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Colorblind or Color Brave?

This article first appeared in The Racism Issue of Change Agent.

Think about the word “colorblind.” Chances are your reaction places you in one of two camps. For some, the word provides a sense of comfort and aspiration, signaling a world where people are judged on the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. For others, the word jangles their nerves, suggesting that someone is eager to avoid the issue of race or is unwilling to recognize or celebrate differences among groups or individuals.

Michele Norris explored the tension between these ideas in a conversation at The Aspen Ideas Festival featuring Ford Foundation President Darren Walker and Jeff Raikes, Co-Founder of the Raikes Foundation and former Microsoft Business Division President. This is an abridged transcript of that June 2017 sit-down. The conversation begins with Walker and Raikes responding to the word “colorblind.”

Darren Walker I think we have to understand how we got to this term. It was because of a noble aspiration and acknowledgement that we weren’t a colorblind society. In America, certainly by the 1960s, we realized that we were quite a color-conscious country. That our culture, our system, our structures reflected that the notion of being colorblind was in fact something Dr. King said in his great “I Have a Dream” speech.

So whites who thought of a colorblind society were actually seeking a very noble idea of America.

Now we have a deeper, more sophisticated, and nuanced understanding that these structures can’t be addressed by simply clicking on a switch and saying, “We now are colorblind.” In fact, being colorblind in some ways concretizes those systems and structures and policies that were built on race. We want a society where there is opportunity. We need to recognize those differences.

Jeff Raikes I agree strongly with Darren, and I might be a little more pointed. We’re at a point in our country where I think we have to realize that, in order to have a dialogue that really brings social justice to our country, we’re going to have to learn how to have discussions about race. This notion of colorblindness, I’ll say, is actually a flaw. It is a misconceived, misunderstood notion that actually helps to perpetuate challenges that we’re not taking on. I like to use the phrase, the privilege is invisible to those who possess it.

Michele Norris Say that again.

JR Privilege is invisible to those who possess it. That was part of my own evolution, recognizing the aspects of my own privilege, how that plays out in society. I think one of the challenges we have to take on, and we have to figure out how to take it directly, head-on, is the challenge of being able to talk about race, and how, as Darren pointed
out in our society, that’s actually led to a perpetuation of inequitable access to opportunities.

MN You talk about the journey that you went on. Could you talk a little bit more about that, how you decided to use your voice to take on this issue, and some of the tools that you use to help people understand where they are on the spectrum from defensiveness to adaptability?

JR I used to joke about having gotten into Stanford University. I grew up on a farm near a small community in Nebraska, and I used to joke that I got into Stanford on the Farm Boy Affirmative Action Program. As I’ve gone through this journey, I’ve recognized that I am the beneficiary of the most significant affirmative action program in the history of the world. It’s called the history of the world. I was born white, I was born male, I was born in the United States, I was born heterosexual, I was born to parents who were a farm family, but both college-educated. I was on the up escalator.

MN When you enter the workplace, even if you believe in the notion of diversity and inclusion, and you maybe want to challenge the notion of color blindness, there is a real disincentive to using your voice in the workplace. Can you talk a little bit about that, Darren, about both the benefits and the perils, and why some people choose not to use their voice to take on some of these issues.

DW Well, I’m obviously not a white man, a white straight man. But I’d say it is not a perceived peril for white men to engage in this. It is a real peril. Many white men’s careers have come to an end because they said the wrong thing, were misinterpreted, were misunderstood, or maybe they were understood for what they meant. So we—meaning people of color, queer people, people who are different in many ways—have to create a safe space so that everybody can feel safe. Because we need more guys like Jeff who want to get on the journey. We have to have successful white men say what he says. My fantasy is like four guys in a golf cart at a Dallas country club talking about this issue. Literally, that for me is going to be “we’re done.”

The degree to which I see successful white men falling over each other to tell their stories of humble beginnings is amazing. I know people who grew up really well off, who tell these stories of starting with nothing. It’s because our culture validates that, because as Americans we want to believe that you can get on that mobility escalator and ride it as far as you want, but that no one rides it faster than anyone else.

So, to successful people, to interrogate their success, requires that they acknowledge the injustice that is baked into our systems. And that’s really, really hard to do because we’re patriots. We believe in our country, we believe that there’s something really special about America that makes it possible for people like me, Jeff, and you to be where we are today, which couldn’t happen in any other country. But the reality is that many people, from the get-go, are not able to even get on the escalator. We need to acknowledge that and name that.

JR We have to figure out how to talk about these values in ways that bring people along. There is an important value in our country, this notion of meritocracy, this “pull yourself by your bootstraps” type of thing. Somehow, I have to be able to still honor that while we also talk about the importance of community and the broader support and structures that we live within. Sometimes we get so narrowly focused on that idea of individual meritocracy that we forget the environment, the community that we live in, and we don’t give enough credit to that. The more that we could start to shift the dialog to be more inclusive of that comprehensive framework, I think the more hope I’ll have.

DW The issue that is hardest to acknowledge, because I think it is so antithetical to our narrative of who we are, is that we live in a country that is an amazing, glorious place, but it was constructed on a racialized hierarchy, and we continue to live with the remnants of that.

MN We are the land of the brave and the home of amnesia.

DW Yes. That’s true. Every family has a narrative, and we want our narratives to be romantic narratives. And that’s what we do collectively as America. Those narratives anchor a family, they anchor a society. But the reality is that everything is a function of that racialized hierarchy.

MN Jeff, I want you to share some of the tools that you use to create a space within the Raikes Foundation to allow people to talk about this.

JR I’d like to say that philanthropy is a journey. Your heart is drawn to issues, then you hope what you do is you pair your mind with your heart so that you get greater impact. But, along the way, Tricia and I started to get more and more aware of a gap in our thinking. In particular, you want all kids to have the opportunities. It’s totally counterintuitive, because you have this universal value, and then what ends up happening is you think, “Well, then the key thing is to make sure that everybody has equal opportunity to succeed.” But given how our society is structured, you have to recognize that there is dramatic inequity in terms of the opportunity. That led us to the work of John Powell, and targeted universalism, which is now fundamental to our work at the Raikes Foundation.

MN Explain targeted universalism.

JR Targeted universalism basically is a strategy or an approach suggested by John Powell, at the University of California, Berkeley, which says that to address these inequities in societies you have to specifically target populations that are marginalized or underserved. You will then create a more equitable society.

MN Darren, if you were talking about adopting a strategy of targeted universalism in this moment, where there were a lot of Americans who feel that resources are heading toward those who perhaps are undeserving or have cut a line, or feel like the world is moving past them, that can sometimes be a tough sell in a political environment.

DW John Powell is a brilliant social scientist, but targeted universalism is not a new idea. So, the context or the reality is, and the political reality is, it causes white backlash, and we know that. It caused it in the ’60s, it caused it in the ’70s, right? So now, during a period where there is far greater inequality than there was in the past, introducing such an idea, I think, is desperately needed. It’s courageous and it’s bold, and it’s very risky because we, for the first time in this country, have something that I actually do not think our democracy has enough elasticity to absorb. That is a generation of downwardly mobile white people.

This democracy called America has been able to absorb intergenerational, poor, black people, but it does not have the elasticity to have millions of downwardly mobile white people, with lower expectations for their children than they have for themselves. So, the reality is introducing into that context constructs like targeted universalism, which we all know works. We all know when people say our schools are failing, that’s not totally true. We have a lot of really good schools in this country that are doing very well.

Education experts know the schools that are failing, the dropout factories, are schools that are primarily populated by black and Latino students. The most vulnerable and marginalized are black boys.

So, it’s why this challenge of inequality has to be faced head-on. Because the intersection of inequality and race and our economy, and our politics, is what’s brought us to this point in this country. One of the reasons we focus so much on inequality at Ford is because, ultimately, it is detrimental to our democracy. Because a democracy like the United States depends on the notions of hope and opportunity. The greatest threat to the American democracy is not a pandemic or terrorism, it’s hopelessness.

MN Darren, you said that it’s important that Jeff Raikes uses his voice, because he is a straight white male. Explain why that’s important, and then Jeff, I want you to respond by explaining how you have accepted that.

DW I think Jeff is far more credible on this issue than I. I’m on a different journey than a white CEO. The fact that Jeff has had the courage to name and frame, surface this issue, in such a profound way, and be public about it, moves the dial.

Steve Case says, “I’m an entrepreneur, I understand access to capital, and I am telling you that access to capital for minority entrepreneurs is not what it is for white entrepreneurs.” When a successful white entrepreneur says that, it is far more impactful than my saying that.

MN Jeff, you’ve accepted this, the privilege and the platform. Talk a little bit about how you use it and how you intend to use it.

JR The motivation is that we aspired to have real impact with our philanthropy. A lot of that has to do with both Tricia and my sense of social justice. So, we feel like if we don’t actually dive in on these issues, we won’t achieve that aspiration of having great impact with our philanthropy. On the other hand, it’s challenging because I’m in a lot of settings where I feel a certain vulnerability. I think it can work both in the way Darren described, and it can work in the way that, if you do speak up, then people say, “I don’t really know if I want that guy on the team. We’re colorblind. That guy is making that issue front and center, and that’s not really right, because we’re colorblind.”

MN If you’re talking about diversity and inclusion, and the notion of color blindness, if you are an organization, you may feel that you are somewhat empowered just by having people of color in the room. You may feel like you are more muscular in this journey or in this effort because you have people of color at the table. When, in fact, those individuals may not use their voice, because of the real peril that you were talking about, in speaking up as a person of color.

DW Well, I think there’s two sides to that. There’s one where there are organizations that consider themselves progressive. I’ll take the Ford Foundation … I said this to my board a couple of weeks ago. There’s a black queer man who’s president of the Ford Foundation, so the staff and HR, it’s like, “We’re done.” I told my HR director, “We have gotten really lazy in recruiting since I’ve been president.” I used this example: When I came to Ford Foundation, there were five straight, [male] black program officers. There’s not one left. They have been replaced by black women, white women. So what happened? Are there no employable black, straight men at foundations? What happened was, we were like, “Darren’s president. We don’t have to worry about that anymore.” The point is, that even we progressives need to interrogate our practices, because we get arrogant, and we get really, really comfortable and smug in our superiority on these things, and we’re just as guilty.


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