Paula Deen, SCOTUS, and a Colorbound U.S.


I’ll tell you one thing, people: we are not “post-racial.” If the Queen of Butter’s recently leaked deposition is any indicator, we are, in fact, in quite a bind. Here’s a taste of what we’re working with if you’re not keen on exploring the depths of Paula Deen’s mind (the Prosecutor’s questions in bold):

And could you give me an example of how you have demonstrated for them a nice way to use the N-word?
What about jokes, if somebody is telling a joke that’s got —
It’s just what they are, they’re jokes.
Okay. Would you consider those to be using the N word in a mean way?
[Objection] That’s — that’s kind of hard. Most — most jokes are about Jewish people, rednecks, black folks. Most jokes target — I don’t know. I didn’t make up the joke, I don’t know. I can’t — I don’t know.

To be honest, I almost feel bad for her. Paula clearly feels uncomfortable talking about race, you guys. And I don’t totally blame her. I feel bad for her because she lives in a culture that promotes “Colorblindness” as a glossy term for equality rather than dealing with some of the social, economic, and political mainstays of a racist country. We all know that slavery was racist, but what about jokes told covertly in a private home or kitchen? We reject conversations about race as irrelevant for modern times and instead navigate race in more insidious ways, like through jokes or through the proliferation and acceptance of narratives that narrowly define people’s identities (think Welfare Queens, Pocahontas, or hey, this “Asian” Disney truck).

On the other side of these conversations, or perhaps underpinning them all, is an intricate webbing of media, political, and social norms that consistently imply that white is normal, beautiful, and almost always right. So, yes, I almost feel bad for Paula because, like she said, she didn’t make up the joke, she’s just TELLIN’ IT. And she doesn’t know better because who’s saying it’s wrong? I’ll tell you who’s not (spoiler alert!)…

Today, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 – a provision that Chief Justice John Roberts has been eager to gut for a few years. Representing the majority opinion today, Roberts stated:

“The Voting Rights Act of 1965 employed extraordinary measures to address an extraordinary problem. Section 5 of the Act required States to obtain federal permission before enacting any law related to voting…This was strong medicine, but Congress determined it was needed to address entrenched racial discrimination in voting…There is no denying, however, that the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”

Roberts goes on to say that people of color are now active voters at American polls and no longer need the federal protections put in place by Sections 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The law, he says, must evolve with the changing demographics of U.S. voters.

Sure, Roberts. But, did you sleep through the entire 2012 election? Revisions to early voting procedures and voter suppression initiatives across the country bottle-necked polling stations and deterred an estimated hundreds of thousands of people. Research shows that black and Hispanic voters had to wait nearly twice as long as white voters in 2012 elections.

We can create voting policies without talking about race, but they still have a racially-stratified impact. We can destroy equal protection laws by saying race is no longer a factor, but you would have to be willfully ignorant to do so.

Well, I would like to propose a redo: Let’s talk about race. Let’s talk about race and the way that it impacts our day-to-day lives. For white folks, that often means a litany of things that you DON’T have to think about:  you probably don’t have to think about whether you’ll be the only white person at the party (or meeting, or in the office, etc.), you probably won’t have to worry about driving at night, and you probably don’t have to think about whether a change in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 will limit your ability to walk to your polling station, wait in line for a minimal amount of time, and cast a ballot for your desired comptroller/city council member/president. You probably also don’t have to think about why you don’t have to think about all of those things and, HERE MY FRIENDS, is where people of color come in.

We people of color are constantly thinking about those things because all of the non-thoughts that most white folks have about their presence in the world equate to a pretty tumultuous world for people of color. When white folks continue to not-think and not-talk about the ways in which their decisions, their actions, their movement, and their jokes impact others, we persist into what I will call a Colorbound America. In this America, people of color’s place is constantly reinforced, reinvented, and retold by people in power, and white folks in general, through the invisibilization of — or reluctance to acknowledge — the different social and political contexts that people live within. The common phrase “Oh, I don’t even see race when I look at someone” only implies that you don’t have to because you’re not impacted by it and that you have yet to understand your impact on others. 

Colorblindness is real but its effect is not the great equalizer of people. Colorblindness has real, tangible impacts that many of us not only have to think about but also have to live out on a day-to-day basis. I say this all not to vilify white people–because, in reality, it’s much more complicated that just white people subjugating people of color–but rather to open a door to a more honest discussion about who we are as individuals and the impact that we have on each other. Our intention can be to love each other fully, without having to consider the archaic confines of race, and those intentions are beautiful. However, to gloss over another person’s experience by claiming that we are all the same, is a backwards step that will not only lead us to more politically and historically inappropriate decisions like the one SCOTUS carried out today, it will also lead us away from knowing and valuing each other in deeper and more accountable ways.


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