When I had to go to the optometrist as a fourth-grader to get glasses, one of the things he tested me for was color blindness. He explained that it was a vision problem where people couldn’t …
When I had to go to the optometrist as a fourth-grader to get glasses, one of the things he tested me for was color blindness. He explained that it was a vision problem where people couldn’t see certain colors. I didn’t have it, but I still ended up with glasses.
Recently, I’ve heard or read a number of people who seem to wear color blindness as a badge of honor, a sign that they have somehow risen above issues of race and color that have come to the fore these past couple of months:
“I don’t see color.”
“We’re all just one race, the human race.”
“It’s not race, it’s economics.”
“I see you as a person, just like me.”
The underlying sentiment of those and similar phrases indeed sounds virtuous, much like one of white people’s most favorite Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Look, Dr. King didn’t want us to see color, and we don’t!
No, taken in full context, that’s not what Dr. King wanted. He was a proud black man, proud of his heritage, and he didn’t want people to ignore blackness. He wanted content of character to be the defining characteristic of how black people are judged, but he didn’t want people to ignore the culture and characteristics of black Americans. Not at all.
While one may think being color blind is a good thing, it really isn’t. That’s a lesson it literally took me decades to learn.
In my early years, color blindness came naturally to me. In my little Kansas hometown, our one black resident, a sweet old woman named Lizzie Holder, was to me just like dozens of other sweet old women in town. I never thought about her as being black. When I was playing basketball in the back yard, I always pretended to be Kansas Jayhawk great Jo Jo White sinking the winning shot. I never thought twice about the fact that Jo Jo White was black. I just wanted to win.
I was still color blind when I went off to KU for college, mostly because everyone of color I met was just like me – they were college students with the same aspirations for degrees and careers. However, differences started to sink in when the Black Student Union group started protesting something one year. I can’t remember what it was, but when I saw black students with signs marching in front of the student union, I realized they weren’t just like me. I started paying attention.
It finally hit me that I was white when I was on a date in Kansas City. We decided to try a Gates and Son Barbecue place downtown. It was the first time in my life I’d ever been in a place where my date and I were the only white people in the restaurant, and I immediately felt conspicuous and uncomfortable. We ate, we got out, and I started wondering if that’s how black people felt going into otherwise all-white settings. I would discover over the years that yes, they often did feel that way.
College was eye-opening in relation to race, but I still had blind spots as I moved on into my professional work in early childhood education. This was my period of “I can RELATE!” I could relate to the experiences of people of color because now I was a minority, too! I was a man in a field that was 95 percent women. In the workplace, conversations would change when “the man” walked into the room. I got invitations to join early childhood professional groups, and even got a couple of jobs, because I was a “minority.” There were times I wondered whether my contributions were valued because of my intellect or because of my anatomy.
But it was a delusion. I always had a way out. I didn’t have to be in early childhood education. I didn’t have to be a minority, and really, I wasn’t. I was still a white male, with all the associated privileges. People of color were always black, or Asian, or Native American, or whatever, no matter where they lived or what they did. Huge difference.
I finally came to grips with my lingering color- blindness about 20 years ago through one of the most incredibly insightful and humbling weeks of my life. I was one of twenty white people who lived with twenty people of color, mostly all black, at a residential camp for a weeklong experience called “Dismantling Racism,” where we learned from each other through structured activities and free time what racism was all about.
I can’t condense a week’s worth of astounding into one column, but a moment of controversy speaks to the problem of color- blindness.
On the third evening, in a particularly emotional exercise, our new black friends shared some very personal and hurtful stories about discrimination they had experienced because of the color of their skin. We white people were to sit and listen, and by the end a number of us were on the verge of tears.
A well-meaning white woman, wanting to make them feel better, spoke up.
“I just want you to know that I don’t see color when I look at you,” she said. “We’re all the same.”
After three days, both black and white people were shocked. We were there to have our eyes opened to the impact color has on people in society, and here was a white person who didn’t get it, who was denying that there were any differences between her and these black people who just bared their souls about why their experiences weren’t the same as white people.
An increasingly intense discussion ensued. The white woman maintained her position, adding insult to injury by proclaiming, “I only want to help you people.”
After 20 minutes, two of our counselors took the woman out of the room to talk with her individually, while the others stayed with us to process what had happened. It felt like a car wreck. I don’t think anyone slept well that night.
The next morning, we discovered the white woman who made the comments had left and wasn’t coming back. Instead of relief, there was a collective sense of loss. She’d been friendly and nice, and folks generally liked her. But she didn’t “get it.” She didn’t see color. She couldn’t grasp that she was denying the experiences of the people right in front of her, that she was in essence saying to them that she didn’t need or want to have the difficult discussions about race and color that needed to happen. She was color- blind, and she couldn’t or wouldn’t see what was right in front of her.
That’s when I learned to see color-blindness as just an excuse, an avoidance technique, a denial. In today’s polarized environment, it’s an all-too-easy way to quickly distance ourselves from discussions that need to be had, even here in mostly white rural northern Minnesota.
It’s important for us to take off the color blinders and see the effects of race around us. It’s not just a problem for blacks in the cities. It’s an issue for Native Americans, blacks, Asian-Americans, and others who live and work right here.
And if for no other reason, it’s in the self-interest of whites to see color and its effects and to have those discussions, because Minnesota seriously needs to rise from its position as, statistically, one of the worst states in the country for racial disparity. When white people recognize the barriers of color and work to remove them, then those disparities begin to disappear as people of color rise to new levels of success. And the systems we have to devote enormous resources to, including your tax dollars, to combat those disparities disappear, too.
Leveling the playing field begins with seeing color for what it is, with all its richness and its challenges. Hopefully it won’t take decades, like it did for me, for enough people to see the colorful light and take meaningful steps for change. We’ve all seen rainbows – color can be a beautiful thing to embrace.