The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Michigan voter-determined ban on Affirmative Action in college admissions decisions is just the latest example of how white obliviousness suppresses America’s collective capacity to heal from the wounds of racism.
This obliviousness (a dynamic well described in Mary McClintock Fulkerson’s Places of Redemption) often manifests itself with pronounced potency among those who understand themselves as the well-informed stewards of fairness in our society. The Court’s decision in the Michigan case is a bewildering example of the self-perpetuating nature of obliviousness. When the ethos of a society is fed regularly with the pabulum of color-blindness, and when the affliction of racism is addressed most prevalently with the placebo of fairness then the conditions are ripe for obliviousness around race to flourish. This obliviousness becomes tyrannous when it is backed up and propped up by the sources of power in our society sanctioned as arbiters of justice—justice that is sought after because it is color-blind and fair. I am dizzy from the circularity of it all.
The self-perpetuating currents of ambivalence around the legacy of slavery in this country are a formidable and oppressive force. This force tells us again and again that this collective ambivalence is acceptable, even laudable in a society that is democratic and fair. And this ambivalence is born of privilege, which forms and feeds a shared lethargy about the hard work of racial healing. The oppressive power of obliviousness is maintained by its subtlety as well as by its capacity to be camouflaged as keeper of the values America holds most dear.
When faced with extreme racism, there is a clear path in our country for a reaction of outrage. Witness the most recent media frenzy around the racist sentiments of NBA owner, Donald Sterling.
There have been widespread reactions of disgust and disapproval. And there has been an institutional backdrop of support for a swift and decisive condemnation of such sentiments—from the President of the United States to the Commissioner of the NBA to the voices of social media. Clearly the attitudes attributed to Sterling are neither acceptable nor tolerated in American society today.
At the same time, these clear and audible reactions against such extreme expressions of racism can further obscure the more difficult task we have if we truly aspire to being an anti-racist society. When we react against extreme racism we can feel confirmed in our belief that we are not racist. And we can relax once again into the tyrannous power of obliviousness.
This obliviousness is a mark of white culture, although it is in the air everyone breathes. Everybody takes in at least some of its mollifying oxygen whether we want to or not. But it is whiteness in particular that has set the norms, it is whiteness that has obscured its own racially-determined set of values, it is whiteness that can so gently and easily don its invisibility cloak. And it is white people who can most easily choose whether we’d like to opt in or opt out of the “race discussion” in every institution in American society.
The Supreme Courts decision is a “get out of jail free card” for white America—if the voters decide we don’t want to take race into account in the decisions we make about access and opportunity then the Supreme Court is telling us we have the power to opt out of that discussion. Here we see the tyranny of obliviousness cast its spell. It is so easy for white culture to embrace practices and policies that maintain our unconscious resistance to the fact that racial justice requires white people to deal with our own “stuff.” In other words, if we are to truly engage in liberative, justice-creating work around race, obliviousness is the thing white culture must free ourselves from first.
How do privileged, educated, often progressive people embrace the necessity of surfacing biases and blind spots? The answer is complicated, but probably includes some kind of moment of truth—some kind of confrontation with evidence of the detrimental effects of obliviousness.
Lest we as feminists run the risk of maintaining our own obliviousness to our obliviousness, we can model the liberating work of unmasking the tyranny of obliviousness by starting with ourselves. The invitation to “decolonize” Western feminisms reverberates with liberating possibilities. Does Western feminism have the capacity to avoid the reproduction of patriarchy when we push against it in global contexts? I can’t help but hear the echoes of the subtle cadence of unconscious privilege in how easy it is to fall into the very patterns we seek to transform. The invitation issued to Western feminism is about the capacity of feminisms to resonate and liberate across cultures and global contexts. This capacity requires located awareness for Western feminism around privilege. The invitation amplified by the Supreme Court’s decision deals with how American institutions can and cannot (and should and should not) take racial identity into account. Both invitations are about power and both are about the obliviousness that often comes with manifestations of privilege.
How do we overthrow the tyranny of obliviousness? It starts with a gut check that admits the truth: what we don’t know actually hurts us all.
Marcia Mount Shoop is a theologian and Presbyterian minister who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. Her book Let the Bones Dance: Embodiment and the Body of Christ frames much of her work in churches and beyond. She received her PhD in Religious Studies from Emory University and her MDiv from Vanderbilt Divinity School. At www.marciamountshoop.com Marcia blogs on everything from feminism to family to football. Her new book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, will be released in August (2014) with Cascade Books.