By Samantha Harris
What if I told you that saying that you don’t see color is not as benign as it seems? I know that many people see this statement as a show of solidarity, but as Donald Guillory so aptly put it, in his book, The Token Black Guide, “When you ‘don’t see color,’” you fail to acknowledge a portion of me that has helped to shape my history and my identity. You are saying that this history doesn’t matter, nor should it be considered. The color of my skin and race do not solely define me, but they do play a vital role in who I am. It leads to the likelihood that you will not recognize the injustices that people of color suffer. Colorblindness makes one blind and deaf to inequality, prejudice and discrimination. It renders you indifferent and uninterested in pushing for change. You are not colorblind, you are actively choosing to ignore reality.”
This is a strong accusation, but one with which I agree, because it is true. Saying you don’t see color means you get to not see when your neighbors treat POC poorly. When it’s subvert, you get to tell your POC friend to grow a thicker skin, even though these “tiny” events mark the daily lives of minorities in this society. When it’s covert you get to push away the conversation about what’s really going on, by pleading for civility. Because if everyone would just get along, everything would be alright? Right? Well, we can’t get to the root of the problem until we actually state what it is. And it’s not POC deserving the treatment they get because they’re less moral than white people. This simply isn’t true. Taking the actions of a few and using it to justify the oppression of that entire group is no more acceptable than any person of color equating every white person with Westboro or the Klan. Folks, you’re going to have to both give POC the benefit of the doubt, as well as engage those you know, who hold negative beliefs about POC. Those beliefs lead to apathy, aggression, and can lead to death. This is a life and death matter and saying you don’t see it won’t make it go away. In fact, it will only make the roar resound more loudly within your ears.
Within minority communities, we have this thing we call “code switching.” Granted, this phenomenon is not exclusive to those of us considered to be “other,” but we find ourselves using this behavior a lot, in spaces that aren’t friendly towards the things about us that make us different. Code switching is when a person changes their language or behavior, the better to assimilate (mainly for safety’s sake) within majority white spaces. This often involves downplaying the very things that make us unique. In a society where goodness and propriety are based upon the defaults of one culture, it can be necessary at times to keep your vernacular, or your quirks to yourself. What this creates is a scenario in which people assume the very things that make you who you are, are things you can put on and take off like clothing. When in reality, these things aren’t actual physical clothing that you don and doff, it’s a subconscious need to align with the behavior of the majority, again, for the sake of personal safety. The “clothes” are the code switching, the cautious movements, the tempered speech.
Code switching is nothing less than carving off pieces of yourself to protect those pieces from people and situations that are intolerant of them. This can be an uncomfortable process, and one that often turns into invalidation, once the people you find yourself code switching for, come to see your affected behavior as the default.
Having to constantly suppress your cultural quirks can be exhausing, when you have to do it daily, like at work. It’s well known that white collar spaces can be intolerant of POC and who they would naturally be outside of the workplace. “Professionalism” has become code speech for having to make yourself appear to be as Eurocentric as possible. For Hispanic people, this could be barring your native language at work (which happens all the time). For black people, women especially, issues of hair and texture are often brought up. I have seen countless stories of black women called into HR and told to straighten their hair. If you happen to be Muslim, you might face questions about the necessity of wearing a head scarf, or even having a beard. Folks, these things aren’t just red herrings we’re throwing out due to boredom. They are real events, and they are painful.
America boasts about being a melting pot, a place where people can come and live out their own version of the American dream, which ultimately boils down to safety and a chance to actually live, rather than just survive. Yet, for many minorities in this country, the realization of said dream comes with a very high price…denying the very things that make you unique, so that society at large can swallow the differences that you absolutely cannot hide. I believe that we as a nation can do better, and this starts with actually recognizing and acknowledging race in a way that doesn’t automatically assign negative character traits to POC. Choosing to not see color means that you also choose to not see the violence acted out upon the bodies of minorities, every day in this society. I’ve heard many people say that they can’t do anything about race issues in this country. Yes, you can. Recognize that the construct of race will not disappear, simply because you don’t want to see it. See that I am black. See that I face different challenges than you, living in America. See that the collective stories of minorities in America are not necessarily an individual indictment, but a call to action. And yes, you can do something about race relations in this country. Call out the racist. Even if it means you’re doing so, standing alone, in front of a mirror. This is not about judgment, it’s about progress. Our society is moral to the point of ignoring its own flaws.
The one thing that I think many people miss in this conversation, is the fact that we essentially live in the Matrix. We are being programmed, according to who this society thinks that we each are individually. We are programmed to be at perpetual odds with one another, due to media influence as well as our fears of actually sitting down to talk about these issues. I’ve learned that there are four things that each human being on this planet desires: to be seen, to be loved, to be understood and to be accepted. This is part of the human condition, and regardless of cultural differences, we have this in common. Imagine how much more we could all access the above things (love, etc.), if we were to stop being so afraid, and just reach out to one another.
To paraphrase Mr. Guillory above, when you come across a POC, forget that they are of color…but in the back of your mind, do not forget. Do not ask someone to become more like you for the sake of your own individual comfort. I would ask, that when you are faced with someone who is different, go back in your mind to a time when someone wanted you to conform to their standards that didn’t fit you…and how you felt. And strive to not pay such feelings and emotions forward to another. We can do this, we can actually live up to what the American dream is supposed to mean. Once we stop living in fear.