The New Self-Help

‘I Don’t See Color’ Is an Act of Racial Gaslighting

There’s a reason only white children are taught to be ‘color-blind’

This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

As a child, I could never understand why white parents would shush their children whenever they used the word Black to describe a Black person. “Don’t say that! It’s rude!” they would say in hushed tones, embarrassed that their child had said something that was apparently offensive.

But what made it offensive? I was Black. This was an observation of difference, not a derogatory judgment. How were they supposed to refer to me?

Color blindness as an act of erasure

Young children understand that the idea of “we don’t see color” does not make sense. They will not necessarily use the socially constructed terms of race that we as adults use, such as Black or white, but when asked to describe what color they are and what color their friends are, they use words such as brown and peach that match up with the colors in their Crayola crayon boxes.

So why do we teach children not to see color? More specifically, why is it most often white children and children with white privilege who are taught this idea of color blindness?

When I have asked these questions of white people by pointing out that they do see color, they have often answered back, “I don’t mean that I don’t literally see color. What I mean is that I treat all people the same, regardless of their color. I mean that I believe that all people should be treated the same, no matter what color they are.” They sometimes go on to add something like, “Talking about different races is so divisive — it creates racism! If we would just stop talking about whites and Blacks and focus on the contents of people’s hearts, we wouldn’t see any more racism.”

And herein lie the falsehoods of racial color blindness.

Color blindness causes harm at multiple levels. For one thing, it is an act of minimization and erasure. When you say “I don’t see color” to a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color), you are saying, “Who you are does not matter, and I do not see you for who you are. I am choosing to minimize and erase the impact of your skin color, your hair pattern, your accent or other languages, your cultural practices, and your spiritual traditions as a BIPOC existing within white supremacy.”

Color blindness is also an act of gaslighting. It is a cruel way of making BIPOC believe that they are just imagining the way they’re treated is because of their skin color, thus keeping them in a position of destabilization and inferiority. When stopped by airport security for a random check, BIPOC ask themselves, is it really random, or is it because of my skin color? When mistreated by a white boss, BIPOC ask themselves, is it really because of my behavior, or is it because of my skin color? When paid less for a speaking event than their white counterparts, BIPOC ask themselves, is it really because I am less experienced, or is it because of my skin color?

Lastly, color blindness is a way to avoid not only looking at other people’s races but at your own. So often, white people see themselves as “raceless” or “normal.” They fail to investigate how the idea of color blindness protects them from having to reflect on what it means to be white in a white supremacist society. When you refuse to look at color, you refuse to look at yourself as a person with white privilege.

The promise of the Church of Color Blindness is that if we stop seeing race, then racism goes away. Unfortunately, that is not how white supremacy works. The problem does not go away because you refuse to see it. This kind of thinking is naive at best and dangerous at worst.

The new racism

In his book Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in Contemporary America, the Puerto Rican author, political sociologist, and sociology professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes about the phenomenon of color-blind racism, or what he calls “the new racism.” In the opening chapter of his book, he writes:

Nowadays, except for members of white supremacist organizations, few whites in the United States claim to be racist. Most whites assert they “don’t see any color, just people”; that although the ugly face of discrimination is still with us, it is no longer the central factor determining minorities’ life chances; and, finally, that like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., they aspire to live in a society where “people are judged by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin.”

But notice how color blindness shifts the burden of addressing the consequences of racism onto BIPOC by asking them to stop talking about racism and just work harder and be more like white people. Color blindness is a particularly insidious way for people with white privilege to pretend that their privilege is fictitious — and an easy way out of any accountability for playing a role in upholding white supremacy.

The following are useful questions for interrogating your own relationship to color blindness:

1. What messages were you taught about color blindness and seeing color growing up?
2. How do you feel when BIPOC talk about race and racism?
3. How have you harmed BIPOC in your life by insisting you do not
see color?
4. What is the first instinctual feeling that comes up when you hear the words white people or when you have to say Black people?

Finally, ask yourself: What mental gymnastics have you done to avoid seeing your own race? To avoid seeing what those of white privilege have collectively done to BIPOC? The philosophy of color blindness sounds like an admirable outlook to have, but in practice, it ends up becoming an easy way out of facing the reality of racism.

Excerpted from Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor by Layla F. Saad. © 2020 by Layla F. Saad. Used with permission of the publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc. All rights reserved.

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