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Do You See in Color?

April 25, 2017

I’ve been thinking about colorblindness a lot, the way people say, “Underneath it all, aren’t we all just the same?” Blood, bones, a deep need for belonging, and an existential longing for purpose – or is that just me? Sure, maybe we are the same in a biological sense, but are we, are we really the same!?

 

If you haven’t seen the documentary Race: The Power of an Illusion (RTPOI), you should watch it. There are three episodes about 50 minutes long. That can be a lot for some, but it gives a valuable historical perspective on race and racism.

 

I’m teaching a class called Community Leaders Creating Change, and we watched episode two of RTPOI this month. When I say that the founding of our country was on the backs of slaves and native people, it’s because our history and our federal policies have systematically used the notion of race to enforce specific power structures.

 

In this episode, the narrator says that Thomas Jefferson wrote in  our Declaration of Independence that “…all men are created equal…” Unfortunately, that was not true then, and it’s not true today.

 

In order to justify slavery and the oppression of Native Americans while still holding to the noble ideals of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and the other framers had to classify other races as "subhuman." This allowed them to justify themselves for owning slaves and refuse to endow them with the same “inalienable rights” granted to white men. 

 

 

Race is a social construct, which means that we as a society created the notion, enforce it, and perpetuate it. Wait, but Vangie, if that’s true, then shouldn’t we be colorblind if we want to end racism? Oh, on the contrary, not "seeing" color prevents us from acknowledging our racist history and invalidates people of color’s personal experiences with racism.

 

Often after I've done a presentation, usually with a co-presenter, someone will come up to me and tell me, "you're so well spoken," or "you're very articulate." They mean it as a compliment, but they never say the same thing to my white colleagues. The implication is that they are surprised when a person of color like me is articulate, that they have absorbed stereotypes and assumptions about people of my race.

 

When people then go around claiming not to see color, they are ignoring my experiences as a person of color--like this example. It dismisses and invalidates my experiences with prejudice and stereotypes.  Papering over the daily challenges faced by people of color doesn't make them go away; it just sends a message that those experiences don't matter enough to be acknowledged, don't need to be talked about.

 

Seriously, I don't even believe people when they say, “I don’t see color.” Our society is so highly racialized that it's impossible to be unaware of race. Everybody has biases, even good-hearted, well-meaning people; we can't escape that fact. Refusing to acknowledge your own biases and the biases of our society just means you are inadvertently practicing microinvalidation, dismissing how much people of color's daily lives and identities are shaped by their race.  

 

In an article by Jon Greenberg, "7 Reasons Why Colorblindness Contributes to Racism instead of Solves it," his list includes:

 

  1. Colorblindness Invalidates People’s Identities

  2. Colorblindness Invalidates Racist Experiences

  3. Colorblindness Narrows White Americans’ Understanding of the World and Leads to Disconnection

  4. Colorblindness Equates Color with Something Negative

  5. Colorblindness Hinders Tracking Racial Disparities

  6. Colorblindness is Disingenuous

  7. Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism

 

Greenberg says “True progress will come when White Americans no longer feel threatened by the racial identities of groups of color.” The fact is, if we can’t discuss the problem (race and racism) how are we expected to solve it? Being in denial that racism still exists isn’t the answer either.

 

 

In the Nonprofit with Balls blog post “All right, ‘color-blind’ colleagues, we need to have a talk,” the author shares his everyday interactions with other “nonprofiters.” They say things like, “I just don’t get why we need to keep focusing on race,” or “I think it’s wonderful that he (person’s son) just doesn’t see color,” and so on. I’ll be honest, some of the worst offenders when it comes to colorblindness are people who work in nonprofits that work with communities of color. Just saying.

 

The most insidious thing about colorblindness is that people believe having a colorblind ideology keeps you from being racist, when in actuality that thinking supports white supremacy. Institutional racism can exist without a single racist or individual acts of racism. By ignoring our collective history of race and racism, we only add fuel to the eternal fire of racist oppression. It’s a vicious cycle. By confronting our history, by facing the deep dark truth of our country's legacy, we may finally be able to move forward and start to end racism.

 

Talking about racism is supposed to make you uncomfortable because racism is a really awful thing.

 

We’ve all been trained to believe that talking about race and differences divides us. In truth, the fear of differences is what divides us. Our silence when we see acts of everyday racism is what is dividing us.

 

Understanding our human differences is what will bring us together. People always say, “You have to meet people where they are.” If I don’t know where they are going or where they are coming from, how the heck am I suppose to meet them where they are?

 

My lived experiences are unique to me and have shaped me into the person I am today. The good, the bad, the tragic, and oppressive have shaped my humanity, my being. We may or may not be on the same path of our life journeys, and we aren’t going to truly know what’s in each other's hearts and minds if we aren’t honest with ourselves or with other people. All we can do is try to figure it out, open our eyes to the truth and do the best we can, try a little harder, and then do better.

 

 

References

"Colorblind Ideology; a new Form of Racism," Mona Adem, The Sundial, 2013. http://sundial.csun.edu/2013/02/colorblind-ideology-a-new-form-of-racism/

 

"7 Reasons Why Colorblindness Contributes to Racism instead of Solve it," Jon Greenberg, EverydayFeminism.com, 2015. http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/colorblindness-adds-to-racism

"Race as a Social Construction," Gordon Hodson Ph.D. Psychology Today, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/without-prejudice/201612/race-social-construction

 

“All right, ‘color-blind’ colleagues, we need to have a talk, Nonprofit with Balls, Blog, 2017. http://nonprofitwithballs.com/2017/04/all-right-color-blind-colleagues-we-need-to-have-a-talk/

 

"Race the Power of an Illusion," California Newsreel, PBS. http://www.pbs.org/race/000_General/000_00-Home.htm

 

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