The destructive myth of color blindness

I remember the first time someone told me the term "colored people" was offensive. I was 20 years old. Having grown up in a conservative, mostly white community in a small town, I just never knew.

The conversation

She was my roommate at the time, and patient enough to help me break down 20 years of sheltered ignorance. She explained all the terms that were offensive and why (some I knew; most I didn't).

Once, when I complained about how much I hated my big butt, she also told me that was some weird white people shit and you'd never hear a black girl complain about that, but that's a different story.

The reason I hadn't known about "colored people" being offensive was because of a DC Talk song I had grown up listening to with the same title. When she and I had that conversation, it was the first time I realized that I might have said or done racist things without even realizing it.

You're probably thinking, Seriously, it took you 20 years to figure that out?

There's no such thing as color blindness

I wasn't willfully ignorant; I just had no life experience. I grew up believing in the destructive myth of color blindness, thinking that if someone asked about another person's race, the right thing to say was, "I don't see people that way". That we shouldn't see someone's color when we look at them; we should see the person underneath instead.

It might be a nice thought, but it's a load of crap too.

Of course we notice people's race when we see them, just as we notice their accent when we hear them. We tend not to take much notice of people who look or sound like us, but we definitely notice those who don't. Having lived in foreign countries for the better part of five years, I can tell you that even when I meet an American over here, it takes a while for me to notice. The accent is so familiar that it doesn't stand out even when it's out of place, whereas I would notice right away if I met a Scot or a South African.

The thing about color blindness is, it's not only impossible -- it's incredibly destructive. It's destructive because when another black person is killed by a white police officer, there are thousands of white people who start shouting that it has nothing to do with race. They're so convinced that we're beyond race as a society, and that the color of a person's skin isn't even something we notice anymore since we're all so color blind. When this happens, the real issues get pushed aside.

We should all be saying #BlackLivesMatter

Let me be the millionth person on the internet in the last 72 hours to remind you that saying #BlackLivesMatter is not saying that other lives don't. It is not a phrase intended to incite violence or hatred. It is not a movement that was created to bring about division, but rather attention. 

White people believing the false merits of color blindness are also the ones who pipe up in the comments section of a #BlackLivesMatter post to wail that no, actually, #AllLivesMatter. The thing is, saying #AllLivesMatter is really just a convenient, politically correct way of saying #WhiteLivesMatter -- an ideology that is clearly not being challenged in any way, and thus does not need protecting.

There are dozens of great analogies for why saying #BlackLivesMatter is not the same as saying other lives don't, but here's one I've been thinking about lately. It bothers me that so many Christians I speak to are unwilling to back up the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In the Bible, in Luke 15, Jesus says, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home."

Nobody reads that story and says, "But what about all those other sheep? Their lives matter too! You put all of them in danger by trying to help the one that wandered off!"

In life, it makes complete sense to focus our attention on what's broken, lost, injured, needy, or vulnerable. So why does #BlackLivesMatter get white people so riled up?

Because they still believe in this destructive myth of color blindness. They still believe that race doesn't play a part in these violent acts because we should all somehow be beyond it. But we're not.

We will never move beyond race, just like we will never move beyond culture, beyond religious history, beyond language, beyond nationality. Nor should we.

Afraid, hopeless, shocked, exhausted

When Alton Sterling was shot this week, I watched that video and felt sick immediately. When I posted my heartache and outrage on Facebook, two white men took the time to tell me how wrong I was, how he had a criminal record so that somehow made it okay to remove him from the earth, how it was possible his own gun had gone off in his pocket six times and hit him in the chest (yes, really).

The next day, Philando Castile was murdered in Falcon Heights, five minutes away from the apartment I lived in for two years. I watched that video too, and wanted to hurl my phone across the room. Somehow, hearing Diamond Reynold's calmness in the aftermath made me even more angry. She sounded so tired, so resigned to what had just happened.

Before anyone says it, no, I don't know all the facts. I've been reminded of that hourly for the past three days. But here's a fact I do know: two men were killed by police in the street. Because of fear, because of distrust, because of profiling, because of misunderstandings, and yes, because of race.

Because there is no such thing as color blindness and the idea that there ever could be is destroying us all, preventing us from progress.

We can believe that police are generally good people and still believe that they need better training to handle situations without discharging their weapons (according to Discover Policing, the median length of police academy training is a mere 18 weeks). We can believe that becoming a cop is an honorable thing to do and still not act as if they can do no wrong. We can believe that all American citizens deserve equal treatment under the law and still not attack innocent police officers, like those who were murdered in Dallas.

We can see color and not treat people differently because of it.

While this fight should always have been personal for me, these days it has become even more so because it now affects my family. I don't want my niece and nephew to be treated differently because of the color of their skin. When they visit the US one day, I don't want to have to tell them they should act any different or be anyone but who they are. The fact that parents all over America have to have these discussions with their children should disturb us and move us to action.

If you believe in freedom and genuinely want Americans to have it, then you must fight for it for everyone, or it's not truly freedom at all.

In a now infamous speech given at the Black Entertainment Television Awards, Jesse Williams stood up and told us, "Freedom is somehow always conditional here.... Freedom is always coming in the hereafter, but you know what, though, the hereafter is a hustle. We want it now."

Now seems like a good time to me too.


Photo credit: Flickr / Fibonacci Blue / 2014