(This is the second in a series of posts reflecting on our trip to the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) conference.)
I’m still thinking about the eminent Dr. Patricia Hill Collins keynote address at the NWSA conference last month in Cincinnati, for a few different reasons.
First, the topic (“Winning Miss World — a Gendered Analysis of the Contradictions of Colorblind Racism”) illustrated the complexity of phenomena I often oversimplify. Feminists have probably most often derided beauty pageants as spectacles that straightforwardly objectify women, not without good reasons, and looked no further. It’s the not looking further that may have been short-sighted, as Collins showed. She uncovered the way such events provide occasions for resistance in their very occurance. Her story of gathering with women relatives and indulging in a living room deconstruction of the Miss America pageant could remind us that perhaps every hegemonic display invites its own denial and mockery. Her story also reminded us of the ways what is overtly thematized as feminine beauty encodes other, less acknowledged themes — in the case of Miss World, global participation, national superiority and inferiority, economic adequacy, and the performance of “colorblind racism.” We won’t settle for the simplest analytic terms as easily or readily after this lesson, or so we hope.
Second, Collins’ concept of “colorblind racism” has been a meal for thought, something we keep seeing in operation over and over, now that she has called our attention to it. The idea is that a kind of “racelessness” is held up as an ideal: a society where race is uncorrelated with power and privilege. We can embrace that ideal, but there may be many routes to achieve the desired state. A route that has frequently been taken in liberal society is the pursuit of “colorblindness,” a systematic effort to ignore race in the effort to keep it from being the deciding factor in various distributive contexts (hiring, firing, admission to higher education, handing out loans from the World Bank, . . .). Collins notes first that we have to see race to ignore it — that is, there’s a built-in contradiction involved in the practice of this kind of “colorblindness.” More to the point, there are times — and in her view, the current development of the global market is such a time and place — when colorblind policies systematically reproduce racist outcomes, ensuring the distribution of power, privilege, resources, and opportunities according to race. So we keep thinking about what it will have to look like to work at undoing racism — without falling into the contradictions she names.
Part of the answer is, no doubt, embedded in Collins’ final, provocative question, maybe the most profound impetus for ongoing thought. “Can we recognize excellence when we see it?” Can we recognize talent, drive, motivation, competence when we see those things — even when they are packaged differently from the way we’ve been led to expect, differently from the dominant picture of The Winner? Can we recognize excellence, and nurture it, and encourage it, in all its forms?
I want the answer to that question to be yes. I want it to be yes for myself, and I want it to be yes for others. But I keep thinking . . . there’s a lot of work to do.