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Why being “color blind” deepens the racial divide

I grew up hearing that being opposed to racism meant being color blind. We’re all the same; can’t we just live in love and harmony? Proclaiming one’s color blindness certainly cemented the fact that one was not racist. If you don’t see color, you are accepting of people who are, in fact, pretty different from you.

“Color blind” is a white term.

 

Have you ever asked a person of color how they felt about it? It wasn’t until I got to know people culturally that were diametrically opposed to everything I knew that I saw the problem.

 

You see, I’m white. I grew up shrouded in blissful ignorance of the negative experiences of people who look very different from me (read: white privilege). I had acquaintances that weren’t Caucasian, but not any close friends. Not anyone whose life I was emotionally invested in. So like many in my shoes, I tacitly accepted the concept that ignoring differences was to be praised.

 

Twelve years ago I became involved with Starfish. Starfish Learning Center is an after school program that serves at-risk youth in the inner city of Chicago. I started by teaching music lessons to kids on Saturday. The kids in the program were all either black or Hispanic.

 

As the years went on, I spent more and more time with these families. I saw how hard the immigrant parents worked to support their families. I witnessed a culture so vastly divergent from my own that it fascinated me. Black hair, black skin, black dialogue. Then I started asking questions.

 

These kids weren’t like me at all. But it wasn’t bad. There were so many admirable traits that were missing from my life. So much I could learn from them. So why would I want to pretend those differences didn’t exist?  There are over 400,000 different varieties of flowers. There are about 18 decillion colors (that’s 18 followed by 33 zeroes). There are more than 1,600,000 species of animals. If variety isn’t something to be praised and admired, why aren’t there only a dozen flowers? A handful of colors? A few animals?

Here’s what “color blind” is actually saying: “I’m white. I’m the gold standard for what is perfect in a human being. You aren’t, but that’s okay. I’ll pretend you’re like me and then we can get along.”

The arrogance in this concept is staggering. And what you are asking people of color is too much. You’re asking them to downplay the things that make them unique, the experiences they’ve been through, the racism they’ve suffered through, the culture that makes their personality so different from yours. You’re asking them to ignore or hide it so we can all get along.

 

So what should we do instead of claiming to be color blind?

Celebrate differences. Don’t subconsciously hold up the white culture as being the standard. Acknowledge that other cultures have something enormous to contribute and something wonderful you can learn from. Praise the accomplishments of people of color. Point out the characteristics unique to them that you admire.

 I get that “color blind” is just a phrase and maybe it’s just semantics. But it also encompasses an attitude that praises whiteness and suppresses diverse voices. Don’t use it anymore. The term or the ideal. It’s pretty racist.

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