I recently read A Rap on Race, the book-length transcript of a conversation between James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, recorded in
the summer of 1970. As I said two weeks ago, it’s a fascinating book, and I’m going to be posting excerpts each Wednesday for the next while. I put up the first last week — here’s the second, somewhat condensed from the original:

MEAD: This was, I suppose, twenty-five years ago. I was speaking in those days about three things we had to do: appreciate cultural differences, respect political and religious differences, and ignore race. Absolutely ignore race.

BALDWIN: Ignore race. That certainly seemed perfectly sound and true.

MEAD: Yes, but it isn’t anymore. You see, it really isn’t true. This was wrong, because —

BALDWIN: Because race cannot be ignored.

MEAD: Skin color can’t be ignored. It is real.

BALDWIN: It was a great revelation for me when I found myself finally in France among all kinds of very different people — I mean, at least different from anybody I had met in America. And I realized one day that somebody asked me about a friend of mine who, in fact, when I thought about it, is probably North African, but I really did not remember whether he was white or black. It simply had never occurred to me.

Three things jump out at me about this passage.

First, there’s the obvious fact that Baldwin and Mead, speaking forty years ago, regard the idea of racial “colorblindness” as a quaint relic of Jim Crow-era liberalism. It was something that seemed to make sense back in the fifties, they agree, but not anymore. Not in 1970. The fact that we’re still, as a culture, debating this in 2011 is striking.

There’s also Mead’s troubling use of the phrase “skin color” as a synonym for “race.” I know it’s a traditional synecdoche, but it’s weird and unfortunate in this context, because although race is real, it’s not “real” in the sense that skin color is.

Skin color doesn’t determine race — George Hamilton is darker than Colin Powell, after all. What makes race “real” isn’t its physicality, because race is a cultural, rather than a biological, fact. As I noted last week, the one-drop rule was created for social and economic reasons. Genetics didn’t, and don’t, enter into it.

Skin color, in other words, can be ignored. We ignore it all the time. I had to Google photos of George Hamilton and Colin Powell to make sure I was right about who was darker — I don’t carry that information around in my head. But I do carry around the knowledge that Hamilton is white and Powell is black. And it’s that knowledge which can’t be suppressed or wished away.

Which brings us to Baldwin’s comment about his own race-blindness in Paris. Earlier in the book, Mead had paraphrased his insight that “there are no ‘Negroes’ outside of America,” and it seems that this is what’s operating here. The racial categories carries with him are American racial categories, and French racial structures, differing as they do from the American, don’t resonate for him in the same way. And so although it may seem like a contradiction for Baldwin to say in one breath that “race cannot be ignored” and in the next that it had “never occurred to” him whether a friend was French or French North African, it’s actually completely consistent.

Skin color can be ignored. Race cannot.