Why White People Keep Calling Themselves “Colorblind”

Yesterday I was flipping through Facebook when my four-year-old daughter asked me what I was looking at.

“My friend at Disneyland, meeting Aladdin and Princess Jasmine,” I told her.

Peering over my shoulder, she asked, “Which one is your friend? The one in the Minnie Mouse shirt who is smiling? She looks nice.”

I nodded yes while realizing my kid had just distinguished the only black person in the picture by the clothes she was wearing and the expression on her face. Not by color, which to many would seem the most obvious identifying factor.

I don’t think she was being politically correct, since she’s too young to have developed much tact. Just the other day, for example, she asked grandma why her upper arms are so big and squishy.

It’s not that my daughter can’t see the woman’s color (she’s not literally blind), she just didn’t think it was her most relevant characteristic. And I think this is what most white people are getting at when they call themselves “colorblind.”

We aren’t blind either, but we’re taught from an early age that talking about someone’s race is rude. Even mentioning it for practical reasons makes us uncomfortable. For instance, say a white person was trying to explain to their friend who “Sam” is and Sam happens to be the only black guy sitting with a bunch of people all wearing the same outfit… I can almost guarantee that the white person would struggle to figure out ANY other identifying factor besides race. It would feel like pointing out Sam’s race is racist, in and of itself, even when there’s an obvious reason for doing so.

It’s a little surreal, to be honest, but we’re raised to believe that acknowledging anyone’s race is wrong. Maybe that’s because racial theories were used to oppress people for centuries. People believed they could make sweeping generalizations about someone’s intelligence, skills, and moral character based on color alone.

Then MLK influenced hearts and minds by saying we should judge people by their actions instead of the color of their skin and it made sense to us. Let’s stop dividing people by race, we thought, let’s just forget about color entirely

And here we are, except now it’s considered wrong not to acknowledge someone’s race because that would ignore the rich culture and history shaping their experience.

Some of us haven’t caught up yet. We’re learning not to call ourselves colorblind, though it goes against everything we were probably taught.

I may be way off base here, but I’m finding these evolving rules problematic. Here’s why: how do you acknowledge someone’s race in a way that’s constructive?

What I mean to ask is, what relevant information do I learn about someone by observing their race? How do we make race-based  assumptions that aren’t stereotypes by definition?

Even positive stereotypes, like the idea that Asians have excellent math skills, are considered rude because they jump to assumptions about people instead of treating them as individuals. What should someone’s “blackness” tell me? Maybe they like sports, or maybe they’re into computer programming. Maybe they grew up in a single-parent family in  a depressed urban city, or maybe they grew up in an upper-middle class family before receiving an Ivy league education.

How could we know, based on race alone?

How do we acknowledge race (or at least our impressions of the construct) without further dividing ourselves by factors we can’t control?

I don’t know the answers, but I do want to ask questions.




3 thoughts on “Why White People Keep Calling Themselves “Colorblind”

  1. Great post. However, I think that is the first thing children notice. The difference in skin color. We should allow them too. We shouldn’t teach them that it is wrong to notice that someone is different physically from you. It allows you to see and appreciate it. When my mom’s best friend took a job in another state and put her child in private school he was the only black child. The kids referred to him as the brown boy. I didn’t think they were being rude. They noticed the color of his complexion as different. Instead of teaching the children that they shouldn’t say that, encourage diversity conversations and say yes, we have a new student and his name is Z and his skin color is different than ours, but what do you think of when you think of his complexion? ex. chocolates. I think this will start to break down some of the I don’t see color. It’s difficult when we raise children because you never know what to say to engage in questions we’re not ready to answer. I know that I struggled with this when my son was in first grade and learning about black history and the civil rights movement. He asked “Mommy, why do white people hate us?” I said “Munch, they don’t. There were people who didn’t like us for the color of our skin, but that is not all people.” It’s hard, but we have to start teaching early.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you–I think I’ve been considering these issues a lot lately because I’m a parent now, so I know my approach will affect my daughter’s worldview.

      Whether or not it’s the first thing kids notice (or male or female, or adult or child, or what have you), they definitely DO notice. Of course they do. The strange thing is how many of us were brought up to never mention color at all, to think it’s rude.

      Even if we didn’t directly hear that, we picked up on the discomfort and the suddenly quiet adults around us. Maybe it was the collective shame over history, or the sense that we’re not supposed to care about color at all, or even the intense emotions behind these issues seemed scary.

      But I think you’re right. It’s better to discuss these things with our children, because otherwise they could get the feeling that color is somehow shameful (because adults get uncomfortable when it’s brought up). If we don’t talk to them, they’ll pick up cues from everyone else… we don’t want kids thinking different is foreign and threatening.

      I like the associations approach. It’s funny, I already had a much milder conversation like you mentioned with my daughter when she was sad one day since she didn’t feel pretty because her hair wasn’t “yellow like Rapunzel’s.”

      Of course, I told her brown hair is beautiful, like yellow and red and black. Don’t Belle and Esmerelda have dark hair? Like chocolate and deer, rich and shiny? She agreed and seemed to feel better.

      So yes, they pick up on these things and wonder what they mean. I’ll try to be prepared when these conversations come up again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are absolutely right. You don’t want them to feel shameful. Our children can’t change the past. All they can do is learn from it and vow to never repeat it. They should be allowed to ask the difficult questions and know that it’s okay and acceptable. Adults of all races should be able to talk to children. My son’s best friend has a brother who has down syndrome and he noticed that his eyes and face looked different and I had to explain that to him. He was cool with it. I know this parenting thing is hard because we can’t always find the right words to explain things, but there is no wrong way when you’re doing it out of love.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s