The Perils of Colorblindness

by luciditewriting

I’m interested in the use of metaphors regarding various degrees of vision to explore social phenomena. One such metaphor that has intrigued me for some time is the notion of “colorblindness” when it comes to race. Of course, on a philosophical level, I agree with the basic premise that we should all be given the same respect and opportunities regardless of skin color. However, by glossing over race, we ignore some of the most powerful and beautiful parts of who we are (best case scenario) or create an even more racially intolerant society (worst case scenario).

In NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman argue that by adopting a colorblind mentality and refusing to specifically address race, parents confuse children who, in turn, develop their own concepts about race in the vacuum of their own minds (or by discussing their theories with equally confused peers). By insisting on colorblindness, parents implicitly communicate that race is a taboo subject and kids turn elsewhere to try to understand race, especially when embarking on their own processes of self-identification. They latch onto any shred of an explanation for race that they receive at school or from other kids, thus forming essentialist and potentially dangerous ideas about race while their parents continue to blissfully exist in their version of a colorblind world.

When discussing this example with my husband the other night, he said “Luckily, in America, we have a really easy way to discuss race and origin.” He posits that the history of the U.S. itself is a useful paradigm for discussing race with young children. “We all come from somewhere, except the Native Americans, who historically subscribed to the philosophy that land was not to be owned, but to be used and respected,” he continued. “So, we explain that most of us (our ancestors) came from elsewhere, and that the land we have must be respected, but that none of us has more rights to it or to anything else than others.”

“Okay,” I countered (devil’s advocate is one of my best roles), “But then how do you avoid the proliferation of Michele Bachmann-esque historical erasure, like the lie that we all came here on equal footing and that America is the land of opportunity for all?”

“You continue to educate your children about the realities of history and race relations in the U.S.,” he answered, “while always reminding them of the ideal, that…”

“We should respect and value difference and the land we all share today,” I finished his sentence.

“Exactly.”

In its worst incarnation (which, in my opinion, is inevitable), colorblindness is actually a form of whitewashing and neutralization of cultural and historical specificity— always defaulting, of course, to middle-class White American values. If color doesn’t exist, then why can’t that Somali family down the street speak English to me? If color doesn’t exist, then why does my Black friend insist that she still experiences discrimination? If left unchecked, this process of questioning devolves into a state of complete denial, apathy and eventually amnesia. These are the people who nod in agreement when Michele Bachmann trots out her delusional history lessons about how our founding fathers fought to end slavery. These are the people who refuse to see the connection between the revisionist history of the far right and the unjustly harsh punishment of a Black mother trying to do right by her children (after all, it couldn’t be about racism, because racism doesn’t exist, right?).

On a cultural level, by ignoring race, we deprive ourselves and our children of the chance to develop a deep understanding of diversity. Selfishly, I can’t imagine a more boring, horrible existence than one in which I would consciously choose to overlook racial, culture and historical specificity and encourage my children to do the same. The key to teaching diversity is avoiding essentialism, keeping the focus on the the individual while situating him or her in various cultural and historical contexts (because we all belong to many). What a breathtaking view it is when one can truly see the individual parts, the whole(s), and the interactions in between. This is what I hope for my children.

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