I used to think that was a bad thing to say. I’m not sure why – where the idea of not seeing the colour of someone’s skin became a bad thing. Somehow or other it became tied up with the idea of being racist or bigoted and if we wanted to be known as not being either of those two things we had to say “I don’t see colour.”
I’ve never liked that phrase, either, even though I’m sure I’ve said it.
But I didn’t believe it. I knew I saw colour. My eyes see what my eyes see. The same as I see the colour and style of someone’s hair, what type of clothes they are wearing, their jewellery – any number of physical characteristics about a person when I see them.
So it always seemed disingenuous to say it, or to hear it, even though it was what you were supposed to say.
I didn’t like it, then, because it just wasn’t true. Of course I saw the colour of someone’s skin. How ridiculous to say I didn’t.
Really, it’s insulting to all of us. I know I see it. You know I see it. You know I know I see it. But I’m afraid to admit that I see it because that will make me a bad person somehow. Because that’s what I’ve learned:
“If we could all just learn to not see colour, everything would be great.”
As you’ve probably noticed in your own journey, “I don’t see colour” has been a popular topic the past couple of months. I have learned that while it’s almost universally acknowledged that its origins may well have been well-intentioned, there is damage and hurt that occurs when we use it.
My first reaction was relief – I wasn’t a horrible person for not feeling right about saying it.
I then read more about it – to really understand why and how it was hurtful.
I’m so glad I did. As you can imagine, it’s not just about outright lying or denying diversity.
There are loads of negative things that simple, well-meant phrase can bring with it. Here are a just a few of things that I’ve learned that it can do:
- disrupt conversations about racism
- inadvertently support systemic racism
- deny the experiences of those who have experienced the (overt and not-so-overt) impacts of racism, hatred and bigotry
- make someone feel like you don’t see them
Perhaps the two biggest take-aways for me are first, the idea that if we deny that we even see colour – race – then we (even if unintentionally) deny that racism exists, and then second, that me saying that phrase could make someone seem like I don’t see them. How hurtful! Have you ever felt unseen? It’s an awful feeling. I would never want to make someone feel that way. Even if my intent in saying it is good, if it causes hurt, I need to re-evaluate.
I was going to list a bunch of resources for you to check out, but there really are too many. Just Google “I don’t see colour” (or “color” for our geographic neighbours to the south… 🙂 ) and you will have a plethora of experiences to read from. I promise you will find them valuable and eye-opening.
Also in my readings, I came across the research of Dr. Osagie K. Obasogie on the concept of race and colour blindness that is worth checking out. He talks about it in his book, Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind.
Or, for a shorter read, the Oxford University Press has a great interview with Dr. Obasogie and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. that is super interesting.
Don’t let the “Eyes of the Blind” bit of the title fool you. There is value in it for all of us to reflect on. I highly recommend checking it out. Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:
This research certainly gave me a new appreciation of the extent to which understanding and “seeing” race has very little to do with vision. That is the gist of the book, i.e. the social and institutional practices that we’re constantly engaged in shape the way we look at people and the way that we live our lives—even for people who are blind.Dr. Osagie K. Obasogie
So, even if we all did somehow stop “seeing” race, there is obviously so much more going on in racism than rods, cones and optic nerves.
Another reason, to me, to take the time to pay a little more attention.
Know better, do better.
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