Archive for February 20, 2015

Colorblindness

The default attitude towards race that most white Americans tend to have is colorblindness. We are often taught by our parents and various mainstream institutions- from schools to corporate diversity training that it is polite to disregard other people’s skin colors and treat everyone the same. This is all very well meaning and reflective of American values like equal treatment under the law, being rewarded for hard work and merit rather than birth status. When the subject of race arises, many white folks will respond that of course racial discrimination is wrong, and that they “don’t see color” and a person’s race makes no difference.

I’ve noticed that when I bring up the topic of race, people accuse me of being racist simply for talking about it. Bringing attention to difference will cause people to make a bigger deal out of these differences, and people will then be influenced to judge others on the basis of skin color. By discussing white privilege or white supremacy, I am making unfair and racist generalizations about white people. They want to be judged as individuals, not as members of a race! All of these same accusations are made at people of color who try to talk about these issues, and often much more harshly than when I receive them!

I am not faulting other white folks for thinking this way, and it certainly does not mean they lack intelligence or are bad, racist people for thinking these things. But the insistence on colorblindness means we cannot have these conversations. People do get treated differently based on their appearance and cultural background. When instances of racial discrimination or mistreatment are brought up, often people with a colorblind mentality will dismiss these experiences and try to explain them away. Since they do not personally experience racism, they have trouble believing these things happen. It is also troubling because it threatens their belief that American society, while flawed is still pretty fair and egalitarian in how it treats people.

Unsurprisingly, when confronted with disbelief, dismissal or challenges from white people when they describe being followed in stores by clerks, or pulled over by cops for no apparent reason- Black people get pretty sick of these responses and do not share them with their white co-workers, neighbors, friends and even relatives.  Also, unless you are actually blind, you are going to noticed differences in people, and you may treat them differently without realizing it. There’s no sense in getting worried about if deep down, you are actually racist, and a terrible awful person. Every human being has at least a little bit of some type of prejudice in them. That doesn’t mean acting on the prejudice is OK, but it means we all need to work on becoming aware of that prejudice and unlearning it. It’s kind of like how, I don’t smoke, but I do breath in polluted air every day. You may not be going to Klan rallies on the weekend, and you may have been raised by super-tolerant pro-multicultural hippie parents, but you still live in a society that influences how you see other people.

So if colorblindness isn’t the answer, what is? We can be aware of visible ethnic, racial and cultural differences without totally defining a person by them. We can also working on becoming more aware of differences that are less visible. It’s tricky because in any given social situation, a person’s ethnic/cultural background may or may not be relevant. It’s a lifelong process, but the good news is it gets easier as you have the chance to interact with more people of varied backgrounds. We don’t all have the same opportunities to do that. Some of us live in areas which are very culturally homogenous, and we may not have chances to travel, or even if we do, we may not have the chance to really get to know people who are different because we are busy visiting relatives and such. (I’m thinking for example, of my trip to New Orleans for my cousin’s posh wedding. Yep- pretty much all white people. I didn’t really get the chance to experience the local culture in depth outside of the wedding, but I did get a taste!)

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February 20, 2015 at 7:41 am 2 comments


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