I remember sitting in my elementary school hearing about the United States imagined as a great melting pot. As the metaphor went, each of our unique cultural traits were thrown into the cauldron of assimilation to create some sort of peaceable, monochrome slurry. In this vision, colorblindness was the ideal. It was a simpler time.
Well, for some people. I don’t remember melting pots and colorblindness being buzzwords in Black circles. Among my parents’ Afrocentric friends – who were “woke” before hashtags existed and wore dashikis before Wakanda had entered the public lexicon – the goal was to see and celebrate Blackness.
I think they knew that the myth of colorblindness, like the reality of racism, threatened to occlude our Blackness, our collective struggles and gains, and our individual uniqueness. To my parents’ friends, to be colorblind was to be in denial.
Colorblindness is an idea associated with good intentions, and ideas are hard to abandon when we tie our identities to them.
Every once in a while, I still hear a well-meaning white person say, “I don’t see color.” While the statement seems cringey now, I can understand the desire to cling to this old-school vision of world peace. It was the vision many of us were sold in the 1980s and 1990s in schools, houses of worship, and places of business. Colorblindness and tolerance are what we were taught in my majority white schools in the South. Each January, we’d hear that one part of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” where he envisions a world in which his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (You might recognize this line from anti-Critical Race Theory memes that cherry pick this sentence out of the speech while blissfully ignoring the parts that specifically mention police brutality and racist, unjust systems. But I digress.)
Colorblindness is an idea associated with good intentions, and ideas are hard to abandon when we tie our identities to them. Somehow, we’re able to accept that fax machines are old-timey and that there are more effective ways to send information. But when it comes to ideas, it can be harder to let go. My sense of self is not tied to the fax machine our family had as a child. But for many of us who learned that colorblindness was the way to overcome racism, the ideas of colorblindness and tolerance may be harder to part with since they may be intertwined with our idea of who we are.
Colorblindness is hard to shake not just because it was so ingrained, but also because it was so simple. Like “tolerance”, “colorblindness” asked very little of us; essentially, we just had to not be overtly racist. Even if this meant we blinded ourselves not just to race but also the discrimination that accompanied it, that was okay; at least we were not racist. And if we couldn’t see color, we couldn’t discriminate against someone because of their color. Right?
That works in theory. In practice, we recognize the difference between Black and white. We hear a voice accented with a Southern drawl, a Scottish brogue, and a Jamaican patois. We see the names Chad and DeAndre and Priya and Tameika. We notice coily hair and straight hair, brown eyes and blue ones.
And we make judgements based on them. To deny this is to deny reality. Of course, we are not blind to race – it has so infiltrated our society that you don’t even have to see a person’s skin to know it’s there. In fact, a researcher found that people blind since birth perceive race and that race instructs their lives much as it does for sighted people.
This is because race isn’t just about color and physical features, but also the traits our society has assigned to these features. And because race is a social construct and not a physical fact, racism is a complicated knot to unravel.
This became clearer to me when I tried to explain race to my very logical son when he was younger. Then, he needed certain social norms explained to him that many of us absorb automatically. Race was one of these.
We have pretended to be colorblind while finding ourselves in neighborhoods, churches, schools, and socioeconomic strata based on our race. Because the truth is, we were never colorblind.
Though I knew race was a construct, the absurdities of its boundaries were never so apparent as when I tried to explain why a light-skinned Black person was Black and a dark-skinned white person was white even though their skin was exactly the same shade. Or why an Indian person with deep brown skin was Asian and a Black person with deep brown skin was Black. Or how a person could be white or Black or indigenous or some combination of all of the above even though their “race” was Hispanic. What made even less sense to my son was erecting a whole system of discrimination upon this shaky reasoning.
For centuries, we in the United States have rested economic, political, and social systems on this shaky foundation. And we have pretended to be colorblind while finding ourselves in neighborhoods, churches, schools, and socioeconomic strata based on our race. Because the truth is, we were never colorblind.
It has been many years since I’ve heard the United States described as a melting pot. Maybe we’ve gotten wiser to the fact that We the People are more stew than melting pot, sometimes simmering and sometimes bringing ourselves to a rollicking boil.
Still, I hear that old nostalgia for colorblindness – that stubborn commitment to the idea that things would be so much better if only Black people and people of color would be colorblind and just stop talking about race.
But we as a country don’t have the luxury of being colorblind. We have to keep our eyes open and our senses alert. If we don’t, who will?