Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Colorblindness

As the debate goes on about whether it's appropriate to chant "Black lives matter!" or whether that should be changed to say, "All Lives Matter!" I keep hearing people talk about colorblindness.  This is the supposedly ideal state where no one even sees each other's skin color, where all people are recognized to be human beings first and foremost.  Some people point back to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous line from his speech at the March on Washington: 
 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
It's worth noting, I think, that he didn't say that he dreamed of a day when the color of his children's skin wouldn't matter.  He didn't say that he longed for a time when the color of their skin -- and the experiences and history that go with it -- are irrelevant.  He said, simply, that he dreamed of a day when his children wouldn't be judged -- pre-judged -- because of the color of their skin.

It's worth noting, too, that the brown and black skinned people who heard those words knew that he specifically meant that he dreamed of a day when brown and black skinned people would not be negatively judged on their skin color alone.  Then, as now, white people are not judged by the color of their skin.  At least, not negatively.  White skinned people are assumed to be "normal," the norm.  If anything, we (I'm a white person myself) are assumed to be up to good (as opposed to up to no good), safe, hard working, intelligent, upstanding citizens.  

Whether or not we're aware of it, the experiences and histories of folk like us are the standard -- we are what people (consciously or unconsciously) see in their heads when they think of what it means to be "human."  And even if we don't see it -- which most of us don't because, after all, it seems so "normal" to us -- people of color most certainly do.  They're used to the myriad ways that our culture subtly and not so subtly tells them that they are not the same as white people and, so, not quite "human."  One piece of history -- enshrined in this country's Constitution is the declaration that African Americans only count as 3/5ths of a person.  As someone commenting on the racial disparities in our justice system said, "It looks like the founding fathers were right."

Let me riff off of that for a moment -- the founding fathers.  When I was growing up it was still commonplace for male language to be used both to refer to men specifically and to all of humanity -- all mankind -- generally.  There was no need, it was often declared, that there was no need to use more gender specific language because everyone knew that women were included because, after all, we're all just humans.  Well, to be more accurate, men often declared this.  Women, on the other hand, all to viscerally aware of their marginalization in a patriarchal world, recognized that this use of male language as if it were universal had the effect of further marginalization.  

Men didn't see this so readily because, as the dominant group, they were used to thinking about their own experiences as normative.  They experienced descriptions of themselves as being universal because, after all, they experienced themselves as normative, as the standard of what being human is all about.  Women knew from their own experiences that that wasn't true and, so, fought hard to be recognized as full and authentic people in their own right, with their own experiences and histories.  They fought for this politically, economically, and linguistically.  To those who would listen they said, "Words matter."

Do you see the parallels?  The ideal of "color blindness" similarly works to perpetuate the marginalization of people of color. Black and brown skinned people are saying that "all lives matter" actually denies the specific reality of their experience and once again subsumes their voices into the supposed "universal" category of "humankind." They are saying that in this culture it is assumed that white lives matter.  What needs to be reaffirmed is that black lives matter, too.  Yes, all lives matter, there's no question about that.  But what white Americans need to realize is that within African American experiences there have been -- and still are -- continuous implicit and overt demonstrations that their lives don't matter.

I am the father of multi-racial children.  They are growing up with white parents and are, as children, largely experiencing the world as white people do.  As they grow older, though, they will discover that in this culture black young men are treated differently than adorable black children.  I, too, dream for them of a world in which they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but neither do I want to pretend to them that the vast majority of black Americans live the same experiences we do.  Not to be overly dramatic, but their lives might well depend on that.

Pax tecum,


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