Cao: Colorblindness is neither the means nor the end to civil rights activism

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Cao: Colorblindness is neither the means nor the end to civil rights activism

Henry Cao, Columnist

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Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the most endearing figures of the American mythos. His efforts helped secure de jure rights for blacks and dismantle Jim Crow laws in the South. In his speech “I Have a Dream,” King preached, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This quote may seem like it envisions a colorblind society, but it is important to look beyond what King expressly stated.

Colorblindness is the idea that one way to end discrimination is by treating everyone as equally as possible, regardless of race, culture or ethnicity. In theory, colorblindness ensures equality of opportunity and implies equality of outcome. Proponents of colorblindness posit that the existence of racial categories in the public psyche invokes negative stereotypes deleterious for the advancement of minorities. Opponents of colorblindness argue it stymies conversations about racism and deemphasizes the diversity of experiences of different people.

I believe colorblindness is a contagion that threatens the very future of our society. Civil rights leaders such as King wanted race to be a source of strength, not a source of shame. The silencing of racial dialogue implicitly reinforces the belief that race is a shameful aspect of our culture, which makes it harder for a person to embrace his or her own race, ethnicity and culture as well as those of others. Colorblindness attempts to alleviate the discomfort associated with addressing racial issues instead of actually solving them.

Affirming and celebrating racial identity are important steps toward racial reconciliation. This process works closely with exploring an individual’s ethnicity and culture. Civil rights activist Malcolm X was a major proponent of black nationalism, an ideology supporting the unity and self-determination of blacks. Malcolm X represented the beating heart of the civil rights movement, in stark contrast to King’s erudite mind. Although branded as a militant by contemporaries, Malcolm X made a lasting mark on civil rights activism — racial empowerment is now a means and an end to contemporary civil rights activism. As former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun once wrote, “To overcome racism, one must first take race into account.” A society is beautiful not because of its absence of color but rather its presence of all colors.

The practical applications of racial cognizance entail large coordination between private and public endeavors. Government programs that help struggling communities gain economic sustainability and political power are worth investing in. Nonetheless, local, state and federal initiatives have had beneficial and detrimental impacts on underprivileged people and communities. Private institutions are also making large strides — for example, Northwestern’s recent implementation of the Asian-American studies major. Advocating for ethnic studies is an ongoing effort that is already transforming the academic landscape. Learning about other ethnicities helps deconstruct subconscious prejudice toward certain identities and develop an appreciation for rich and complex heritages. The most important consideration of all is that the policies and efforts are heavily influenced by the factor of race.

Likewise, the objective of past and current civil rights activism is not a colorblind society. We are all different in race, ethnicity and culture. Instead of ignoring these differences, we should recognize and celebrate them while also preventing these differences from being barriers to human community. Having a strong personal identity is important for cultivating racially cognizant citizens.

Colorblindness is not only too idealistic, but also a fallacy. Opposing colorblindness does not mean supporting racism. In fact, I find that opposing racism means opposing colorblindness. College is one of the best times in our lives to explore our own racial, ethnic and cultural roots and to seek to understand those of others. Some great ways to promote diversity and inclusion are attending forums on social issues, taking ethnic studies classes and participating in civil rights activism.

A society without racial prejudice lies beyond our horizon, so it is challenging to envision such a world. That said, I can think of a few key elements essential for a society without racial discrimination. First is the reification of cultural institutions meant to preserve and promote the culture and heritage of all peoples. Second is the incorporation of a multitude of cultures into our media, education, politics and economics. Last of all is having character as the chief — but not the sole — factor in the realization of a person. A society without racism may forever lie behind our eyes and inside our minds. However, the problems of racism currently lie before us. We must be mindful of existing racial biases and work to reverse the tide of whitewashing.

Henry Cao is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.