Turn on the news, and you see what appears to be half the country (I’m convinced it’s much less) who are insistent that we have come to the point in American history when we don’t need to talk about race any longer. In my own experience, I’ve heard educational leaders in the liberal Northeast tell me how they “don’t see race” when they look at others and how they can’t understand why this needs to be a discussion in schools. These statements ignore the lived experiences of people of color throughout the United States. Among the ten microaggressions I teach about in my workshops, the third one is this type of colorblindness.
“I Don’t See Race”
Why isn’t it okay not to see race? Because race is a real, lived concept. While race is not a biological concept, it is a very real, social concept that people with minority backgrounds cannot escape. Racial prejudices began in the 15th century. Then, in 1735, Linnaeus, in his book Systema Naturae, solidified the then hundreds-of-years-old racial hierarchy based upon supposed skin colors. In his book, he ascribed the color white to those at the highest level of his pecking order… those of European descent… and attributed characteristics such as beauty and intelligence to them. Similarly, he ascribed yellow to the next, lower group, Asians, who were described as greedy. He ascribed red to Native Americans whom he described as lazy. Finally, at the bottom of his supposedly scientific hierarchy came those of African descent who were described as black, ugly, beastly, and in every way inferior. Of course, this hierarchy was not scientific but instead was a way to morally justify the actions of European conquerors; nevertheless, this pseudo-science impacted people’s belief systems and continues to impact our culture. While denying the fundamental truth that people of color have been and continue to be victims of the implicit bias resulting from this hierarchy makes life easier for those on this hierarchy who have power and privilege by allowing them to not have to deal with the discomfort of racial tensions, it does nothing to dismantle the harm experienced by people of color.
Micro and Macro Level Impacts of Colorblindness
Color blindness at the most individual level denies people their identity and their lived experiences. While being White is the norm in The United States, BIPOC individuals’ cultures and identities don’t always blend in with their surroundings. For instance, as a person of Asian descent, I have my own food habits, holidays, and intricate day-to-day cultural practices such as how I raise my child or my personal level of modesty. These differences make me who I am. To say you do not see color states that you do not see me. Hence, to be colorblind ignores my identity. Furthermore, BIPOC individuals cannot shed their skin color and at the snap of their fingers, experience all the opportunities afforded to White individuals. They cannot choose to no longer see race and erase the trauma, discrimination, and violence perpetuated in our society against them. And when conflicts arise due to cultural differences, racial stereotypes, etc., the racial aspect of the conflict gets minimized when we are colorblind, making the person of color more likely to be blamed. Thus, colorblindness ignores the struggles of BIPOC individuals and can cause them real harm.
At a macro level, being colorblind does not allow us to tackle the macro racism in our society. It doesn’t allow us to fix issues such as mass incarceration, environmental racism, housing disparities, or school funding disparities. It ends all discussions over potential policies that can repair society and bring about more equity.
Finally, colorblindness is a lie. Let’s be real. There’s no way that someone (anyone regardless of race) in the United States sees a person who is visibly of color and doesn’t notice right away that they are of color. That’s normal. By denying that fact, the conversation or relationship in itself is not real.
Examples of Colorblindness
So what are statements that fall under this microaggression? Here are a few I have heard:
- I don’t see color. (Yes, you do.)
- Race isn’t important to me. I don’t have any biases. (Sorry, everyone has biases.)
- We’re all humans. We should just treat each other as such. (Totally agree, but we still have to address racism.)
- God made us all in His image, so we shouldn’t focus on race. (Everyone has their religious beliefs, and while I am not sharing or advocating my personal beliefs, I certainly accept the first part of this sentence as a valid religious belief. However, God making us all in His image does not negate our need to talk about race. That’s like saying that God made us all in His image, so let’s not recognize that somebody is poor and feed that person. Racial inequity, like hunger, is a societal ill that we must address.)
- All lives matter. (Yes, they do, but historically, Black lives haven’t mattered in this country, and we need to change that.)