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.