Color-Blind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below are the reflections I shared with First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco for MLK Sunday service, 2015.  As worship associate, it was my task to speak (about race) from personal experience, not to preach about systemic injustices perpetuated against others.  So that's what I did. (Image from empathyeducates.org.)

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When I was a teenager, I was much smarter than I am now, judging by how much I thought I knew. All the social problems that grownups seemed unable to remedy... I thought I knew the solutions. One of those seemingly intractable problems was racism. Racism, or so I thought, was treating people badly based on inherited differences in physical traits, the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, the shape of their eyes... So the solution seemed obvious to me. Encourage people to be color-blind, to not see race. Eventually, we'd all interbreed, race would disappear, and so would racism. Problem solved.

I should mention that I grew up here in San Francisco. And while I had a few experiences of being verbally and even physically harassed over race, in general, I grew up relatively sheltered, which is what my parents had worked hard for. As I moved into academia in young adulthood, that degree of shelter only increased. In grad school at Caltech where half of the graduate students were foreign born and people tended to be pretty liberal, it was so rare to experience overt bigotry that on the few occasions that it happened I could brush it off as personal ignorance, which it is. My friends (who were mainly white) treated me just like them, which is what I wanted. Or so I thought.

But every now and then, something would happen that would disturb the cocoon around me. I remember when Michael Chang came on the scene as a professional tennis player. I was so excited, until one of my classmates chided me for celebrating Chang's success because of his race. After all, if we're colorblind, I'm not supposed to have noticed that as I was growing up there had been no one who looked like me succeeding in sports. There was the time I tried to explain to my boyfriend how my parents would argue with friends over who would “get to pay” the restaurant bill, except the argument was scripted and they would take turns “losing.” He incredulously accused my parents of being dishonest because they didn't mean what they actually said. I knew he was being unfair but couldn't explain why. After all, if we're color-blind, then everyone should conform to the same cultural norms, “our norms”, and white American culture values direct communication. And I remember the night a distressed friend confided in me about the argument he'd just had with his girlfriend. He'd been detained by police who were looking for a robbery suspect, the only feature they shared being they were both young Black men. His girlfriend thought he was making a big deal over nothing, and my friend, who'd immersed himself in white liberal circles just as I had, needed to know that someone else saw things his way. I did, but again couldn't explain why. And neither could he.  So we sat confused together. After all, if we're “color-blind,” then the only racism we can recognize is overt racial bigotry. We can't point to social patterns based on race since we're not supposed to be looking for them.  (And if you do point to them, you get accused of being racist.)

Yet even if we're not looking for patterns, our minds notice them anyway, IF we directly experience them.

In my sheltered world, the incidents of overt racial bigotry were few and far between, but I (and folks like me) were continually hurt nonetheless, not by bigots but by our friends. People who espouse liberal values and sincerely try to treat all people the same. I finally had to admit that the color-blind approach, frankly, sucks. Instead of solving racism, it perpetuates it, because it takes away the ability recognize diversity, and privilege.

The theme for this month is reconciliation, and in honor of Dr. King, the focus this week is on racial reconciliation. Usually, when we speak of reconciliation, we think of a positive outcome. But as I thought and thought about what I might share with y'all today, I could think of no happy ending with respect to race. Of course there has been progress, and I believe as Rev. King did that our universe ultimately bends towards justice. But with prisons and morgues full of black and brown bodies put there by our “justice” system, the only racial reconciliation that I can genuinely speak to is internal, between me and race itself. I once was blind but now I see.

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