When Colorblindness Isn't the Answer

Humanism and the Challenge of Race

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Anthony E. Pinn
  • Chicago, IL: 
    Independent Publishing Group
    , May
     144 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anthony Pinn’s When Colorblindness Isn’t the Answer is a primer on racial justice intended specifically for religious and secular humanists—that is, for nontheists who emphasize the things they do believe and who often choose to foster religious or ethical fellowship with other nontheists. It is of interest not only to humanists, but to members of any religious movement that is striving to counter white supremacy more consistently and effectively. Pinn’s effort to identify the specific ways that humanism contributes to white racism, and the specific resources it can bring to anti-racist struggles, is a model for tradition-specific anti-racist work more generally. It is also a model of humanistic engagement in a different sense. As a humanist theologian writing for a movement with large numbers of natural scientists, Pinn is keen to show that the academic humanities have important insights to bring to conversations on social issues. This gives his book special interest for religious studies scholars and theologians who are eager to amplify our voices in the public sphere.

Pinn’s title does not reflect the full scope of his book. Rather, “colorblindness” represents one of several ways in which he finds the humanist approach to racism less than adequate. Many humanists, Pinn observes, have a strong foundation in the natural sciences and are well aware that concepts of race have no basis in biology. They may thus assume that the best way to overcome racism is to stop seeing race. Pinn counters that “the social construction of bodies has no necessary logic and isn’t defined by the assumed ‘objective’ findings of science” (14). To come to terms with the social and cultural complexities of race, humanists need to draw more fully on the insights of the humanities.

Other parts of the book identify other prevalent flaws in the ways humanists think about race. Too many humanists, Pinn suggests, are mystified by the allegiance of African Americans to Christianity, despite Christianity’s complicity in racism. If they conclude that there must therefore be something wrong with African Americans, they make three mistakes. First, they fail to see that, in practice, “theistic communities historically have tried to buttress the life options of oppressed racial minorities against the onslaught of white supremacy” (30). Second, they ignore the fact that some African Americans have always held humanist convictions, even if they have not always felt welcome in explicitly humanist organizations dominated by white people. And third, they fail to see that many white humanist heroes, notably Thomas Jefferson, were (and are) just as committed to the maintenance of white supremacy as their white theist counterparts. The antidote, Pinn argues, is for white humanists to explore the racial diversity of humanism, confront humanist complicity in white supremacy, and learn appreciatively from those theistic traditions that have historically sustained racially oppressed communities.

Pinn also unpacks a pattern of flawed thinking that flows both from humanism’s scientific orientation and from the fact that humanists often confront significant prejudice and mistreatment at the hands of theists. In a too-tidy syllogism, many humanists believe that since humanism is rational and injustice is irrational, “humanism . . . by its very nature, doesn’t contribute to the maintenance of social injustice” (40). Humanists then absolve themselves of the responsibility for dismantling unjust systems, assuming that if they focus on such priorities as church-state separation and science education, oppression will wither away. Pinn counters that humanist organizations and communities ought to “make acknowledgment of white privilege central to [their] missions and aims,” and then “follow the lead of racial minorities” in “targeting particular manifestations of white privilege” (79-81). By taking direct responsibility for undoing white supremacy (rather than leaving that task to God or the cosmos), humanists can “highlight the human in humanism” (85).

Pinn hints that humanism also has important resources to contribute to the anti-racist struggle. One is the love of learning. Pinn notes that humanists are highly educated and maintain several productive presses and journals. He admonishes humanists to “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” (97). And he offers a blueprint for humanist “engaged research and active learning” on race (99). Another humanist resource is an appreciation of difference as “an opportunity for expansion and growth” rather than “a problem to be solved” (83). Both theism and US nationalism, Pinn claims, build on metanarratives in which “conformity/sameness has cosmic design and purpose that drives it forward even as humans resist the process” (111). At its best, humanism sides with all the humans who “resist the process”—and yet, Pinn laments, when it comes to race, humanists sometimes fall back into “the logic that difference is a problem to be solved” (115).

Pinn concludes the book by suggesting that the path to a more authentic and radical humanism might begin by “learning from ‘unlikely’ sources” (as the title of chapter 7 suggests), such as the hip-hop tradition. Despite their apparent differences, Pinn notes, humanism and hip hop have significant commonalities. They “share a human-centered and earthy sense of what the human is” (127), resist supernatural and transhistorical claims, and as a result often “label marginal and problematic figures whose activities/beliefs fly in the face of normative moral and ethical structures of life” (127). Once these similarities are recognized, humanists can learn from hip hop to embrace both a “thicker” sense of diversity and a more “measured realism” about the prospects for achieving justice. “Substantive diversity,” Pinn explains, “requires production of an organic system of symbols and signs that draw from the sensibilities of a wide-ranging group of participants” (130). With a greater appreciation that “people are messy, and communities are difficult to capture” (131), humanists might develop more effective programs of outreach. Likewise, hip hop shows a path beyond the sort of optimistic humanism that accords science a godlike power to save the world. “Leave certainty to the theists,” Pinn concludes, “let their mythological protectors espouse overly optimistic pronouncements of future glory. Humanists should be in a better position than theists to see the world as it is and to undertake a much more mature posture toward work in the world. Humanists have not yet met the challenge, but they should” (134).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Daniel McKanan is Emerson Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anthony B. Pinn is the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities, Professor of Religious Studies, and Founding Director of the Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning at Rice University. He is the first African American full professor to hold an endowed Chair in the History of Rice University. He is also director of research for the Institute for Humanist Studies and is a member of the Board of Directors for the American Humanist Association. He is the author of The End of God-Talk and Writing God's Obituary, and he lives in Houston, Texas.


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