On Color-blindness

And the myth of not seeing race

Clay Rivers
May 2 · 6 min read

For a select few, it’s hard to believe that issues of race, discrimination, and privilege still need to be addressed in 2019. But all they need do is have an in-depth conversation with a Black person or Person of Color about their direct experience in these matters to realize that racism is alive and well. With today’s polarized political climate and the rising numbers of hate crimes, it’s more important than ever that these conversations take place in order to facilitate understanding, awareness, and motivation to eliminate racism.

“I don’t see color.”

This phrase has never sat well with me. I understand its intended meaning: a Person of Color’s race, ethnicity, and/or culture does not negatively impact my perception of them.

That’s a noble concept in theory, but it requires an enormous precondition: that all people are treated equally. We all know that’s not the world in which we live. When someone makes a confession of color-blindness to me, as a black person, the admission can be interpreted as a self-affirming pat on the speaker’s back at best, and a benign put-down at worst. To most People of Color, the words “I don’t think of you as [insert color or ethnicity here]” implies that the Person of Color is safe or nonthreatening, unlike other people of said group, and thus making that particular Person of Color acceptable.

Instead of whitewashing a Person of Color’s ethnicity, it’s good to have a palpable respect, a healthy curiosity about, and a bold appreciation for people’s “color.” (I use the term “color” in the broadest sense possible so as to include ethnicity, nationality, heritage, culture, etc.) Embracing cultural differences amps up living in black and white to experiencing life in vivid technicolor; much like the difference between watching shows on black and white TV sets of the 1950s versus today’s smart TVs, mobile devices, and tablets which are capable of rendering millions of colors for your viewing pleasure.

I have several white friends to whom I’ve had to explain this concept. One white friend said to me, “I don’t see you as black, I just see you as you.” Now having had a relationship with this person for more than thirty years, I knew there was not one ounce of ill-will in their comment, but still the statement stung. After I lowered my hackles, I explained that to ignore my “blackness,” — all the life lessons I’ve learned from my parents, family, and friends, the intangibles they’ve taught me about myself and how to navigate the world, the courteous good nature that seems effortless as well as the composure in moments that warrant panic, were forged in the blackness of my family — instead of recognizing and embracing it, is seen as an attempt to negate the influence of my race’s heritage/culture in shaping the person standing before them.

We all see color. To pretend otherwise is disingenuous and disrespectful. Recognizing someone’s “color” involves discarding the shorthand of stereotypes for a more expansive lexicon that comes only with in-depth, firsthand experience. The issue is do we allow our individual bias to dictate whether we treat people fairly and with respect or do we simply paint them with a generalized brush?

Bombs Away

There are two sentences that invariably bring the potential for deep and meaningful conversations about race between people of different races to a grinding halt —

“I’ll never understand what it’s like to be black.”

“You’ll never understand what it’s like to be black.”

Both sentences imply that since it’s impossible to fully understand what it’s like to be a Person of Color, it’s therefore impossible on any level to understand, acknowledge, or even empathize with the challenges People of Color face, so why try? This all or nothing rationale does not hold water.

When we go to the movies, we can’t fully understand what it’s like to befriend a talking scarecrow, a man made of tin, and a cowardly lion; but we can relate to Dorothy Gale’s adventures because making friends is a common human experience. When we attend a Super Bowl game, we can’t fully understand what it’s like to be the quarterback of either team competing against their opponent in such a high stakes game; but we can relate to the either quarterback’s emotional highs and lows during the game because competing to win against an adversary for a prize is a common human experience. When men hear of a woman being raped, we can’t fully understand the physical, emotional, or psychological trauma a woman experiences in such a heinous violation; but we can relate to being on the losing end of a physical altercation.

When a person of color tosses out the “you don’t understand what it’s like” bomb, it’s usually in response to a white person asserting that they know better how to interpret the person of color’s reality. There’s a word for that: whitesplaining, and it occurs when a white person (or people of a different color) attempts to —

  1. Explain to a person of color why and how they should feel about their own experiences.
  2. Make the discussion about themselves and not the person of color who has suffered social injustice on a daily basis.

It’s similar to me telling a neurosurgeon about the rigors of performing brain surgery and the trials I face as a neurosurgeon based on my experience watching medical dramas on TV. Observing an experience never supersedes living that same experience.

Diffusing the Bombs

So how does one diffuse a “you don’t understand what it’s like” bomb? This is much easier than you might think. Everyone, everywhere on planet Earth basically wants two things: to be heard (understanding) and to know that they matter (validation). The best response “I” know is —

“You’re right. I don’t understand what it’s like to be you. But I do understand what it’s like to be human; to feel discounted, mistreated, or misunderstood. Tell me about your experience.”

Of course, you don’t have to use those exact words. Use words that reflect who you are and that are appropriate for the situation. What needs to be conveyed is a recognition of your limited understanding and a willingness to establish similar reference points to broaden that understanding. You see, the point of a discussion on race between people of two different races is not about seeing oneself in someone else’s shoes. The goal is so much bigger than that and simpler to achieve. It’s about first finding common ground, listening, and inquiring in an attempt to better understand the other person’s experience.

Let me take this one step further. Another white friend of mine (who didn’t understand that one purpose of Black Lives Matter’s tenets is to confront racial profiling and negative bias) told me a story in which he was pulled over for going maybe five to ten miles over the speed limit. His encounter with the white police officer went fine until the officer examined my friend’s driver’s license and made mention of his last name, Torres (name has been changed for privacy). From there the routine traffic stop went south quickly. The officer’s tone became combative, my friend was asked to get out of his car, and was subjected to a level of scrutiny that exceeded anything he had ever experienced.

The privileges normally afforded by his military credentials and profession as a rocket scientist became null and void. I explained to my friend that he had been racially profiled. He noted the officer’s overt bias against Latinos/Hispanics. I asked that he try to imagine what it’s like for Black Americans who have no appearance to shield them from officers who have a negative bias against Black Americans. My friend experienced an a-ha moment in understanding the need for and purpose behind Black Lives Matter.

The Take-Away

In discussions about race in America, full and complete understanding of the other person’s experience is not a prerequisite to engaging in meaning conversations, but a willingness to recognize the humanity in one another and the ability to listen with an open mind are mandatory.

This essay was originally posted at Crossin(G)enres.


Love one another.

Our Human Family

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Clay Rivers

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Author, art director, actor, and optimist. I write about equality, faith, and racism. Let’s chat over espresso. Books at: https://books2read.com/b/walkingtall

Our Human Family

Conversations on achieving equality