• Ilsa Govan

If You See Race, You’re a Racist


What do you notice about this picture? What does it tell you about desirable skin?

When I first asked these questions in a workshop, I got answers I was expecting, along the lines of:

“The woman on the left, the ‘before’ is the darkest, then the woman in the middle is lighter, and the woman on the ‘after’ side is white.” “It shows darker skin is bad and lighter skin and straight blond hair are more desirable.” “They’re all women in towels and they’re using these bodies to sell the soap. Also, there’s a difference in the way they are standing.”

I also got some answers I hadn’t expected: “I don’t notice anything about the skin color in the picture. I think black women are beautiful.” “Doesn’t seeing race in this just reinforce a victim mentality?” “When I look at this, I just see three women. If you choose to focus on their race, that’s because of your ideas about race. It shows your racial stereotypes.”

These statements really shouldn’t have surprised me. I hear the idea that noticing race makes one racist repeatedly used by media, people in workshops, and in conversation with friends.

Just this morning on KUOW’s Weekday I heard a member of the 5th Avenue Theater’s production of Oklahoma! talking about their casting of a black man, Kyle Scatliffe, as the lead villain. I haven’t seen the show, but have heard about it from more than a few people. As they describe the dream-sequence featuring sexual exploitation of a white woman by a black man, they claimed anyone watching the play who saw a racial stereotype held that stereotype. They said this made the audience uncomfortable not with the show, but with themselves because the musical was “holding up a mirror” into the audience’s obviously racist souls. Therefore, anyone who missed the stereotype was somehow less racist because they’re able to be colorblind or have moved beyond racism. Rather ironic to imply we get over the past in a play that is set in the early 1900s.

I know I have stereotypes about black men being dangerous. It is not hard to point to hundreds of instances where I was socialized to believe in this myth. And those stereotypes don’t go away just because I want them to. In fact, every time I witness something like a class for students with “Behavior Disorders” that is made up of mostly black young men, my stereotypes are subtly reinforced. The same way they would be if I saw that scene in Oklahoma!

The filter I have to recognize when my stereotypes are triggered is vital to countering them. If I didn’t have that filter, if I didn’t consciously notice racism, it would still become a part of my unconscious interactions.

The idea that noticing stereotypes makes you racist is founded on the belief that we do not live in a time where racism is still present. It is dangerous in that it gives credence to the idea that affirmative action is no longer a necessity in a society where racial disproportionality in housing, jobs, school success, health, and numerous other arenas is still patently evident. Recognizing, for example, that less than 50% of Native American students graduate from high school (data in this study from the Civil Rights Project) is vital to changing these statistics.

Ending institutional racism will not happen if we ignore the racial history in the United States that has led us to current inequities. Refusing to recognize or believe the subtle microaggressions or overt discrimination people of color face every day does more to separate than bring us together as a human family.

So, no matter how beautiful you personally think all of the women in the Dove ad are, that doesn’t change the messages we are getting all the time about beauty standards. And it doesn’t change the fact that statistically speaking, the woman on the left will have a have a harder time finding work because of the intersection of racism and sexism. Seeing the racial context of our decisions, be it in advertising, casting a play, or everyday conversation, is the only way we’ll ever be able to end racism.

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