Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil - Kobukson

Patricia J Williams is currently a Professor at Columbia Law School. She writes a column for The Nation magazine titled "Diary of a Mad Law Professor." The Mad-Law-Professor is also the name of a super hero that she created.

In 1997, she published Seeing a Colorblind Future: The Paradox of Race.

From The Atlantic Online:

[bold emphasis mine]

Can you explain your book's title? Do you see yourself as entering self-consciously into current debates over the achievability, even desirability, of a "color-blind" society? The book doesn't mention affirmative action explicitly.

Yes, all of this intersects with specific legal remedies such as affirmative action, and the counter to those, which has been appeals to color-blindness -- not just color-blindness as a social ideal but as a kind of literal mandate that seems to be requiring, as in California's Proposition 209, that you eliminate all reference to race even when you're trying to remediate the effects of racism. That's the paradox, it seems to me -- that you can't talk about what it is that you're trying to remediate. Therefore you can't talk about it sensibly. In the book I use the image of the three monkeys, Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil. To me, that image represents the wrong kind of color-blindness, because that's just plain blindness, rather than unselfconsciousness about race or about the mark of color.

The book opens with an anecdote about your son's being misdiagnosed as (literally) color-blind. The well-meaning teachers in his nursery school had taught the children that "it makes no difference" what color you are, and it seems your son took this quite literally, so that he resisted identifying color at all. The story illustrates the way children are taught that race doesn't matter. But you're pointing out the many ways in which the color of one's skin does, unfortunately, matter. How do you explain to a child the idea that race matters?

Well, you know, I think there is no rational way to explain it. That's the great injury of race -- it is not rational. It does matter, and yet it shouldn't. And yet it does.

When I had my son's vision tested, the doctor told me that he was indeed not color-blind. It was his teachers who had said he was having trouble distinguishing colors in various color games and tests, and that he was so smart in other regards that I should really see if he were color-blind. It turned out that he was saying it doesn't matter what color the grass is, it doesn't matter what color the sky is.

It is one thing to teach children from the inception that race does not matter, that skin color does not matter. And yet my son's teachers had made this point of its not making a difference only after it had made a difference. They ignored the racial dynamics of the classroom up to a certain point, but when some children excluded my son from their play because of his race the teachers said color doesn't make a difference. His believing that literally was his attempt to resolve something that was nonsensical, basically -- something that was two things at once.

I have not found a sensible way to talk about race to my son. I do not want to poison him with the kinds of demarcations that would most effectively explain what racism is. Racism means that certain people don't like you. I guess my concern is that most children, black children in particular, understand the negative consequences of race before they have words to understand the great complexity of what's embodied in its history. It's a little bit like wondering how you explain war to a child.

You're known for the use of anecdote in your writing. In fact, you manage to write about pressing legal and philosophical issues from a position that's very much "on the ground." What draws you, as a writer and as a legal scholar, to anecdote? Are there any dangers inherent in the use of anecdote?

Surely. I sometimes get characterized as somebody who does nothing but anecdote. And that's absolutely not true. Part of what I've tried to do in my writing is insert anecdote at the moments when people have reasoned their way by virtue of broad generalizations. I insert an anecdote to bring it down to the individual level -- to make it nuanced, to make it real. That's where I think it's most effective.

On the other hand, I've been in situations where everybody's saying, "I am a representative of this," "I am a representative of this." It's as though they can't get past their own little anecdotal stories of self-validation and self-credentialization. That's the point at which I will reverse it and reach for the broad statistic. I find, for example, that people use the worst-case scenario when talking about welfare reform. It's always, you know, a black teenage mother who's thirteen, has six children, and whose boyfriend is a crack dealer. Broad public policies are made with her as the representative figure. That's anecdote. Willie Horton is anecdote. And that's the point at which I think it's useful to say that in 1996 only two percent of single mothers on welfare were under the age of eighteen -- and only eight percent when you count those who were eighteen and nineteen. It helps to put things in proportion. So I try to use anecdote consistently to illustrate larger points. I use it strategically.

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