Shades of Difference

"I don't see race," begins a Stephen Colbert joke.

He continues, "People tell me I'm white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums." The bit is funny because it takes the idea of "colorblindness" to an absurd degree. The idea that race, gender, class, and sexual orientation shouldn't determine your course through life -- that we're really all the same -- is nearly universally agreed upon.

The disagreement comes when we face the reality that this isn't true. Racism, sexism, and homophobia do, in fact, play a large role in society. By and large, the conservative response is to pretend that these divisions don't exist or to downplay their importance. To wit, Slate's columnist William Saletan recently took umbrage at a piece I wrote highlighting the unique pressures gay kids face at school, saying it "reeks of lefty obsession with defining us in terms of race/sex/orientation. We're more than that." Implication: If we forget our differences, we could all just get along. It's a line of thinking that's common among liberals as well as conservatives. The difference is that some liberals seem to genuinely believe we can eliminate inequality by ignoring it, whereas conservatives complain that people "talk too much about race/gender/sexuality" because, in their view, racism, sexism, and homophobia aren't problems worth discussing.

Well-meaning liberals, of course, may recognize that these things are problems. They just want to set our differences aside in the interest of comity and cohesion. Some good-faith critics -- including Prospect contributors -- have critiqued the left's championing of women's rights, gay rights, and racial equality as unnecessarily divisive, a "million-little-pieces, interest-group approach to politics." The idea that talking about the ways in which minorities' experiences differ and working to address inequality -- instead of concentrating on the ways in which we're the same -- is either un-American or makes for bad politics is pervasive. But I'd argue that embracing and encouraging minorities' voices is not only good politics but a necessary component of a healthy democracy.

For some, conversations about race, class, sex, or sexual orientation seem to have a strange talismanic power: Acknowledging differences has the effect of calling them into being. My Republican parents have asked, "Why do you have to concentrate on how people are different?" But whether or not we talk about it, résumés with a non-Caucasian name at the top still tend to get overlooked regardless of how qualified an applicant is; black kids tend to go to worse schools and live in poorer areas than whites; and gay people still can't serve openly in the military. Equality is a noble -- and often shared -- goal, but the WASP-dinner-table approach of solving a problem by ignoring it is not the way to go. We can only make good on the promise of equal opportunity if we acknowledge ways in which society currently falls short and work to address them. And yes, sometimes that means rocking the boat.

It would be naive to think that advocating on behalf of those who get the short shrift in our democracy can be done without friction. The civil-rights movement was divisive, represented the "interest-group approach to politics," and was largely responsible for the shift of the South to the Republican Party after Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The women's rights movement, which secured universal suffrage and made inroads toward reproductive freedom, faced similar charges. Today, no one on the left would characterize these fights as anything other than a collective triumph of Democratic values. But clearly we failed to learn a key lesson from the movements of the 1960s: Securing rights for minorities might not always be easy politics, but it does work toward the common good. To borrow Dr. Martin Luther King's metaphor, if the "bank of justice" comes back with insufficient funds for someone, it can do the same for anyone.

The belief that any of those achievements would have been possible without acknowledging our differences is one of the unique comforts of privilege; it evinces a degree of remove from the everyday experience of being a minority in this country. From this perch, it's easy to say that things will get better if you declare that things are actually the same for all of us. And that's why calls for us just to set aside our differences most often come from those who are white, straight, and male -- you've rarely had to think about your race, gender, or sexual orientation, so saying we should all forget about it seems easy enough.

For many, hearing about the plight of immigrants, gay people, or women gives rise to aggression and anxiety about "losing our country." At the very least, it makes people like Saletan feel alienated. But as philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues in her most recent book, Not for Profit, free and democratic political systems -- those that do not seek to subjugate and control weaker minorities -- require citizens who can look beyond their narrow self-interest to see the full inclusion of minorities not as a threat but as the foundation for a system based on mutual respect and compassion. Part of achieving this involves hearing what it's like to live on the other side of racial, class, and gender divides -- understanding the innumerable, subtle ways we all experience the world differently.

It would be nice to simply decide, like Colbert, to blind oneself to the ways in which being a minority affects one's experience of America, but willing ignorance won't change the reality.

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