Road Diaries: Color Blindness

This is how you can truly be non-racist.

As I sit here in my van home, reading news about yet another shooting of a Black person by police, I can’t help but reflect on the ways that our societal disposition is determined by the color of our skin. I’m also reminded of the number of times I’ve heard well-meaning people say “I don’t see color.” This seems like a pretty good time to break down why that phrase is problematic.

First, to truly be “colorblind” is to assume that the only thing that makes us different is the “color” of our skin. Embedded in that view is an expectation that we’ve all assimilated and that we’re all alike, despite the “salad bowl” view we’ve theoretically embraced about the world around us (if you’ve never heard of it, look it up). However, skin color and other human characteristics are often tied to culture, religion, upbringing and a lot of other things that are unique to individual people or groups of people. Those things often mark the differences between us. Believe it or not, even the more educated, more assimilated people of color are most likely code switching in social settings, leaving their more cultural speech and mannerisms at home.

It’s often easy to see cultural norms as fads or memes to be borrowed, not necessarily tied to a cultural group.

I think this can be difficult for some people to understand because they might not be as tied to their cultural upbringing as some groups of people. It’s often easy to see cultural norms as fads or memes to be borrowed, not necessarily tied to a cultural group. For an example of things that originated from Black culture, see Laura Edmondson’s Instagram Highlights on African American Vernacular English.

Secondly, skin color and culture are also tied to the ways in which society defines us, positive and negative stereotypes associated with us and, especially when coupled with class or socioeconomic status, our overall life outcomes. This is especially true with minority groups in a society. How many times have you heard, or even believed yourself, that tall, slim Black men should be basketball players? Or felt that a Black woman who speaks up is ghetto or displaying anger? And finally, ignoring this most defining aspect of us is disregarding feelings of bias and prejudice and racism that is experienced by people of color every day.

In order to truly be non-racist, it’s important to recognize the differences between us and to make an effort to understand them. Pretending that they don’t exist is what causes fear, confusion and ultimately, discrimination. It also erases a lot of really beautiful things about a person, or a group of people. And even more damaging, it allows individuals to ignore that we live in a world where people can discriminate against someone because of hatred or fear—even more harmful when that person is a police officer, a judge, a teacher or someone else that has power over an individual. 

In order to truly be non-racist, it’s important to recognize the differences between us and to make an effort to understand them. Pretending that they don’t exist is what causes fear, confusion and ultimately, discrimination.

I understand that the people that use this phrase see it as an attempt to be more inclusive. However, in a system that is largely built upon power and privilege based on our attributes, saying “I don’t see color” is a small band aid on a much larger societal problem. Color blindness doesn’t change the fact that a Black teenager with sagging pants is often seen as a “delinquent” or “thug” when it’s actually just a cultural statement.

The more appropriate response is to acknowledge that there are unique and beautiful differences between us, and that we’ve been taught to be uncomfortable talking about race. Find meaningful ways to have productive conversations about race; acknowledge and learn more about the privilege and power that some people are afforded based on the color of their skin. And figure out where you stand in the fight to dismantle systemic racism.

Sasha McGhee write about her perspective on outdoor culture and more from her home on the road with her husband and faithful feline friend. Follow their adventures at @threevancats. Photos by Ben Pingilley @ben.pingilley.

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