This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.
I have friends who say ‘I don’t see color’. Can you help me explain why this is not helpful?
In the American lexicon of things people shouldn’t say, “I don’t see color” ranks up there with the opening phrase: “I’m not racist, but…”
Everything after this opening phrase tends to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt your racist thought process and why anyone who has to hear you say those words will cringe inside, unless they too are racist. In which case the two of you commiserate and say other terrible things such as “I don’t see color” or “America is a meritocracy.”
Why are these phrases so polarizing? Why do people use them? Why don’t most people see how problematic they might be to a person of color?
They are problematic because they are not true. If you live in America, you are not only raised to see color—the different colors and cultures of people around you—but you have been taught to have expectations based upon it. Stereotyping is our cultural norm.
To not see color means one is blind to the travesties of our history and injustices perpetrated on a daily basis in America.
As a black man, when I thought about how to best answer this question, I wanted to rage against the machine and talk about how insensitive the expression is. How it denies the reality lived by people every day and how it was a way of “othering” people, pretending their issues which were based in color and cultural racism didn’t exist.
“I DON’T SEE COLOR…”
But as I looked deeper into my dislike of the phrase, I came to an important discovery:
When I was younger, I used to say it out loud, believing it was more important to be colorblind than to be in solidarity with people who looked like me or were marginalized like me.
I fancied myself an intellectual, even at a young age. I decided to think outside the box of America’s Scarlet Letter of racism and give every person I met an opportunity to show me how good they could be, their race notwithstanding.
I, myself, believed I was colorblind to the differences between human cultures, social groups and the so-called racial differences between us. I was a child and did not understand how seeing color was something to recognize. I lived in a primarily Black neighborhood but went to primarily white schools in the Bronx. There were so many different cultures, colors, shades, religions and creeds around me, I didn’t see any difference between us because I did not have a large enough contextual basis to draw upon.
My multi-colored neighbors lived in a fairly poor section of the Bronx and we often collaborated on how to survive. My mother led the PTA and Tenant’s Association, working to make our community stronger and better. I thought being colorblind was the ideal state as I watched her work with everyone equally.
I was wrong. Because my mother never told me how she felt about everyone she worked with. She wanted me to be better than her in that regard.
She meant well. She wanted me to be able to grow up without racism embedded in my thought process. As a Black child going to primarily white schools, she reasoned it would do me little good to harbor fear or hatred about the people who surrounded me every day.
Yet, no matter how I saw the world, it did not remove the stigma of being a Black male in New York City. A city that was always a racially charged environment. A city prone to incarcerate one out of five young Black men when I was growing up in. In a country where 5 times as many Black men were killed than died in Vietnam.
As a child, I knew none of this. Racism was real even as I denied its existence and the potential threat to young men like me. As I grew older, I began to experience racial challenges, but my refusal to acknowledge when a problem was based on racism and the color of my skin meant it only frustrated me more.
Despite my scholastic achievements, I always felt I was a failure in school because, the better my grades were, the fewer friendships I experienced in the predominantly white schools I attended. I also began to understand that despite my belief in “colorblindness”, others were not so generous.
Race and racism became my first experiences in cognitive dissonance. My understanding of cognitive bias would grow from these early experiences because I believed the lessons I had been taught: race didn’t matter. What mattered was my efforts, my skill set, my persistence and my unwillingness to give up when confronted by challenges.
All of these ideals would put me in good stead except one: I had to acknowledge, like it or not, racism was a clear and persistent threat to marginalized people like me.
I learned people made choices based on their feelings about race. Their choices were significant and could have long-lasting effects on my life and opportunities, even if I personally did not consider racism relevant or necessary. I only fully understand how problematic this persistent state was when I joined the United States military, an organization that prides itself on being colorblind but truthfully exercises racist beliefs, behaviors and protocols which are built-in to the experience.
I learned during the time I served that the idea of not being color-conscious may be laudable, maybe even commendable, but it was unrealistic given the perspective of race relations in America. In the military, white people from around the United States would reveal to me their fear, dislike, distrust and occasionally their contempt of me, as a Black man, through no fault or actions of my own.
This was not, of course, the perspective of every white person I came across. But I can say without question, my experience in the military revealed to me racism was a clear and present danger. It was simply not as dead as my mother would have me believe. No, racist thought was not only alive and well, it would reveal itself to me over and over during the time I served.
WHAT I CHOSE TO DO INSTEAD
After my time in the military, I stopped saying “I don’t see color.” I realized it wasn’t true.
Traveling around the world revealed to me the idea of color-consciousness was not unique to America. I had assumed it was an American issue–a holdover from the time when the government of America willfully subjugated Africans in chattel slavery for hundreds of years. I experienced societies where diversity, the kind I was used to in New York, was a theoretical concept, nothing more. My experiences in Japan, which were almost exclusively excellent, still had moments when I felt tension around my race and upbringing as an American.
Despite this tension, I was treated a hundred times better than I had been in the United States. Worse, when I returned to the States, I discovered I had grown used to being treated more humanely, with more dignity than America would ever offer me. I set out to understand the why of racism and what color meant to Black people in the United States.
Colorism is the nature of defining people by color, and in particular, their proximity to whiteness (also a construct). It means people of color around the world seek out whiteness as an ideal, promoting this through bleaching creams, hair straighteners and a dozen other behaviors. These behaviors demonstrate that people believe that being white is not only desirable, it is necessary for a person to experience success and acceptance in the world.
After my international travel, I took years to study American history and realized “being colorblind” was doing a disservice to myself and anyone in America who was affected by being a minority because of the treatment and expectations the dominant subculture of whiteness had of us. From racial hatred, mayhem and murder, to the development of laws that disenfranchised us further, kept us in prison longer and prevented us from participating with society. Through processes such as economic redlining and voting restrictions which assured our inability to rise economically in this country.
The Native Americans were sidelined to reservations which received little or no support from the federal government. Asian Americans experienced pronounced criminal hatred which resulted in interment camps which housed Japanese-Americans, who lost their homes and jobs, imprisoned for years for the crime of being from Japan, which had been involved in the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
To say one can live without seeing color is to ignore history and fail to acknowledge the dysfunctional nature of an American society that has for four hundred years exploited and abused people of color, minorities and those of other religions as second-class citizens, not worthy of respect or the protections afforded white citizens.
The double standards reveal themselves when white criminals are able to shoot and kill en masse, yet find themselves alive at the time of their arrest. Black citizens, however, are routinely gunned down, abused during arrest, killed during arrest with the claim of being “too violent” to subdue—while autopsies reveal many of them were shot in the back and were unarmed at the time. The ultimate reveal was the insurrection on January 6th when primarily white men, supporters of Donald Trump, set upon the Capitol building, carrying small arms, building a gallows complete with a noose, threatened members of Congress, and escaped unscathed. It should be noted the insurrectionists were subverted by the heroism of a Black man, Eugene Goodman, who drew them away from members of Congress, likely saving lives.
To not see color means one is in denial of these realities, lived every day by your fellow citizens. We must strive to be more inclusive, not less. The challenges of the world will, in the climate-charged decades ahead, be such that the only way we can survive will be to put aside our differences, to recognize such differences as assets, to recognize that being different gives us divergent thought processes different from the ones which made the world we are living in today.
The future not only requires us to acknowledge our differences, but to harness them for the good of us all. To not see color is to deny the atrocities built upon this well-meaning but flawed marginalization.
We must recognize racism (whether it be against people of color, misogyny, the hatred of women, or thought -processes that utilize hatred as a means of seeing the world) as a dangerous pathology, a virus, just as dangerous as any found in nature. A virus for which there appears to be no serum, no vaccination, no means of preventing it, other than the acknowledgment that we all see color.
Seeing color isn’t the problem. It’s what you do with your vision, once you acknowledge it. Transcending color, race, religion, hatred is where we must go if there is to be any future for the species. We will need every mind, every head and every heart totally committed to the battle if we are to survive the existential environmental crisis in the century ahead.
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This post is republished on Medium.