We often hear people say we should be color blind. When we look at someone we should not see white/black/brown but rather just a person. That sounds like a good idea. But it is one I cannot accept.
First of all, I think it is simply not possible. How can you not observe what color someone is when you look at them? I have grandchildren whose skin color runs from white as snow to warm chocolate brown to black as midnight. It would be hypocritical of me to say I do not notice the difference in their skin color.
While I understand the idea of being “color-blind” is a good one when used as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did in his great “I have a dream” speech, I think it can be misleading.
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.
Clearly we need to be people who judge a person by who they are, not what they look like.
However, to try to not see someone’s color can mean not really seeing who they are. When I meet a black person if I try to pretend I do not notice they are black, I am really refusing to give them the acknowledgement I should. And exactly what does that mean? Am I pretending they are white? Am I trying to treatment them like they are white? Well, they are not. Like it or not, we are all shaped to some extent by the culture we were raised in, by the way we see the world and the world sees us. The color of our skin plays a role in that.
To try to pretend that a black woman has had the same experiences of life that I have, that she will view the world exactly as I do is to deny who she is.
An example of what I mean. On my first job after high school I had a black co-worker who became a friend of mine. (This was in the 1960’s when there was a lot of unrest in our cities over the Civil Rights Movement.) At that point I really had not taken into account the difference in our skin color. I thought I was color-blind. One day we went out for lunch. I enjoyed the meal and was surprised when she refused to go out again to eat with me later in the week. I could not understand. Had I done something to offend? Did she not like the restaurant? We could go to another one.
She told me she was not comfortable with the stares we got from the other customers. At first I told her I did not know what she meant. But after thinking about it a little, I realized we did get very poor service and our waitress was very unfriendly. Still I did not have a clue why until she told me she felt they did not like our eating together and being so obviously friendly with one another.
Up to that point I had basically lived in a white world. She was my first black friend. To a white woman at that point I did not feel what she felt when people stared or when our waitress was rude. But now I realized I needed to not be color-blind. I needed to try to see the world through her eyes, to acknowledge that her skin color caused her to be treated differently, caused her to notice the stares more than I did, to feel the waitress’ rudeness more deeply than I did. Only when I quit trying to be color-blind, could we begin to navigate how our friendship would work going forward. She wanted to keep our friendship hidden but I wanted to go back to that same restaurant and dare someone to be unkind to her.
To this day I do not know if I did the right thing but I tried to push her to step out and not let others stop us from having a friendship that we did not have to hide. She finally continued to eat lunch with me, but when her car broke down and I wanted to give her a ride home, she stupidly refused. To be honest I was never sure if she did not want our co-workers (who were white) to get upset with me or if she did not want her family to know that she had a white friend. While we remained friends at work, we were never able to take our friendship to a deeper level. To this day I wonder – did I unknowingly treat her with prejudice? Did she unknowingly have prejudice toward me? I have always been sad that our friendship ended when I left for another job. That it did not survive outside our work place.
Now that I have grandchildren who are black, I again cannot ignore how the world treats them differently because of the color of their skin. My grandson, who is black as midnight and handsome as can be, and I have had discussions of what he faces as a black man. To try to pretend that he is the same and faces the same world as my white grandsons is both not true but also unfair to him.
Only when we acknowledge our differences can we then celebrate those differences. How dull this world would be if we were all one color, one background. I want to see that whiteness, that blackness you wear and then learn what your experiences have taught you and how you can share with me and we can celebrate who we are.