Colorblind, But Now I See
I write about metaphorical mountains to encourage readers to overcome great challenges in life. I strive to inspire hope that we can stand on the peak, arms spread wide in joy as we bask in the warmth of the sun. I want to help others in the climb, because we all deserve to experience the view from the summit. Furthermore, I adamantly believe that we lift ourselves when we lift others. So with that foundational belief, I want to discuss a sensitive topic on my white privilege and how I stood in the way of others who are tackling mountains I will never fully understand. I want to express how not seeing mountains does not make them less real. I want to share my experience as a girl who grew up colorblind.
When we are colorblind, we are blind to the vibrancy of cultural diversity and we are blind to racism. We are blind to inequality, inequity, and injustice towards people of color. Our blindness creates obstacles for people still struggling to overcome and it emboldens hateful, overt racists who walk tall, knowing you cannot see them either.
Growing Up Colorblind
I was raised not to see color. I was raised to treat people equally and I never heard any comment about skin color in the discussion on people’s worthiness and value. In fact I never heard about race at all growing up.
My parents never spoke of race, politics, nor anything that may pass along ideologies they subconsciously or consciously believed. My parents were born in northwest Ohio. My mother never even met a black person until she moved to Texas with her young Army husband. Their childhoods were spent in a monocultural area where their knowledge of race came from what they were taught by families, teachers, friends, and television. I don’t know if they held racist opinions themselves, but they never passed any down to their children.
As the daughter of a Soldier, I grew up relocating and living in various diverse neighborhoods. At some point, my parents must have found their community to be more qualified to teach their children about diversity than they were. Something made them decide deliberately to silence their voices on the topic of race. Whatever it was, I am grateful to that upbringing. Little children don’t worry about the color of their friend’s skin. They worry about if their friend wants to ride bikes or if their friend has a glove to play catch and, if not, if a spare glove can be found. As a child, I learned about diversity subconsciously.
When I was four, my best friend was a Latino boy. I still have a picture with my arms tightly wrapped around him as we hugged. He was a fun playmate. We dug up worms together.
When I was in 4th grade, it was a Korean-American girl. She was sweet and gentle and we loved American Girl dolls. We made a friendship heart out of pressed metal; I still have my half. I never once thought about her race; though, I was confused by the language of the adults when I attended her Korean church. I don’t remember what the bully said when he threw a basketball at her face, but, when she began to cry with tears running down her cheeks, I remember I was ready to fight to the death for her. (Cody put me in a headlock. My sister called him a “moo-ron” and fetched my dad. But I still tried to defend my dear friend.)
In fifth grade, I had my first boyfriend. Anthony passed me a note on our way to class. I read it in the hallway: “Will you be my girlfriend? Check yes or no.” I checked yes. He was kind and funny. My parents advised me not to tell my relatives about him, and I concurred. Of course, they would think I was too young. It was some time before I realized it was because Anthony was black. Of course, I knew he was. But in my colorblind world, I never knew it mattered. What mattered was he was kind to his kid sister and he never let me eat lunch alone when none of the girls would let me join them.
I grew up colorblind, but I believe children are. When left without adult opinions, we think the same haircuts and outfits make us look like twins. When left without adult influences, we think the different skin colors are cool, but also can you see this face I can make? Jordan can curl his tongue. Am I doing it too?
Removing the Blinders
That was a lovely way to grow up, but I am no longer a child. My colorblindness helped raise me to see character first, but there came a time it stopped helping my friends of color. For in this world today, equality is not yet a reality. And just as importantly, my colorblindness ignored the exquisite beauty of other cultures with their symbolic traditions and rich stories.
My blinders came off in 7th grade. Amanda Mason, a classmate who shared my last name, used to call me her sister from another mother and laugh. I didn’t fully get the joke. She looked as much like me as my biological sister did. (I had dark, almost black, thick hair and bullies at that age called me "Fro." I tanned easily and had brown eyes. In contrast, my sister was fair-skinned that fried in the sun. She grew lovely blonde hair and had hazel eyes. My sister and I looked so different that it was only expected people I didn’t share blood with would also look different. So I didn't get the joke then.) Amanda Mason was tall and athletic with a grace I lacked. She looked like she would be a killer volleyball or tennis player, and she was black. But in 7th grade, as colorblind little me, I had no idea that meant anything. Then one day in class, she turned to me and asked, “What’s an example of white music?”
My response to her was, “I don’t know any songs about color except ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green.’”
She just stared with her mouth agape. I think she was at a complete loss of words. I doubt she had no idea where to even start in her response. Was she even familiar with the Muppets? Did she know it was a song that became an anti-racism catchphrase in the 70’s? Did she know it was crooned by the incredible Ray Charles? Because I didn’t. I was so oblivious to the issue that when I scrambled to think of a song about the color white, I searched for a song with any color, and I unwittingly came up with a song that was part of a movement. I didn’t recognize the irony for years.
Before Amanda Mason could think of a suitable response to me, a classmate behind me said something like the Backstreet Boys and she said, “Yes. Thank you.” Then she continued a conversation with a classmate about music. I sat there and slowly it dawned on me. It was the beginning of learning there was a difference. There were cultural differences.
It was that day that I learned that, for Amanda Mason, being black had significance. As a little white girl whose favorite musician was Toby Keith, I was oblivious. But it was then I began to learn about culture and diversity. Ignorance is cured through education.
I grew up colorblind, but it was then that I began to learn the colors of the world. I initiated my education that day. It was the launchpad to difficult lessons and awkward conversations that I hope have made me a better person who respects all of the human race.
It's strange that it took me until 7th grade. I had been taught of the Civil War and the terrible things that happened so long ago. The Civil Rights Movement also was ancient to my young mind. I couldn’t fathom people in my world thinking that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to use certain water fountains at the pool. I couldn’t fathom people in my world thinking certain people shouldn’t go to the same schools as other people. But Brown v. Board of Education happened when my mother’s parents were 20 years old. They were adults. And this shocked me. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was when they were 30. It was also just two years before my father was born. He was not quite two when Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated. What hateful things did my grandparents hear growing up? What prejudices were taught to them through their families, their communities, and their education? What did they learn when they read or heard the news? How much of it influenced their belief system and was ingrained in their truths?
Realizing I know people who grew up being taught that white girls and black girls are not equal, I was discomforted, baffled, and saddened. What seems so long ago wasn’t long ago after all. And it’s still alive. While laws have been passed, discrimination still exists. Laws exist but there is still a mindset among many that people are not equal.
The Colorblind Gap
By people who said they are not racist, I’ve been rebuked about possibly dating a black man. I was told the relationship would be unnatural and wrong. I have been told that it would be better to date a man covered in tattoos, because at least those can be removed. I’ve been warned that dating a black man could be dangerous to me because others won’t be kind and others will judge. In something as small as who I hypothetically date, I have witnessed intolerance. How can I be colorblind?
When we claim we are colorblind, we fail to honor and respect people who experience inequality. We only silence the oppressed. More dangerously, when we see ourselves as colorblind, we relinquish our personal responsibility to check our privilege and bias. Unintentionally, we can continue to cultivate inequality and inequity.
When I was a student teacher in 2009, I was placed in a school in northwest Ohio. I worked with proclaimed “colorblind” teachers. The classes were full of predominantly white students. It’s easy to be colorblind when there is only one color, but there were whispers. I overheard two of my “not racist” colleagues talking about the rise of city residents moving to the suburbs. As they scowled at the city kids, I realized “city” meant “black.” Black families were moving to the area for its quality schools and safer neighborhoods. When my family did it, it was practical and good parenting. When these black families were doing it, the community saw them as culprits, destined to create a rise in crime and destruction to their peaceful community. I kid you not that I heard them say, “We are being overrun” as they discussed the new black students in our schools. I had classes with three or four black kids. THREE or FOUR. These adults stated they were scared for their safety. I looked at the black “violent” kids in each of my classes. They were little gangly seventh graders, all knees and elbows. They grinned wide and laughed full-heartedly, throwing their heads back. They were energetic, eager kids. The only misbehavior I dealt with was the boys’ obsession over trading cards. I think they were Yu-Gi-Oh cards.
Refusing to see color is comfortable compared to the raw, vulnerable conversations that come showing up with the blinders off. Refusing to see color also protects someone from acknowledging their own prejudiced thinking. I get it. I don’t want to hear that I have said or done something insensitive or ignorant. But I need to hear it. I need to be open to feedback so I can improve and be part of the solution. I need to be willing to learn so I can use my privilege for good and not for my own benefit. I need to support the cause until we are all truly equal in our justice system, in our education system, in our society, and in our thinking.
I worked at a school with a teacher who said she didn’t see color and that racism no longer existed- not in our community at least. Meanwhile, I had students who were pulled over by the police because two black boys were up front, and were the white boys in the back okay? Were they there of their own free will? When another student was pulled over for speeding, he came to me for a character reference letter. He was a quiet, kindhearted, studious Latino boy and his first ticket came with the full brunt of the law, no warning nor leniency. It saddened me that he was advised to seek out a reference letter for his day in court. I never felt I needed a character reference when I was pulled over. All the while, my coworker was convinced race was no longer relevant.
I’ve seen colorblind women pull their purses closer when a black man walks by. I’ve heard a colorblind person explain that she is not racist and that it is human nature to be scared to ride the elevator with a black person- male or female.
I went to college with a girl who only knew one black person at her high school, but he didn’t count because he didn’t “act black.” (Don’t get me started on how that is a completely racist statement.) That same girl stated she was colorblind. She also told me all Asians were spies. She never met one but she was sure they were spying on America. That same girl didn’t balk when her sister’s boyfriend said all ugly people- which he said obviously included Asian people- should be exterminated, but she got mad at me for arguing with him, for condemning him, for calling him a Nazi. She ended our friendship because I spoke against his statement. She didn’t like uncomfortable conversations. She just wanted us to get along.
Racism is still a problem. We can try to convince ourselves we are colorblind, but it keeps us from seeing our own inadequacies and the issues around us. When we don’t see race, we don’t see our own prejudices nor our neighbor’s. Colorblindness turns a blind eye to bigotry. After all, if we don’t see it, it can’t be there. If it’s not there, we don’t have to intercede.
Get Comfortable with Uncomfortable Conversations.
With colorblindness, we cannot see the patterns of inequality. Colorblind people cannot see the privilege of their own whiteness. And worse of all, colorblind people cannot see their own ingrained, unconscious racism. It’s that covert racism that isn’t as obvious as the terrible awful racism seen in blatant white supremacists, but, nonetheless, it’s a festering dangerous racism. It’s the kind found in silent bystanders. It’s the kind that watches as a white man puts his knee on a back man’s neck.
Colorblindness is seen as a declaration of open-minded, evolved thinking. But colorblind status really seems to be a shield. It’s a shield that says, “I’m not racist, and I don’t see racism.” Thus, it liberates colorblind people from uncomfortable conversations. Colorblindness has become an exempt pass from class. It perpetuates racism because it does not allow the room to ask, “What do I not know? How can I do better? What am I saying or doing that is holding someone else back? How can I help create change so we all can succeed?” The colorblind are self-excused from learning about how injustice is woven subtly into our system until it is invisible to privileged eyes. Addressing inequity can only go so far when colorblindness declares race doesn’t exist.
Colorblindness is not a badge of honor. Maybe in a future society where we really have conquered the last lingering traces of hate, colorblindness can be worn with pride. But that is for an equal, just world. We are not there yet. Maybe one day we will be, but that must wait for a time when covert racism and systemic oppression are eradicated.
I hope one day we can look at people without seeing stereotypes in an eye shape, skin color, hair texture. I hope one day we get to a point when we can respect our history and appreciate those who got us to a just, equal world. I hope we can witness a world without hate, without bigotry, prejudice, stereotypes, microaggressions, discrimination, injustice, inequity, inequality, etc. I hope we can have a world one day where you can be colorblind. But please, please, please, my friends, first we need to see the color and be open to uncomfortable conversations. We need you to speak up and use your voice to create change. Your voice is powerful. Your voice can create that world you envision. Your voice helps us move from laws of equality to justice in action and, finally, to a society with ingrained beliefs in the equality of all humankind.
But before you can speak, you must be willing to witness. Open your eyes to the beauty and complexity of color. See without corrupting perception with what you want to see. Observe and listen, and pass the microphone to those who have gone unheard.
Foster empathy: "To Walk in Her Shoes"
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