On Being Color Blind in 1980

I felt as if I had stepped into a time machine and been thrust backward at least twenty years! It was early morning, in late July 1980, and I was walking across the Boston public gardens when a black woman friend greeted me, and pushed a local paper into my hands. “How do you respond to this?” she said, and continued, “I feel negative about it!”

The article to which she referred me served as the time machine. I didn’t want to believe what I read, but there it was-1960 re-visited! The article was about a new advertising campaign to be launched “to spread the message of racial tolerance” in the city. The campaign was announced by two leading spokespersons for the Boston Covenant Committee, originators of last fall’s Covenant for Peace and Harmony, an effort which secured over 250,000 signatures on a petition for harmony and understanding. The advertising campaign is a follow-up on the Covenant signing, and pictures in the newspaper showed large posters saying, “All children are born color blind. Let’s keep them that way.”

The “color blind” posture which is called for is what took me back to the early sixties at least. That is before the “black is beautiful” movement, before the affirmation of racial identities by many people of color. Shadows of the past enveloped me and I heard all the familiar words of yesteryear. “I don’t see color; I see only people.” – “I see all people as humans; that’s all.” – “I don’t see you as black; I see you as a person.” I hadn’t heard anyone talking like that for a long time, and my shocked sensitivities sent me reeling into the past.

I’m sorry, but I cannot cooperate with that effort to encourage a return to the “color blind syndrome.” I cannot because the reality with which I deal every day is very different in 1980. I cannot cooperate for at least two reasons.

First, I cannot say to my friends who are people of color, that the affirmation of their color is now unimportant. I remember a young black mother telling of the day when her daughter went to school in her first Afro, announcing as she left the house, “I am black and beautiful,” and I still thrill with the sense of pride with which that mother told of the incident. Her daughter had never gone out of the house saying that and feeling like that before! It was an important day for that whole family! Pride in color was and still is to that family an important concern. I cannot now say to my friends that I am not going to see that color which they have affirmed so strongly.

I remember a black man in a workshop group responding to a white man who had just told him that he only wanted to see him as a human being, not as a black man. With intensity and conviction the black man said something like this: “Of course I am a human being, and I want you to see me as such but, if you really want to see me as the full human being I am, I want you to see me as a black. My blackness is an essential part of my humanness and, if you forget that or will not see that, then you are not seeing me as the full person I am.” I cannot say to that man or any other person of color that I want to be color blind, or want them to be color blind, or want their children to be color blind. Among the people of color whom I know the vast majority have struggled to proclaim respect for their color, have labored and fought to claim the dignity of their color. Now I cannot turn my back on all of that recent history and say, “Let’s be color blind.”

Second, I cannot say to my friends who are white that color is no longer important. Whenever I have encountered the “color-blind” emphasis among white people, it has very frequently been a way of denying race and subsequently, of denying racism. If one doesn’t have to think about color (race), one doesn’t have to think about racism, because obviously if there is no color (race), then there can be no racism. If there is no color there can be only individual acts of wrong-doing, of prejudice; there can be no systematic, historic conscious or unconscious, constant oppression because of color. If we don’t have to think about, talk about, and deal with race, then we won’t have to think about, talk about and deal with racism! And there are lots of white people in particular who would prefer it that way!

I cannot cooperate because it is important that I and others of my friends are white. I want to affirm whiteness, value it, and call for respect for that too! My whiteness is an important part of who I am. It helps me to understand the history of my people in this country. It puts me in touch with a history and a present fact of white privilege gained at the expense of people of color. Unless I can get in touch with that, feel it, and understand it, then I’ll never be able to move beyond it. Unless I can understand that the dominant values, beliefs, and life styles of this country are white, and how that relates to people of color, I will not understand my present situation at all! Unless I can understand that the major institutions and systems of this country have been and are white-controlled, white-dominated and know how that impacts people of color, I can never know how to move out of oppressive modes of community life.

If I deny that there is color, it is to enter a false world. There is color difference, and it is beautiful! There is nothing wrong with differences in color; it is only what we think, believe, and do about that difference that might be wrong. The difference itself is beautiful, exciting, to be affirmed, respected (never merely tolerated), and encouraged as a positive attribute of life! Vive la difference! Don’t deny it! Don’t blind yourself to it; see it, celebrate it!

My hunch is that most people of color will not buy this ad campaign to become “color-blind.” My concern is that lots of white people might flock to its banner. It sounds so “good” if you like the sounds of yesterday, and lots of people do! It sounds so “liberal,” so “human,” so “nice;” it unclutters a lot of things and tidies up things. Go for it!

Not me, thank you! I cannot cooperate with this one! To be “color-blind” requires me to deny color which is important to me and to hundreds of my friends. To be “color-blind” requires me to ignore a history and a present fact of prejudice, discrimination and racism built on assumptions that white people are superior to people of color. To be ignorant of racism is to assure that we cannot move beyond it. I cannot buy that, any of it! I cannot step into that time machine. I cannot go back to the early sixties. For all that is wrong with 1980, give me the present reality! So says one white man!