I’ve always hated the expression used by well-meaning white people: “I don’t see color”. They think that it means that they are open-minded, and treat everyone the same no matter their skin color. It’s a wonderful sentiment, isn’t it?
It’s also one that is only possible if your skin color doesn’t disadvantage you. For everyone else, they have to deal with the reality of being visibly different than those in power, and being treated differently (ok, worse) as a result.
Back in the late ’80s I had a friend who was black. He was in his early 30s, like me, had a young child, like me, and lived in a house he owned in northern NJ, like me. He was also very light-skinned, and dressed, well, like me. His appearance was the furthest thing from the “gangsta” style. We worked together, played tennis together, and got to know each other very well.
At work we were both on the evening shift. Since we lived near each other, we took the same route for the most part, and one particular evening I saw his car pulled over by a cop. The next day when I saw him, I started to give him shit about getting a speeding ticket, and he told me that he wasn’t speeding and didn’t get a ticket. I asked him why he got pulled over, and he told me that the cop wanted to know what he was doing driving through that part of town.
The look of confusion on my face must have been apparent, and he started to explain the problem of what we now call “driving while black”. This was the first that I had heard of such a thing, and told him that there had to be more to it than that. In those days I still hadn’t learned to listen when someone tells you of an experience that you can’t possibly fathom because you aren’t in that group that experiences discrimination. Fortunately, he was patient with me, explaining that this happens often enough that he knew how to respond in as non-threatening a manner as possible so as not to provoke the police, and that they always let him go.
Over the next few weeks we talked a lot about what it was like for him. Me, in my ignorance, assumed that since he was the least-threatening-looking person around, no one would harass him, but he had story after story about just that. One day we were hanging out at his house, and his wife asked him to run to a local department store to pick up something. When we got there, he told me to not stay with him, but stay close enough to watch the store security follow him. Once again, I thought he was exaggerating things, but I played along. He went to one side of department, and I went to a nearby aisle. I saw several people who I assumed were security, and they did seem to be looking at him and ignoring me. He then walked to the opposite side of the area, and sure enough, two of the security people moved with him to keep him in their sight. I walked around several areas, including crossing directly in front of them, and never got a second glance from them. But as my friend moved around, they followed.
From that day on, I always try to see color. Pretending that it doesn’t permeate our experience is only possible when you’re white and ignorant. The luxury to ignore race is what people mean when they speak of “privilege”.
Maybe some of you are feeling a bit defensive, thinking “I’m not racist!”, and I’m sure you aren’t, at least consciously. I wrote about unconscious bias before, and it is really important to be aware that it exists, no matter how kind and loving you try to be.
Don’t be blind to our differences! Instead, recognize them, celebrate them, and embrace them! And if you, like me, are lucky enough to have been born into privilege, don’t feel bad – it’s only a bad thing if you don’t use it to help those who weren’t as fortunate. We can’t overcome the racists of the world by turning a blind eye to these problems.