How often have you heard someone claim to be “color blind”?
I’ve always been uncomfortable with this notion. While the intent is understandable and noble, how can you NOT notice someone’s skin color? It’s the first thing you see when you meet someone new. That said, it never occurred to me that saying and believing you are color blind can actually be harmful.
Various writers have taken on this issue and most agree that there is no such thing as color blindness when it comes to race. The following is my general interpretation regarding what I have learned about this notion from writers such as Michelle Alexander, Heather McGhee, Robin DiAngelo and Layla F. Saad. Alexander writes, “…to aspire to colorblindness is to aspire to a state of being in which you are not capable of seeing racial difference – a practical impossibility for most of us…The colorblindness ideal is premised on the notion that as a society we can never be trusted to see race and treat each other fairly or with genuine compassion. A commitment to color consciousness, by contrast, places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences…It is easier to imagine a world in which we tolerate racial differences by being blind to them.
“The uncomfortable truth, however, is that racial differences will always exist among us. Even if the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow and mass incarceration were completely overcome, we would remain a nation of immigrants (and indigenous people) in a larger world divided by race and ethnicity….For the foreseeable future, racial and ethnic inequality will be a feature of American life.“ pp. 302 – 3.
Alexander’s clarity on this point was extremely helpful as it crystallized my thinking on why it never made sense how people could claim to be “colorblind”. But it is her next point that was an “Ah Hah!” moment. She assures us that that while we may never reach a total, idealistic world of perfect racial equality, it is not a cause for alarm or despair. She goes on to point out the danger in such thinking.
“What is concerning is the real possibility that we, as a society, will choose not to care. We will choose to be blind to injustice and the suffering of others. We will look the other way and deny our public agencies the resources, data, and tools they need to solve problems. We will refuse to celebrate what is beautiful about our distinct cultures and histories even as we blend and evolve. That is cause for despair.”
“Seeing race is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem. The fact that the meaning of race may evolve over time or lose much of its significance is hardly a reason to be struck blind. We should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love. That was King’s dream – a society that is capable of seeing each of us, as we are, with love. That is a goal worth fighting for.” P. 303
This leads to a point made by Heather McGhee in, “The Sum of Us”. McGhee writes that what we are really doing when we claim to be “color blind” is to dismiss or deny that racism exists. In other words, it’s providing another excuse for whites not to accept accountability and responsibility to learn and grow as it applies to how we view and treat people of other races.
She writes: “Color blindness has become a powerful weapon against progress for people of color, but as a denial mindset, it doesn’t do white people any favors, either. A person who avoids the realities of racism doesn’t build the crucial muscles for navigating cross-cultural tensions or recovering with grace from missteps. That person is less likely to listen deeply to unexpected ideas expressed by people from other cultures or to do the research on her own to learn about her blind spots. When that person then faces the inevitable uncomfortable racial reality – an offended co-worker, a presentation about racial disparity at a PTA meeting, her inadvertent use of a stereotype – she’s caught flat-footed. Denial leaves people ill-prepared to function or thrive in a diverse society.” (p. 230)
Or phrased another way, Cornell West, philosopher, political activist, social critic and public intellectual, writes in his foreword to The New Jim Crow, “Martin Luther King Jr. called on us to be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other. To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for each and every individual, including the poor and the vulnerable.” P. xlix
In short, no one is color blind. Claiming otherwise, while well intended, is disingenuous and counter-productive. As such, it’s okay to admit to the fact that you do see color. We should acknowledge our differences if we are ever going to begin to work on building bridges between those differences. Rather, we need to see, accept and love each other. Not only should we stop using that term, but more important, we should think about why we no longer should use that term.