White Noise (Part 1)
If Mosaic accepts, I plan to contribute a series of articles for white people called “White Noise.”
Don’t worry, white folks. People of color reading over our shoulders may appreciate that we’re discussing some things they’ve wished we knew, said, didn’t say, did, or didn’t do for a long, long time.
The first thing I want to discuss is something I’ve heard white people like me say.
“I don’t see race.”
What is wrong with this idea? It sounds really nice and open-minded and generous of spirit, doesn’t it?
The problem with the idea promoted by comments like “I’m color blind” is that the idea does not communicate what we white people may think it does.
I asked a coworker, a South African woman, what it feels like when people say in her hearing, “I don’t see color. I don’t see race. I’m color blind.”
Smiling and holding her arms out wide, my coworker said, “If you don’t see color,” she said, glancing down at her black skin, “then you don’t see me.”
The day she shared this important response to color blindness, I noticed again the tattoo on my coworker’s left arm. The tattoo reads, “Ubuntu.” The concept of Ubuntu spans several different African countries, even to Uganda where I lived and worked as a missionary for seven years. Buntu in Uganda means people. Ubuntu is a word for humanity and shorthand for an important African concept, “I am because we are.”
Not seeing color is not noble. Being color blind is not generous. Not seeing race is neither helpful nor loving. What is it then? What gives? Here’s what I believe, based on hundreds of conversations with people of color about race. When you say you don’t see race or color—that you are color blind—here’s what I believe you are saying to a person of color.
“I don’t see you.”
“I don’t see how you experience life differently because of your color.”
“I’m assume you go through life just like I do, and I don’t really care about the differences in your struggle.”
“I expect you to blend in with the dominant white culture.”
“I don’t acknowledge white oppression of people of color and the continuing effects of ignoring race.”
What is happening here when we don’t see someone is what’s called erasure. Erasure is a concept of devaluing, not seeing, overlooking people’s experiences. Erasure is assuming people of color have the same experiences, opportunities, and struggles that white people have. When we say we do not see color, we effectively erase the important experiences of people of color.
I know that you as a white person don’t want to disregard, diminish, erase, or fail to see people of color. I don’t believe for a minute that you would want this. In fact, I believe that most white people do not intend to hurt people of color. However, when we say “I don’t see color,” we perpetuate injustice. How so? Because by believing we play on a level field where white advantages are everyone’s advantages, we fail to see the blatant disadvantages people of color face in 2019.
Many white people oppose this idea that the playing field is not level. Sometimes people of color don’t want to talk about this either. I could quote the many statistics that show that more people of color are incarcerated than white people, how banks redline certain areas and don’t give loans to black people, how discrimination happens in dozens of ways today in 2019.
Instead, I’m going to ask you to do something more profound and life changing. Ask a black friend how it feels when you say, “I don’t see color.” See what a person of color says, then ask what kinds of discrimination and inequalities she has faced or what his parents and grandparents have experienced. I believe if you do this, the conversation and path this will take you on will be life changing for you.
Will these changes for the better in white people impact people of color as well? Yes, I believe white people changing is precisely what has been necessary for white supremacy to die in the United States. The U.S. was founded on white supremacy. People of color have been dramatically, sinfully, historically mistreated by white people in the U.S. since 1492.
Laws abolished slavery but whites continued to believe ourselves to be superior to Native Americans, slaves or free blacks, immigrants of color. Laws cannot cause people to stop believing lies. With each progressive step in racial equality, a counter movement begins. When slavery was abolished, the KKK was born. When free black people gained during Reconstruction, American apartheid was invented, with clever phrases like “separate but equal,” but there was no equality.
A black man in The Journey church told the congregation one Sunday that he remembers the disgusting drinking fountains and bathrooms that were never cleaned, labeled “blacks only.” Black men who fought for the United States in World War II came home to mostly rental property options when white soldiers were offered VA loans. Separate was not equal. There is a lot to learn now that white people can also be liberated from the socializing gospel of white history narratives, what Richard Hughes calls the “myths America lives by.” These myths include “manifest destiny,” or the “doctrine of discovery”—the false idea that God wants white Christian people to possess the land of the continental United States. Most of the narratives I grew up with are based on this myth.
By being better white people, not only will our lives change, but the lives of people of color may flourish with more joy and liberation.