I was born in a large Northeastern (racially diverse) city in the late 1950s and moved to a smaller (predominantly white) one when I was 10. My father was a real-life Archie Bunker, whose casual comments about other ethnicities and nationalities were, like those of his TV counterpart, easy to laugh off. He wasn’t hateful, just ignorant. Heck, he had a Black Friend … who, in one of life’s little ironies, was named Archie.
I didn’t get my views on race from him. I got them from my mother, who bent over backwards in the other direction. She taught me that it’s “not nice” to comment on, acknowledge or even notice the color of other people’s skin. In other words, colorblind is the nice way to be.
Friends, my Aspie brain took that and ran with it. I wasn’t just colorblind; I was everything-blind. If it was on the list of characteristics society was “not supposed to” discriminate on the basis of (despite the fact that society did, and still does), I believed it was not nice to comment on, acknowledge or notice it. In those days that was a short list – race, creed and national origin. Nondiscrimination based on gender, marital status, disability and sexual orientation hadn’t been invented yet.
How blind was I? To this day I remember watching an episode of “Green Acres” (for you youngsters, that was a cornball fish-out-of-water sitcom from the 1960s, about a city couple who move to a farm in the country) in which Eddie Albert’s character tells his wife, played by Eva Gabor, to “keep your cute little Hungarian nose out of this.”
Setting aside the sexism of that line, something I didn’t know existed at the time, my 8- or 9-year-old jaw dropped at the H word. How dare he comment on her nationality? That’s not nice!
The famous “brown eyes, blue eyes” lesson, which I did not participate in but read about, fed my colorblindness. In this exercise, a teacher divided her elementary-school students by their eye color, declared the blue-eyed students fair game for discrimination and mistreatment, then turned the tables to subject the brown-eyed kids to the same thing. The takeaway was supposed to be, “This is how it feels to be discriminated against based on something you can’t control.” My takeaway, however, was:
It’s just color. What’s the big deal?
Eye color, skin color, it’s all just color. Treating someone differently based on color is stupid.
Of course I knew about slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement. The rioting that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination happened in my backyard. But I clung to my belief that racism was the work of ignorant people (like my dad) or evil ones (like George Wallace), and once the evil ones were punished and the ignorant educated, there would be no more racism.
The books I read were just starting to embrace diversity. School textbooks and Girl Scout handbooks had illustrations of kids with different skin tones doing stuff together. The message was that we are all the same; some of us just have different color skin. What’s the big deal?
My colorblindness followed me all the way to college. I was That White Kid who decided the black kids must be racist because they all sat together in the dining hall. Because my definition of racism was treating someone differently because of their race. If the Black students didn’t want to hang with us because we were white, that’s racism, right?
Oh, bless your heart, 18-year-old me. You have so much to learn.
And I did, and it has taken decades. And I’m still learning.
What I have learned so far:
- Racism and prejudice are not the same thing. The latter is personal; the former is institutional. White Americans are not taught the difference. This is why the average white person gets their back up when they hear the R word. “I’m not racist! Racists are Bad People! I’m a Good Person! I don’t look down on Black people/use the N word. I have Black friends/Black relatives/a Black spouse! How can I be racist?” What you mean is that you are not prejudiced. But if you are a white person in America, you are part of a racist system. This country was stolen from Native Americans and built by enslaved Black folk. Your status as a white person makes you complicit in the racism that built this land. This is hard for us white folks to swallow, but it’s true.
- Colorblindness is a crock. This is another hard one for us white folks. We are supposed to be “all the same” – and we are, when it comes to our value as human beings. But to ignore the fact that people of color have a very different experience of the world from that of white folks is its own form of racism. As much as my younger self wanted to believe “It’s just color; what’s the big deal?” that is not the case for PoC. For white folks, “not noticing color” is polite. For PoC it’s potentially suicidal.
- It’s 20-effing-20 and people of color are being killed by cops for merely being suspected of criminal behavior. Eric Garner was selling loose cigarettes. George Floyd was reported for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Philando Castile committed no crime at all, and he TOLD THE COPS he had a gun and was shot because they decided he must be reaching for it, which he wasn’t. Imagine a white person in any of those scenarios. They would not be dead.
- It’s 20-effing-20 and people of color are having the cops called on them for merely existing. Birdwatching in Central Park. Having a picnic. Sleeping in the lounge of a college WHERE THEY WERE AN ENROLLED STUDENT.
There is a lot of reading material out there for those who were – or are – my younger self in need of some education on this subject. I strongly recommend starting with The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Then bringing it into the 21st century with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.
Your recommendations and comments are welcome. Deity of your choice bless, and thank you for reading.