I was one of a handful of black students at Whitewater High School, and I didn’t have a black teacher until my third year of college.
Conversations about race and racism were rare in my high school. Jokes were not rare:
“You’re black, you can dance, right?”
“You don’t talk like you’re black.”
“Black people are athletic, of course you’re good at basketball.”
These words were always said with a smile or a laugh, which was often followed by “It’s just a joke” and “I don’t see color.”
I knew these words weren’t meant to hurt me. It was supposed to be reassuring, to suggest there was no difference between me and my white classmates. The truth is, the words “I don’t see color” scared me and made me feel more invisible than ever, as if my struggles and my people’s history were unimportant.
I’ve been seeing color my whole life. I saw it when I was the only black person in the room. I saw it when I was the only black person in the store and the only one being followed by security. I saw it when my high school classmates glanced over their shoulders at me when we discussed slavery in our history classes, one of only two units about my people.
If I was the only person seeing these things, that meant I was completely alone. If they didn’t see my color, did they see me at all?
What needs to be understood is that there’s nothing wrong with seeing color. I want you to see my color.
People need to recognize that the struggles of a white man and a black man in this country are not the same, partly because society has always perceived the black man as a threat. People must recognize that the way a white woman maneuvers through each day is not the same as the way a black woman has to. The black woman faces an intersectionality of oppressions based on being both a woman and a person of color.
When you say you don’t see color, there are many components of race that you’re blinding yourself to. You’re refusing to see the racial disparities that are an unjust part of life in our country and excusing yourself from the self-examination that is necessary in order to change racial biases.
How can you recognize that black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers if all you see are drivers? How can you recognize that a black woman makes $0.67 to every $1 that a white man makes if all you see are employees?
You can recognize differences in experience without making assumptions about the black men and women you see. Don’t assume that we love fried chicken, can’t swim or need tutoring. Don’t assume that a black man walking after dark is committing a crime. Don’t assume that a black woman is living in poverty. And if she is, don’t assume that you know how she got there.
When we “see” black people and include them in the conversation, they bring personal experience and knowledge about the depth of oppression in U.S. institutions—in the criminal justice system and in education, among other things. By really listening to what black people have to say and then working together, we can help make progress in relation to these issues.
As a black teenager, I should’ve been taught about black history and the current realities of the black community. My classes should’ve learned about people like W.E.B. Dubois, Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth and so many more.
We should have learned how to talk about race respectfully.
The question is, if you shouldn’t say that you’re colorblind, what should you say? The answer is, it’s not really about what you say, it’s about listening and learning from the experiences and stories of black people and then acting on what you learn. Don’t seek to be innocent of racism, seek to be actively anti-racist.
To promote change, you must educate yourself on the reality of black lives and how you can become an effective advocate for racial justice. You can start by seeing color.