day, i stood out—i was the enemy, and for a moment was offered a circus-mirror glimpse of how minorities must feel almost every day: singled out for no other reason than the color of my skin.

I cried when my dad came to the school to pick me up.  It was one of the most important days of my life.


I believe that the civil rights movement is not over, but is a struggle that must be fought every single day.  By everyone.  It’s not enough for blacks, or asians, or latinos, or any ethnic group to fight the battle alone, which i think has largely been the case since the late sixties/early seventies.  Meanwhile many young whites take the revolutions of the sixties for granted, as if it were our parent’s struggle, and not our own.  As a result, much of the progress from that era is taken completely for granted—and i have the sense that many whites believe that the major victories have already been won, and silently wonder why non-whites aren’t somehow “over it” by now, especially in Obama’s America.

But the civil rights movement is barely half a century old—a tiny sliver of human history—and though the seeds have already been planted and are even now taking root deep in our collective psyche, the fruit of a genuinely post-racial America will only be tasted by unborn generations.

Whites can no longer lean upon the accomplishments of our parents and grandparents as justification for no longer thinking critically about the subject.  In much the same way that a healthy feminism can only flourish alongside a healthy masculism, i believe that questions of race and racism must be as much of a struggle for whites as it is for anyone else.  If civil rights are to continue to flourish in the future, whites need to be just as invested in the discussion as anyone else.  And i just don’t see that happening within mainstream white culture.

And since the Integral movement is currently composed mostly of male white perspectives, it is very important to me personally to emphasize these sorts of civil responsibilities to everyone in the community—especially since Integral consciousness is vastly more capable of understanding and addressing the roots of racial injustice.

Many of us have learned to be accountable to our upper quadrants in relation to race and racism—cultivating certain sense of “Right Thoughts” and “Right Behaviors,” to use Buddhist terms.  But the lower-quadrants—the invisible bedrock of racial biases, socio-economic imbalances, and historical circumstance—has remained fairly untouched in recent decades, especially in white cultures.  Much of this, i believe, stems from the vigorously-enforced identity politics found in academia, which ironically prevents any real perspective-taking from occurring.  I could feel this sort of unseen tension as i was writing this piece—as i pointed out, even using the words “black man” feels like i am betraying the politically-correct superego i was indoctrinated with, as though it were inappropriate to ever use one’s racial heritage as a descriptive qualifier.  But it is exactly this sort of sterilized relationship with language that prevents any genuine conversations around race to move forward in a constructive and meaningful way.

That said, i do think identity politics has it’s place.  As i said, i think it is extremely inappropriate for whites to use the “n-word.”  It will likely take many generations before that radioactive word is able to cool down enough for whites to be able to use it casually and in good taste.  If black communities wish to transmute for themselves the tremendous pain and gravity that word continues to carry (as Saul Williams attempts to do with The Rise and Inevitable Liberation of Niggy Tardust) that is obviously acceptable and their own right to do so.  We can clearly argue that slavery in general is NOT a white vs. black issue, but a developmental issue of both values and technological capacity—but until some of the cultural scars around that word have begun to heal, it should be voluntarily relinquished from the vocabularies of those directly descending from people who have used it as a euphemism for the enslavement and dehumanization of an entire people.

That said, any of you can totally feel free to call me a cracka.  It’s open season for crackas everywhere.  Cracka with an “a” that is—don’t you dare try calling me a “cracker.”  That one is ours.


Deconstructing Niggy: A Brief Exploration of Race and Hip Hop
Race, Stereotyping, and Socially-Constructed Knowledge by Sean Yang (KenWilber.com)
Beyond Race and Racism with Mark Palmer and Ken Wilber (Integral Naked)

Categories: Personal, Social Justice Tags:
  1. DeepVision
    August 9, 2009 at 3:39 am

    *standing ovation* I wish there were more people who take the time to think about and understand how far we’ve come, but (more importantly) how far we haven’t. I’m a black man and I too feel that the absurdity of the concept of race and these identities and systematic, ingrained racism we live with will only be addressed by thoughtful perspectives such as the one you offered. I’ll definitely be checking this blog out in the future and telling people about it. BTW, you said you DJ. got any mixtapes/songs/vids/myspace/whatever? be easy.
    peace and blessings

  2. dedangelo
    August 9, 2009 at 7:37 am

    Very nice, Corey. I especially appreciate your comments about the constrictive nature of identity politics. The “Wise Latina” controversy speaks to this. The dominant culture doesn’t understand or even know the inumerable subtleties of racism. Perhaps this is the new front of the civil rights war that we’re seeing now.

  3. August 9, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    “the shit end of the socio-economic stick” — That phrase alone is worth the price of admission. Great piece of writing, man. Extremely well written, thoughtful, ballsy.

    You’re onto something here with this blog. Keep rocking it.

  4. Jo
    August 9, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    You certainly are on to something. “Color-blindness” was invented by a good-intentioned Boomer culture that fought for “equality” (sameness) when they meant to advocate “equity” (fairness). It seems to fly in the face of reason that we are all the same when we begin to examine matters beyond basic human rights. So in application, color-blindness has become an excuse, a weapon, a justification for racism having morphed from a wish for fairness to a way we now sweep those issues of race, ethnicity, and culture under the rug; a reductionists dream.

  5. August 9, 2009 at 5:03 pm

    Thank you for your rigorous honesty. I, like you, am one of those white protestant males…and feel very much as you do concerning race and racism…and our experiences VERY similar. I grew up in a small town in NC and went to school’s that were 95% black. It was interesting to say the least. Reverse racism (or rather, just racism) was the norm for me pretty much everyday where what little whites there were were taunted, abused, bullied, etc. I was lucky in that I never was on the receiving end of any violence (I was 6’2 and 220 pounds) but others around weren’t so lucky. But I still carried that anxiety around with me for most of my high school years and had to walk a very thin line. Now an adult I see exactly what was going and why…but I can’t say that growing up in that environment hasn’t affected the way I relate to minorities now. I’m always wondering what projections are they projecting on to me as a white male and what projections I am projecting on to them as minorities…I’m reasonably enlightened but I know not even I can catch all of the projections…policing my own motivations, attitudes, behavior, etc. I’m just hinting at the tip of the ice berg here… but your article REALLY resonated with me and was more eloquent on the subject than I’d even think to be. Thank you for posting this, it’s nice to see my own uneasiness and uncertainty reflected in the world.

  6. David McCoy
    August 9, 2009 at 7:43 pm

    GREAT ESSAY about a very complex issue
    “too many self-assured white people who think they are above racism, without ever having to interact with people who don’t look like them.”
    So True…
    I work in an environment that has had a lot of racial tensions….One thing I have learned is there is no way that I can ever really understand what it is like to grow up Black in America….We have come a long way….but we have so much further to go…and much more healing to be done…

  7. Bob
    August 9, 2009 at 11:59 pm

    Why don’t we all make masks of all our race related fears and pass them around until we or they dissolve all measure of meaning.

    Wonderful work. I thank you for your delicate tip-toeing as well as the depth you allow yourself to dive further in-to. Being a 1970 baby raised in Des Moines, I have always found it difficult not to involve myself rigorously in our human evolution of behavior in relationship to self and other’s regarding racial identity. The rise of urban busing in the early to mid 70’s made evolution inevitable. The supreme court decision: Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, changed our world. We behave differently thanks to the Court’s decision to make law: You will create a more diverse village. It allowed us to become players, lovers, ecstatics, fools, bloggers, and mysteries evolving (when realizing the opening) in a very real social experiment. Urban busing gave many of us — certainly myself — our first friends of color outside of our own familial reality. It did us good. Now its our turn.

    …To see our culture evolving in heated debate over affirmative action laws, immigration reforms, public healthcare, burka’s, long hair, public education… um… reminds me of a song by Greg Brown:

    “I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall and I cried out in a song: if we could do all that in thirty years, then please tell me you all – why does good change take so long? Why does the color of your skin or who you choose to love still lead to such anger and pain? And why do I think it’s any help for me to still dream of playing the poet game? —

    We are creating healthier spaces to heal and evolve when we engage ourselves in this work.

    off to sit breathe and dream

    total gratitude

  8. Mark
    August 10, 2009 at 12:31 am

    I think this is an honest essay, but I think it partakes (unfortunately) in the very type of pc mileau that you are attempting to deconstruct.

    You stepped on a black kid’s shoe. As a consequence of this, you got beat up. And perhaps you would have been very badly hurt were it not for your kind intercessor.

    And your conclusion from this: White youths must tackle racism. Really? Seriously? If this were a part of your conclusion, that would seem right. But that is your whole conclusion. It seems totally off.

    What about the black kids who beat you up and their personal responsibility and agency? How about asking for an apology or seeking a touch of justice? Apparently they were so overwhelmed by society–Rodney King or not– that they could do nothing in that situation but to hurt you badly, not even galantly (one-on-one). If you think about it, this point of view–so common in progressive white circles–really dehumanizes black people. It assumes (without saying so) that because of historical and social forces black people have been stripped of the ability to control their behavior and can not be held accountable in the ways that other people would. This, in my opinion, is a perfect working definition of liberal racism–the denial of full humanity to black people by people of liberal persuasions specifically because they are assumed to be helpless in the face of systemic forces.

    Don’t get me wrong here. Maybe if you were a cop, having harassed a neighborhood all day, you would more legitimately trigger a beat down. But you weren’t–you were a random white kid who unintentionally stepped on someone’s shoe.

    What does your meaning making around this event imply (however unintentionally) about black people? I am sure you are familiar with Ken’s rant on men as monsters and women as sheep and how such a view is untenable. I think that could be applied here.

    P.S. I recommend reading John McWhorter and Shelby Steele on these topics.

  9. kfkonner
    August 10, 2009 at 12:36 am

    I was brought up by parents who advocated equality. I lived in a community where there was only 1 black male, during my last year of HS, and I lived only 23 miles from NYC.

    I can’t remember when the awareness began, but I know as long as I have been aware of myself, I have been aware of this – I notice that my initial response to anyone who could be identified as anything other than white, waspy people, requires me to double check myself. I immediately enter a baggage decompression warp. When I come out the other side, I’ve dropped something unseen but big. It’s at this moment that I become aware of how I will choose to interact with the person I am present with. I choose to allow my heart to open and go from there. So I guess this would equate to cultivating the ‘right thoughts’ and ‘right behavior’ as written about above.

    I feel like a big shit head dodo bird because no matter what I read or interactions I have, my muscles still aren’t big enough, and I continue to live in some racially bigoted way without even knowing it.

  10. August 10, 2009 at 2:11 am

    As a Black man, I must applaud your fearlessness to speak about a subject that has for too long been a one-sided conversation. This white privilege you speak of is definitely a hinderance on our progression as human beings. Mostly because it allows white people the luxury of avoiding having to acknowledge the methods used to garner such a privilege to begin with. History is full of the most despicable acts you can imagine, but moving forward is the only way to atone for the past. Without this discussion, there can never be any real successful movement to advance, not as black people or white people, but as people.

  11. August 10, 2009 at 9:17 am

    In my brief 72 years of being in multiracial communities around NY I have a tapestry of contemplation on the subject of black and white interaction. The primary idea that comes to me is about ‘rage’ and what is the context of rage in an individual. From my own rage which, would come out some times and vent it self on some innocent that brought this rage to the surface, to. I had to examine the rage in me and understand where that came from. My current feeling is that our basic goodness or Buddha nature which gets denied at most steps of the culturally ignorant conditioning would bottle up inside the body which then needs to play out. I have seen this rage come out in people while giving bodywork sessions. So I understand, when a person goes into an explosion of sound and movement, to create space for it to occur and encourage the release by continuing to breathe fully and let it release and soften.

    To me this is the price we pay for denying ones sacredness in the early years of development. The good news is it can be processed in safe spaces one body at a time.

    An interesting story of working with a black musician in NY in the sixties is; the piano jazz artist was telling his story of the difficulties of making it in show business as a black. At the conclusion of his communication Monica said; “I know how you feel I’m a women” 

    In early 1950’s show business, as a dancer Monica Lind Hathaway, a mentor for me, toured with Duke Ellington for two weeks. When exiting the theaters other black musicians would escort her out as she was taunted with indignant remarks from people at the exit. When finished with the tour she had a hard time finding work from NY agents because of this stint.

    Yes Black is Beautiful and white men can’t dance, although I was pretty good with the Lindy and Mambo.

    Beautiful article appreciated on many levels

  12. Mark
    August 10, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Thanks to you as well. And good for you for raising the topic–one I am interested in (obviously). And definitely one I think the Integral community could hash out more.


  13. Jeffrey
    August 13, 2009 at 10:13 am

    In watching my own heart/mind (meditating) on these issues, both on and off the cushion, I think that I’ve noticed my own racism (among other issues) arise out of that most basic discriminating aspect of mind that notices whether someone or something is “for” “me” or “against” “me.” And it seems to arise just because a person is “different” than me. This alone constitutes a threat according to this aspect of my mind. When hanging out with some of my black friends or meeting a new person who appears to be obviously from a different socio-economic background or whatever I find that I have to be willing to just be with that initial moment of discomfort. Trying to sweep it under the rug doesn’t help but there is that superego part of my mind that thinks it’s “wrong” for me to feel that discomfort, as if the feeling of discomfort IS evidence of racism. I really don’t think that it is. I think that the inability to rest with that discomfort is one of the primary causes of racist thought and action. We just can’t handle feeling uncomfortable. We can’t own our own discomfort that is based on our perception. Therefore, people can come to the conclusion, “we just don’t like black (white,Asian) people,” etc…

    “I believe that the civil rights movement is not over, but is a struggle that must be fought every single day. By everyone.”

    Since that basic discriminating aspect of each individual’s mind isn’t going anywhere soon than I agree with the above quote. We can build societal structures and norms and cultural norms and so forth but every individual starts at square one in their own development and must make the journey to higher stages of consciousness as well as develop the ability to “see” their own mind in action and understand their mind as it does its ongoing separation of experience into “this” and “that”, “me” and “not me”, and so forth.

    Know what I mean?

    -Jeffrey (a skinny white boy)

  1. August 9, 2009 at 1:49 pm
  2. August 10, 2009 at 7:13 am

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