I See Color

“I don’t see color.” I can clearly hear and picture myself saying these words. This memory makes me cringe now, and that’s okay with me. That’s part of growth. And I am so grateful for the opportunity to have learned the impact of that seemingly innocent comment on not only People of Color but on white folks as well. Saying “I don’t see color” is like saying  “I don’t see you.” or “I only see the parts that I want to see”. This is a form of white privilege – the privilege and entitlement of getting to decide what you want to see and what you don’t. This way of not seeing dehumanizes both the person you are trying to connect with as well as yourself.

I wish we lived in a society where race didn’t matter, but it does. Race may be socially constructed but it has a very REAL impact on our contemporary lives.

Now, when I introduce myself, I say, My name is Robin, Schlenger; my pronouns are she and her and I am white. Adding the part about being white has caused some very interesting looks at times. I do this because as a white woman, I was not socialized to see myself as having a race. I was instead socialized to see others as having a race and to see myself as “normal.”  If I don’t name and own my race (and all that comes with it), I believe I am uplifting anti-blackness and white supremacy. When I say I am white, I’m not just talking about the color of my skin – I am talking about the culture of whiteness.  As PCC astutely describes, whiteness is a “socially and politically constructed behavior.  It does not simply refer to skin color but an ideology based on beliefs, values, behaviors, habits, and attitudes, which result in the unequal distribution of power and privilege based on skin color. Whiteness represents a position of power where the power holder defines social categories and reality—the master narrator.” (What is whiteness? | Diversity Councils at PCC)

At our core, all human beings really want is connection.  We are hardwired to be in a relationship with each other, to want relationships with each other.  However, white supremacy has intentionally created an inequitable playing field. This has complicated and distorted our human instinct for connection. In our attempts to connect with people of color, white folks often unintentionally cause harm because we don’t understand the impact that some of our comments, behaviors, and questions have on People of Color. We haven’t had to.

When we cause harm in a misguided attempt to connect, we may find ourselves feeling ashamed, getting defensive or fawning (i.e.“being excessively nice, or pleasing and appeasing in ways we would not be to another white person”) words from my brilliant collaborator and co-facilitator of our Shame Resilience workshop, Dr. Alana Tappin.” Whatever the intention or outcome, these actions block the potential for connection and empathy. 

Spouting the belief that All Lives Matter as a challenge to “Black Lives Matter” is another manifestation of color blindness. Of course all lives matter – and we all want all lives to matter! But the reality of our culture is that we don’t uphold this belief.  We don’t act like black lives matter, indigenous lives matter, or any other lives except for white ones.   This is why it is pertinent to make the statement about black lives mattering. This is why we have to see color.  In our society, color matters. 

Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy says that “All lives matter is code for erasing race”  He says that “we [our society] have a very complicated, pathological relationship with race in that we are all socialized racially, and yet we deny its existence.”  

If I was to remain “color blind” what I would be saying is, I don’t see YOU.  I don’t see your lived experience as a Person of Color. This is a very ahistorical way of looking at the human experience. How can I really see you if I ignore all of the historical and generational trauma that you carry with you and that impacts every part of your life?  How can I really see you if I discount your resilience, joy, courage, and dignity? Dr. Hardy has created a model called the PAST model (Privileged and Subjugated Tasks.) One of the tasks of the privileged  (in this case we are talking about white privilege) is to, “challenge the ahistorical approach: history does matter, the past does affect the present. The privileged cannot understand the subjugated, out of context.” (Dr. Kenneth V. Hardy)

So, how can we truly connect if I don’t see you?  The truth is, we can’t! As a white person, being colorblind actually closes me off from true connection and relationships with People of Color –  and that is a huge loss.  It is not a loss that I am willing to live with.  I want authentic relationships. I want to see you. And I want to see color.

Robin Schlenger

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