35 The Transparency Phenomenon, Race-Neutral Decisionmaking, and Discriminatory Intent
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35 The Transparency Phenomenon, Race-Neutral Decisionmaking, and Discriminatory Intent BARBARA J. FLAGG In this society, the white person has an everyday option not to think of herself in racial terms at all. In fact, whites appear to pursue that option so habitually that it may be a defining characteristic of whiteness: to be white is not to think about it.1 I label the tendency for whiteness to vanish from whites' self-perception the transparency phenomenon .2 Because transparency is such a pervasive fact of whites' conceptualization of ourselves, we have reason to be skeptical of ostensibly race-neutral decisionmaking by white decisionmakers. I propose that white decisionmakers adopt that deliberate skepticism as well regarding their own criteria of decision. The Transparency Phenomenon On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., my life partner, who is white, was visiting a white friend and bringing her up to date on family events and activities. When she mentioned that I have been teaching a new course on Critical Race Theory, her friend appeared puzzled and surprised. "But," said the friend, "isn't she white?"3 White people externalize race. For most whites, most of the time, to think or speak about race is to think or speak about people of color, or perhaps, at times, to reflect on oneself (or other whites) in relation to people of color. But we tend not to think of ourselves or our racial group as racially distinctive. Whites' "consciousness" of whiteness is predominantly unconsciousness of whiteness. We perceive and interact with other whites as individuals who have no significant racial characteristics. In the same vein, the white person is unlikely to see or describe himself in racial terms, perhaps in part because his white peers do not regard him as racially distinctive. Whiteness is a transparent quality when whites interact with whites in the absence of people of color. Whiteness attains opacity, becomes apparent to the white mind, only in relation to, and contrast with, the "color" of nonwhites.4 I do not maintain that white people are oblivious to the race of other whites. As a powerful determinant of social status, race is always noticed, in a way that eye color, for example , is not. However, whites' social dominance allows us to relegate our own racial speciFrom '''WAS BUND, BUT Now I SEE': WHITE RACE CONSCIOUSNESS AND THE REQUIREMENT OF OISCRIMATORY INTENT ," 91 MICH L. REV. 953 (1993). Originally published in the Michigan Law Review. Reprinted by permission. Copyrighted Material The Transparency Phenomenon 221 ficity to the realm of the subconscious. Whiteness is the racial norm. In this culture the black person, not the white, is the one who is different. Once an individual is identified as white, his distinctively racial characteristics need no longer be conceptualized in racial terms; he becomes effectively raceless in the eyes of other whites. Whiteness, once identified , fades almost instantaneously from white consciousness into transparency. The best"evidence" for the pervasiveness of the transparency phenomenon will be the white reader's own experience: critically assessing our habitual ways of thinking about ourselves and about other white people should bring transparency into full view.S The questions that follow may provide some direction for the reader's reflections. In what situations do you describe yourself as white? Would you be likely to include white on a list of three adjectives that describe you?6 Do you think about your race as a factor in the way other whites treat you? For example, think about the last time some white clerk or salesperson treated you deferentially, or the last time the first taxi to come along stopped for you. Did you think, "That wouldn't have happened if I weren't white"? Are you conscious of yourself as white when you find yourself in a room occupied only by white people? What if there are people of color present? What if the room is mostly nonwhite ?7 Do you attribute your successes or failures in life to your whiteness? Do you reflect on the ways your educational and occupational opportunities have been enhanced by your whiteness? What about the life courses of others? If your lover or spouse is white, how frequently do you reflect on that fact? Do you think of your white friends as your white friends, other than in contrast with your friends who are not white? Do you try to understand the ways your shared whiteness affects the interactions between yourself and your white partner, friends...