Don’t be Colour-Blind: On Racism and Discrimination

I am not going to be colour-blind any more. This blog post is going to be a bit of a personal one for me.

About a month ago, I had a moment of epiphany. It was one of those punch-in-the-gut things that happen every once in a while when a person engages in reflection after being given some new information or introduced to a new perspective.

In this case, I am stopping a habit I formed when I had a similar revelation in my younger days.

Racism is a very ugly thing. It is wholly unfair to those who receive it, it is born out of ignorance, and decent people want to put as much distance between it and themselves as possible. In many people, a charge of being racist draws an evisceral reaction. Racism is something that bigots engage in and wear proudly, and an enlightened and compassionate person should strive their hardest to not be included in that group.

I made the decision a long time ago to work toward “becoming colour-blind”. I was determined to curb my own recognition of the colour of people’s skin. To me, it was a natural and logical extension of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech. I would not judge a person by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character, and it made sense to me that a necessary part of considering someone as an equal was an obligation to ignore the differences, no matter how obvious, significant or real.

I cannot remember exactly when I adopted this “colour-blindness” philosophy, but I had fully formulated and grown comfortable with the concept by the time I left high school, and it was probably a product of the diversity workshops that we students were expected to attend and only gave half of our attention.

Jane Elliott is a retired American teacher. She is famous for creating what has been called “the blue eyes – brown eyes experiment”. It is technically not an experiment, it is more of a directed group exercise, but it is a very abrupt and blunt illustration of how discrimination works and the effects that it can have. She created it and introduced it to her third grade class the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It is a very unsettling experience that is difficult to observe and walk away from without receiving new information or discovering new things to consider.

As a person who is keenly interested in understanding the way we understand or believe things, I was fascinated the first time I watched a PBS Frontline special on the exercise called “A Class Divided“. It was a multiple award-winning documentary of the exercise as she performed it with her third grade class. If you have not seen it, I highly recommend you watch it. There is so much going on in that documentary that I still get something new out of it every time I watch it.

To this day, at age 81 Jane Elliott continues her crusade against discrimination, and I recently saw a follow-up piece titled “The Angry Eye” (embedded below) where she did the same experiment with a classroom of high school volunteer students. Since the students were older, had formed ideas about discrimination, had adopted biases and a self-image and had developed a better sense of fair play the exercise itself was tuned to be intensely blunt and the results of the exercise were even more dramatic.

This was where it really sank in with me that this concept of “colour-blindness” that I had idealized was, well, simply wrong.

At 7:25 of the video, she directly addresses the “I don’t see colour” concept and gave me something I had never considered before – that the statement itself reveals that you do indeed see colour in order to say that.

Then at 24:00 I learned the impact of this kind of “colour-blindness”. Jane selected a young black male to illustrate her point. The class picked three obvious attributes to describe him – male, tall and black. She asked, “Is being male important to you?” The student responded in the affirmative. She asked, “Is being tall important to you?” and he again replied “yes”. She asked “Is being black important to you?” and he replied once more with a “yes”. She asked why, and he responded “Because it’s who I am”. Jane pushed the point home with explaining “When you say to a person of colour, ‘I don’t see you black, I just see everybody the same’, people, think about that… You don’t have the right to say to a person, ‘I do not see you as you are, I want to see you as I would be more comfortable seeing you.'”. She further explained, “We live in different realities. But when you deny what this person is going through or what this person is going through, you’re denying their reality. We are as different on the inside as we are on the outside and we have the right to be so. People, don’t deny differences. Accept them, appreciate them, recognize them and cherish them. They are extremely important.”

That was the punch-in-the-gut moment. It was the sudden realization that whenever I proudly said, “I don’t see colour, I see human beings” thinking it was a good, enlightened and progressive thing, I was really telling that person “I don’t recognize a critical and valuable part of your identity.”

It would be like walking up to a feminist and proudly announcing, “I don’t consider you to be a woman,” in an effort to express that you see her as an equal.

Think of all the struggles that Native Americans have gone through to maintain their identity and culture through repeated waves of assimilation initiatives. Now imagine saying to one of them, “I don’t recognize your identity”…

That is what I was saying all those years. And so to anyone I have ever hurt or offended in my fumbling attempt to be enlightened, I offer the humblest of apologies. I have a new approach to get used to.

In this day and age, frank discussion of racism and discrimination and how they both play into the power dynamic rarely occurs, since racism and discrimination are very charged issues. If you have not watched “A Class Divided” and “The Angry Eye”, please take the time to do so. It’s a lesson you won’t soon forget. There’s one more documentary that Jane did that is worth watching, involving a group of British adults, entitled “How Racist Are You?” featured below:

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