A few months ago, while waiting for a bus with my kids, I got to talking with a fellow from Africa (Senegal, if I remember right). My bus was late, so we chatted for a few minutes, mostly about American gun culture, which neither of us understood.
The very next day, this same fellow jogged past me while I pushed a stroller down the street, and I didn’t notice him at all. When he said hello, I didn’t even process who he was until he’d already passed.
“I just talked to you yesterday!” he said then, half-incredulous, half-amused.
It’s true that I was tired and mentally absent, rehearsing an imaginary conversation, to be precise. And it’s also true that I sometimes do the same thing with good friends. But the episode got me thinking anyway.
I’ll pause here to point out that I realize the world doesn’t need another essay by a young, white, progressive American who’s read a little Franz Fanon and Ta-nehisi Coates and now wants to publicly explore her insidious racist tendencies. (And, it looks like I might be about to do that. So, if you’ve had enough, perhaps you’d rather read about stupid momma things I’ve done?)
This episode got me thinking anyway about a time, back in my very white high school, when a friendly acquaintance described his experience walking alone through the hallway past one of our few black students.
“That’s when you hear a weird, little voice in your head saying, I’m not racist.”
I remember being surprised by the statement, and by his introspection and candor. Rather than denying or suppressing the tension he felt yet didn’t wish to feel, he was concerned enough to examine it, and detached enough to try to talk about it.
Like many whites (young and progressive, or otherwise), I live in a rather white area, in my case a university town in Flanders, Belgium, where my husband’s earning a Ph.D. and I’m looking after our small kids. And living as I do, whitely among whites, any interest I take in racial issues is voluntary, almost a pastime, somewhat less abstract than say, learning about ancient Rome. Of course, it’s possible that it will make me a less obnoxious white person. But it’s equally possible that it will make me a different kind of obnoxious white person. (The kind that publicly exhibits her examination of racial issues, safely removed from any actual race-based conflict or hardship, say?)
My point is just that I have the luxury of ignoring these things, and even of defending the virtues of ignorance. I could say I’m “colorblind,” that racial injustices have nothing to do with me. I could argue that the progressive call to examine my privilege is a thinly veiled accusation, and that I refuse to apologize for being born white. I could even point out that I have a few (not-super-close-but-still) black friends and be done with it.
In other words, I could shrug off the fact that I chatted for more than 10 minutes with a black man one day, and then the next day strolled right past him like we’d never met. Especially since in fact it’s just not such a big deal. I could also defend myself for being called out for it. Hell, I could probably evoke sympathy from (white) people by talking about how I didn’t like the way that made me feel.
But, at the risk of sound self-congratulatory, that just doesn’t satisfy me. Because it sounds too much like the I’m not racist voice. That guy I knew in high school? He was a smart, open-minded, good person. He certainly didn’t have a direct hand in racial injustice. I’m confident that he was brought up to askew overt forms of racism, probably even to “not see color.” So where did the weird, little, unprovoked voice in his head come from? And what should one make of that?
Blogger Emma Lindsay (another young, white progressive American) recently wrote about when she was a little girl and she repeated a racially charged story that a white adult had told her, only to be berated by another white adult.
“Despite being raised in a highly liberal ‘progressive’ environment,” Lindsay wrote, “I learned… that it was unacceptable for me to state, plainly, my observations or questions around race… I also grew to feel that I was inherently bad because I was personally blamed for repeating racist things from my environment and I lacked the maturity to understand where these ideas were coming from…”
The taboo white kids inherit surrounding even neutral issues of race participates in the idea of “color-blindness” or “race-blindness,” an idea at least as old as Dr. King’s hope that people be judged not by “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
But I’m pretty sure our wholesale reluctance to talk about or even notice differences quite misses Dr. King’s point, too. And, indeed, it makes us less able to fully look at each other.
After that bus stop encounter, I started to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings that I experience when I pass a person — and especially a man — of color, and I’ve realized something: I tend to notice black men more, but actually see them less than I do white men.
While I’ll accept that this response may reflect actual biases I have and don’t care to admit to myself, I can definitely see how it has to do with my desire not to be seen as having biases. Specifically, I want to demonstrate not just tolerance, but also trust. I want to make sure I don’t veer away from this person or in any other way convey that I fear, disapprove of, or inordinately monitor his presence. Not wanting to look at this person longer than I would a white man, I consequently just don’t really look at him. I don’t know if that’s “colorblindness,” but it’s certainly blindness of a sort.
This thing I’m describing has become unconscious and automatic, subtle enough that I’m not sure I would have noticed or anyway acknowledged it without the help of an African stranger. And honestly, I’m not sure if I’m assessing this correctly, or even what consequence it really has in the end. (Sorry if you followed me all the way here hoping for a cogent insight.)
But I do think it’s worth noting this particular way in which I may fail to see others because I’m too busy worrying about how they see me. It’s notable that the blog post I quoted above is titled “White Guilt is actually White Narcissism.” (And yes, I’m aware of the irony involved in writing a self-focused post about the dangers of excessive inter-racial self-focus.)
At least part of my interest stems from the fact that I’m raising my own kids now, in a time when American politics daily reveals more of the hideous underbelly covered up by our refusal to openly discuss and acknowledge so many issues related to race. We’ve got emboldened white supremacy groups openly endorsing a Republican front-runner who repeatedly hesitates to disavow them. We’ve got so many examples of police brutality against unarmed black men and boys that it’s hard to even keep them all straight. We’ve got a mostly black population knowingly poisoned from their drinking water for more than a year, while the governing officials responsible for the crisis repeatedly failed to take action. Not to mention decades of residential red-lining and an enthusiastic re-segregation of our schools.
And although I am not directly responsible for any of these racial injustices, how I raise my kids to respond to these issues, and to interact with people who look and act different, has a lot to do with how I do these things myself.
So, no, I do not want my kids to be “colorblind.” I want them to see race, and to see racism: the full spectrum. I don’t want to raise them in a way that encourages suppression, muddled guilt, and defensiveness, because that limits their perspective and dulls their vision. And even though I know that, in light of what people of color actually have to face daily, my musings and my quaint, little epiphanies mean next to nothing. Still, something tells me that being concerned enough to examine these things, and detached enough to publicly talk about them, may be a step in the right direction.
I’d like to hear your thoughts. (Keep in mind that I do some basic housekeeping here, so see that you don’t track in any dog doo, please.)