When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race

144 PP.; $9.47 (PAPERBACK) $7.99 (KINDLE)


ANTHONY PINN’S NEW BOOK, When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer is his answer regarding the disconnect between humanist philosophy and humanism in action. With this book Pinn provides an instructive manual for humanists.

And while When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer is intended for all humanists, it provides much-needed socio-historical context and action steps for white humanists genuinely interested in matters of race and racial injustice.

Yes, this emphasis on educating and mobilizing white humanists even applies to those who strongly believe they “get it” when it comes to matters of race, what racism is and isn’t, the cultural impact of white supremacy, why there aren’t more racial minorities within humanist circles, and how to engage in substantive racial justice actions.

The book opens by reaffirming the importance of select issues most humanist individuals and groups prioritize: separation of church and state, scientific education, opposing religious hegemony’s stranglehold on matters of public policy. Pinn then demarcates the differences between our material (or biological) bodies and the social constructions and cultural trappings imposed on our bodies. He notes that humanists tend to grasp the former with ease but have a more difficult time understanding the latter, as our social reality doesn’t bend to logic and science in the same way the material world does thanks to social power dynamics marred by human biases and self-interest.

Though humanists seek logic aligned with scientific inquiry, the speaking invitations Pinn receives reveal a thirst to better understand aspects of our social reality that exist beyond the limits of the natural sciences. These requests recognize the significance of racial issues and show that at least some believe addressing race is a humanist issue. Pinn writes:

I am one who has argued for a few decades now that humanism should address issues of social injustice, like racism, as part of its commitment to the well-being of life in general and human flourishing in particular. To omit attention to modes of social injustice—like racism—is to reduce the connotations of the human in humanism.

Section one, “Understanding the Impact of Race” (Chapters 1-3), lays down an essential foundation for more appropriately comprehending race and racial issues based on social history and cultural context, as well as the double-consciousness perspective of racial minorities existing in a white-dominated society.

In Chapter 1, Pinn masterfully answers questions typically asked by whites concerning racial minorities and theism. He also teases out—and unpacks—the implications of these profoundly underdeveloped assumptions about race. We’re familiar with all the adverse ideas and reasons why racial minorities ought to eschew theistic beliefs, but we forget or are unaware of what it does provide for these communities.

Pinn highlights the fact that racial minority allegiance to theism isn’t simply about theology. It’s also about how practices within theistic communities promote agency, a sense of identity, and have historically attempted to strengthen the life options of oppressed racial minorities against the onslaught of white supremacy. It’s this commitment—as flawed and inconsistent as it is—that keeps many within theistic communities. Pinn suggests humanists must avoid assuming the “problem” is with racial minorities and instead highlight the potential defect in the available options for them. Pinn ends this chapter with a significant point:

Why hasn’t humanism proven a more compelling alternative to theism for African Americans, American Indians, Latino/as, and so on? And, what might humanism do—on the level of community formation and the ritualizing of mundane life—to make it more appealing and more competitive with theistic organizations?

Chapter 2 continues to challenge readers to hang a question mark on many race-related assumptions they may have long taken for granted. Much of the problem related to race and racial-thinking is that, for many, their conception of what race means is based on the unconscious concepts of race classification and racial bias ingrained in us through socialization.

Many humanists wrongly assume their dependency on science, reason, and logic exempts them from buying into or contributing to the maintenance of social injustice. Pinn explores how humanists, too, can be racially uninformed, racially insensitive, and even racist. He contextualizes his points by showing how reason and logic didn’t protect pillars of the nation such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison from perpetuating racial injustice.

The chapter ends with actionable answers to the question, “What can humanists do to lessen racial injustice both inside and outside the ‘movement’?”

Chapter 3 explores the various ways white humanists frame questions about why Black people are still Christian and engage in conversations that assume humanism is fairly new to racial minorities. Here Pinn provides several examples that reveal humanism has a substantial and noteworthy—although underappreciated—presence beyond European-centered communities. The history of humanism within racial minority communities is long and deep.

Pinn rightfully capsizes the question, “Why don’t racial minorities belong in more substantive numbers to organizations committed to humanist thought and activism?” and deals with the underlying assumptions accompanying it.

Chapters 4-8 comprise Section Two (“Addressing Racism”), which more aggressively scrutinizes the problem with racial “colorblindness.”

Chapter 4 tackles the nature of race-based privilege and examines how white privilege isn’t about having wealth, but rather about the positive assumptions that follow and inform life for white Americans. Pinn articulates what privilege means, contextualizes it, and notes that white privilege isn’t something white people demand, saying: “It just is a basic framing of life within the United States…It is that unspoken assumption, the normative claims about certain groups that undergirds their sense of entitlement. It is the ability to walk into a room and assume one ‘owns it,’ or at least is ‘welcomed in it.’”

He acknowledges that this access to the benefits of whiteness must also be examined through the prism of additional social constructions such as gender, sexuality, and class. Pinn then delves into what the “all lives matter” response to “Black Lives Matter” says about the ongoing presence and power of white privilege.

It doesn’t correct the situation of racial injustice—the manner in which race and racism have defined life in narrow ways for a significant portion of the population. Instead, this seemingly well-meaning shift in emphasis covers up inequalities through a fog of passive language and a quick turning of the tables. Stating “Hey, everyone matters!” disallows those who suffer due to the effects of racism to voice their plight.

Pinn challenges white folks to recognize these unearned privileges and work to neutralize them by reworking systemic structures of collective life in such a way as to decrease white privilege and maximize the well-being of all. The chapter ends by mapping out several actionable steps that deal with the specter of white privilege that informs the workings of white-dominated humanist spaces.

Chapter 5 focuses on racial knowledge, investigating the ways racial discrimination, seeped into the power dynamics codified into social institutions, preserves white supremacy. It’s common for humanists to stress the importance of reading and studying. We often suggest theists to do likewise; but how much of this call for obtaining knowledge and information is applied to the issue of race and racism?

Pinn exposes what is already commonly recognized (and critiqued) by non-white humanists: the fact that even humanists who pride themselves on intellectual curiosity, being informed, and being “well read” on important issues are susceptible to racial ignorance.

He also addresses a complicated matter known as internalized racism, the ways in which racial minorities reinforce the logic of white supremacist thinking that, among other things, endorses social mores calibrated to the white gaze.

While there has been racial progress, racism remains a problem because the structures of life still draw from and reinforce bias. Therefore, Pinn prods white humanists to learn something about race-related problems and to take responsibility for knowing something about the history and context of racialized life in the United States. “Show the same commitment to knowing something about race that is shown concerning separation of church and state, evolution, and the other issues that mark the bulk of humanist publications and conference programs,” he emphasizes.

Chapter 6 addresses how the United States has long privileged sameness, which, among other things, is both a subtle and explicit demand for assimilation into social norms that presents whiteness as the default. This quest for sameness has been promoted within both secular and theistic contexts.

Certain modes of sameness have been challenged (e.g., theism as the basic posture of the nation and the Bible as an essential guide), but others that also shape life in the United States have been embraced and written into the metanarrative of the nation and its “people.” Xenophobia, ethnocentrism, racism, and nationalism operate with an underlying motivation that frames difference as a “problem.”

Pinn positions difference as an opportunity rather than a problem to solve, and ends the chapter with steps that will help the reader rethink difference in more positive ways.

Chapter 7 is perhaps the most interesting, as it explores what humanists can learn from hip-hop culture. It suggests hip hop provides a particularly compelling heuristic that uses inspiring and creative means of messaging.

Pinn argues both humanistic sensibilities and hip-hop culture share a human-centered and earthly sense of what the human is. As well, US culture labels both humanists and members of the hip-hop community as being problematic figures whose beliefs and activities run counter to the normative moral and ethical structures of life. He then lays out three means of rethinking humanist activism with hip hop’s framing of and posture toward sociocultural and political struggle: measured realism, significance of the ordinary, and “thick” diversity.

In his discussion of what a genuine commitment to diversity looks like we find an indictment against superficial “diversity” actions that permeate humanist communities. Humanists voice an interest in diversity but such efforts tend to produce what Pinn refers to as “performative diversity.” By this he means symbolic appreciation for “difference” as a marker of strength. It relishes in the idea of token minorities, but does little to transform the decision-making structure and agenda promoted within these movements.

While performative diversity has always been inexcusable, Pinn addresses it in such a way as to make this problem impossible for readers to ignore.

He concludes the book with the eighth chapter, reminding us that the problem of racial injustice has always been a persistent issue despite its form-shifting and mutating in certain ways over time. Pinn argues the humanist commitment to informed, passionate, and engaged attention to issues of race ought to be a fundamental and intrinsic dimension of what it means to be a humanist. Once we come to grips with the racial structure of our nation, the stated values of humanism demand justice—recognizing this inequality and seeking to correct it.

Overall, When Colorblindness Isn’t The Answer is perhaps the most clever, most educational collection of humanist-centered ideas I’ve ever read regarding race. It disarms popular misconceptions and challenges readers to think, rethink, and to engage in practical strategies to support racial justice.

Racism demands attention. The content and scope of life in the United States depend in significant ways on how this ongoing challenge of racial injustice is addressed. The question is simple: How will humanists answer this challenge?