“I Don’t See Race”: A Reflection of the Act of Color Blindness

” I don’t see race.” The little phrase that is intended to clear the speaker of all of the ills of the world associated with race. “I don’t see race.” I have heard this phrase from ‘good intentioned white people’ my entire life. And the words are spoken so cavalierly, as if the history of the new world had never happened. “I don’t see race.” Abracadabra, speak the magic words and whiteness never saw those darker ones as different, as lesser, because this one white person chose to used their voice on this day, to simply erase what they are most uncomfortable with. “I don’t see race.”

“If we just stop talking about race, it will cease to matter.” As if silence ever solved a problem. Tell the child whose last decent meal was 2 days ago, to just stop talking about his the ache in his belly, and his tummy will feel full, even if  his lunch has to be an air sandwich because the balance on his account is in the red. ‘Just don’t talk about it,’ and no one will see your skin, its deep rich coffee color that tempts me to drink you in, long, warm, flowing liquid, that echoes the fluidity with which you doge the face slaps, telling you that if you just didn’t talk about race, the pain would simply go away.’

“You know, I don’t see race.” And yet the only person you say that to is the brown woman who comes twice a month to scrub your floors and clean your toilets because, out of the kindness of your heart, you have hired her, despite the fact that you’re sure she’s not ‘really American’, and you really shouldn’t be paying her, but there is no one else. Besides, she always brings the best tamales, a freezer full whenever we ask. And tex-mex is our favorite, right next to the Chinese we order every Friday night, cuz who wants to cook after a full week’s work at the office, where you never notice the brown man polishing the hallway floors that gleam that waxy glow each morning when you sit behind your desk working your ass off. (I too, work in cushy circumstances, yet the color that you don’t see in me, makes my experiences in the classroom quite different than yours, but that is a reflection for another time.)

“The only race that I see is the human race.” That fabulous concept that if we become color blind, then there will suddenly be life long spring and summer,  and we will all be transformed! Everyone will have pale skin, and colorless eyes, and pink will be synonymous with ‘flesh color’ as it was in the days of old, when that box of 68 crayons was everything you wished for, even though you don’t see color. The sent of the wax always reminds me that I, too, am ‘flesh’ colored, but that is because I am lighter than those who are ‘like me’, and sometimes you like me better because of it, which makes it difficult for me to be trusted by those whose humanity is what you actually never see in their race, because the fact that ‘flesh color’ works for me means I might just get a bit more than my darker brothers that you claim to see, but you can’,t because you have sworn, out of the goodness of your heart, to never see race.

“Well, what would be the harm if we just stopped seeing race?”  I am what my people call ‘red-bone.’ I’m a really light-skinned black woman, with natural red hair and freckles. I have an incredibly good education–I studied at Oxford for a year, and have completed the course work for my PhD in English, I speak standard English, have read widely in Art, Literature, Philosophy, Social Sciences, and many other fields.  I have studied ballet and classical music. Once a colleague asked me why someone who had reached the professional status that I occupy ‘insisted upon calling herself black.’

Many people have said things to me like, “Kim, I don’t think of you as black,” and they have meant it as a compliment. And why would they think they were complimenting me?  Because I have exhibited traits that are associated with whiteness, they have decided to treat me as if I am white.  I call this “giving one honorary whiteness.”  And all of those traits above are me.  But they are not all of me.

I love, James Brown, greens, grits and cornbread.  I wear braids, and my hair is frizzy and nappy and hard to control.  My grandfather was a jazz musician who played with Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, and my area of study is African American Literature.  And every inch of me is black, all the time, forever!

“I don’t see race.” By ignoring my blackness, the people who have given me honorary whiteness, don’t see ‘me’ because I am all of those things–the things reserved for whiteness, as well as those regulated to blackness, and by denying my blackness, they deny the richness and layers of meaning and goodness, and character, and knowledge that each black person adds to “what it means to be black.”

Yet ask a white person “what it means to be white,” and you start a quiet panic deep within them. They have spent so very much of their lives trying not to see race, that they have failed to recognize their inability to put their experience into words. After having created a system based in race that works for their own benefit, white people have gone about creating whiteness as if the freedom and equality that they espouse were real for  everyone, because after birthing race out of a nation pregnant with capitalism, they failed to see that their children’s skin was beautiful. And the paleness of their parenthood fooled them; it whispered that if they “just didn’t see race,” all of the evils done in their benefit would go nameless, for how could one be a racist if they can’t see race?  In the words of the immortal Fats Waller, “..my only sin is in my skin. What did I do to be so black and blue?”  

But you can’t be bothered to see race, and the beauty of my skin that comes in every shade of humanness that is possible is far too radiant for your pale eyes. Intentional blindness, one makes one’s self intentionally blind to all the amazing colors that the world offers so that you cannot see. And make no mistake, your ‘color-blindness’ is an action, a decision. It is the action of avoidance, denial.  For if you did see, you’d have to recognize your actions against those who’s race you claim to never have seen. You’d have to own you actions and be liable for what you have done. And nothing scares you more than being made to be responsible for your actions based in the colors of race that you claim to have never seen. That is the color of your nightmares.

Keep on being color blind. I’ll keep the wonder of color for myself.


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Cultural Expressions

Hey, y'all, my name is Kimberly Pollock. I have been professor of Cultural and Ethnic Studies at Bellevue College, and an Equity Consultant, outside of Seattle, WA for the past 25 years. Born on the South Side of Chicago, after having lived in Louisiana, I have settled in the Pacific Northwest, where I teach, think and wax poetic about the state of our world.

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