Racism, and the Problem With Not Seeing Color

Another month. Another set of family gatherings. Another chance to have my language policed –

“That’s racist.”

I froze mid-sentence and turned in the direction of the interrupting voice. The Young One looked at me with steady eyes that were confident and maybe a little bit judgmental.

“Why,” I asked, “do you think what I said is racist?”

“Because you said you were at an Asian restaurant.”

“I was at an Asian restaurant – “

“And that there were a lot of Asian aunties and uncles lined up outside.”

“There were!”

“And that’s racist.”

I took a steadying breath to make sure that I maintained what I call my “work voice” and not the staccato I fall into when I’m comfortable with people. “How is that racist?”

“Because you said they’re Asian.” He seemed to stand a little bit taller. “I don’t see color. I see people.

“Are you mad?” he continued when I just stared at him, trying to find my words.

“No,” I said at last, “I’m not mad. Just shocked. I appreciate your sentiment, but you’re not seeing the big picture.”

“But people should be judged by who they are, not by their skin color.”

“And I agree with that. The problem is, the whole world does not feel this way.”

The Young One is young enough and white passing enough, that he has neither experienced nor noticed others experiencing racism. He means well, as I’m sure so many others do when they insist they “don’t see color.” That insistence is hindering our ability to actually deal with racism, which is still thriving. (On that note, at least the Young One has a leg up on a certain type of adult who refuses to believe that racism is still around.) You can’t fix a problem if you willfully ignore it.

I’m still working on an age appropriate explanation for him. The only metaphor I’ve come up with so far is one that I hope the adults in the room will understand: “I don’t see color” is like being at a four way stop and saying, “I can go, because it’s my turn.” Yes, there are rules about four way stops. Yes, you arrived at the same moment as the driver to your left, they just went, and now it’s supposed to be your turn. You can proceed…

…or you can acknowledge that the car that just pulled up to your right is going to think, “Uhhhh, I see a car going! I’M GONNA GO!” Maybe some yayhoo who just pulled up to your left might decide, “This is like those lights to enter the freeway during rush hour, right? Two per turn!” There could be a pedestrian who is taking this chance to cross in front of you. There are so many other variables that negate your simple truth that it’s your turn to go – or that skin color doesn’t matter.

The world is not color blind, and you’re not doing anyone any favors if you’re insisting that it is.

If this were any other day, I would end the post with the above line. Today, however, we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

On August 28, 1963 – almost 56 years ago – Dr. King delivered his speech “I Have a Dream.” [PDF] It is, in and of itself, a very powerful presentation. The viewing that is burned into my memory, however, is the one that happened during a Sociology class when I was in college. As it played, the windows at the back of the classroom filled with faces as, one by one, black schoolmates who happened to be walking by heard Dr. King’s voice and were transfixed. My professor stepped forward and quietly waved them in, gesturing to empty seats. By the end of the speech, there were no empty desks, and the walls were lined with people who had been quietly watching. They nodded and smiled before exiting, each face filled with a child-like light and hope.

But there is work still to be done. Lots of it.

Acknowledging that racism still exists is the first step. Recognizing and standing up to the casual instances is the next: “No, I don’t know how ‘those people’ are. Can you explain?” or a horrified look and uncomfortable silence should they tell you, “Oh, I don’t mean you. You’re like one of us. I mean those other [insert your group here].” If you’re really feeling feisty, you might insert, “Do you mean others, like my mom and dad/grandparents?” A side effect to this is being able to point out that the speaker, who hopefully isn’t trying to be offensive, doesn’t know who is and isn’t “illegal” or “doesn’t speak English.” My parents were both documented, but the random racist might notice only skin color and an accent and conclude otherwise, so… That has, to date, given the other person pause or at least made them shut up.

Measuring a person by their character is a great start, but it doesn’t excuse you – me, anyone – from failing to do more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *