On four occasions in the last year, white acquaintances have extolled their children for being “colorblind,” for not even considering race when speaking of or interacting with other kids. In all four cases, the same “example” of this “post-racial” attitude was brought to the conversation: that when attempting to describe a fellow (minority) student, their children did not use the race signifier but instead described the student’s clothing or some other anodyne external descriptor. In all four cases, the parents (all very good people by the way) felt that this behavior was in some way “remarkable” (after all it was clearly worthy of remark) and professed hope that race would shrink or even disappear as a divisive concept.
After the example and the ensuing analysis is proffered, things get very tricky. To explain this I must once again mention that the people in question are kind and humane. So explaining how these very examples –though seemingly positive—undermine the conclusions most people draw from them is not easy and can appear to be gratuitous self-victimization.
Given this, and thinking perhaps that others have had similar conversations, I thought I’d dissect the matter with the view of helping people understand how complex issues of race really are.
At the outset, let’s indulge in a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that I, a brown American, went up to my white colleagues and remarked on how my kids are indeed colorblind and don’t use race as a signifier for their peers. I’d then proceed to give the example of how when my kids see white peers they don’t comment on their whiteness but instead signify them by their shoes, clothing, hairdos, or some other non-race factor. Now imagine the reaction of my white colleagues. Bet my bottom dollar they would not find this remarkable. Of course no one signifies white people by race but when white people chose not to signify non-whites by race it’s considered remarkable and worthy of great praise. So the story itself, being asymmetrical, indicates the persistence of race.
Second, let’s analyze where “colorblindness” leads us. If a person believes he is colorblind and post-racist, will he be able to engage with and empathize with someone who feels ostracized, threatened, or demeaned because of race? Or will he consider that person someone with a “victim” complex? If a person believes he is colorblind or post-racist, will he seek pernicious explanations for obvious data-driven disparities in wealth, access, and attainment? Ultimately if race and skin color actually do matter to some people then they by definition must be understood to matter to all people because the “some” people act in ways that accord with racism and therefore create a dispensation that is not fair, just, and equal as the idea of “colorblindness” would suggest.
So the example given, with such decency behind it, still unfortunately swallows its own tail.
The example is tantamount to white people telling non-white people that racism doesn’t really exist. The example also denies “whiteness” as a racial category in and of itself.
So what should a parent do? After all, isn’t an ideal world one in which people just see other for the “content of their character and not the color of their skin?”
Not so fast.
First of all, since when do we allow kids to live and operate only in ideal worlds? In an ideal world, we’d have no crime but we certainly don’t avoid discussions of safety with our kids. In an ideal world, everyone would have equal opportunity but since when do we not encourage our kids to succeed and exceed? If in one case we give kids a dose of practicality why not on the question of race and racism? Why do we exempt this category from any realism?
Second, one must trot out the idea that to avoid understanding history is to relive it. If much of world history has been defined by notions of racial superiority and the violence and disruption that has caused, how can one avoid the discussion with children? How do teach kids NOT to think about race when they study slavery or genocide?
Finally, if we can’t equip our kids to have empathy for how others’ feel then we are indeed doomed. A conversation that says something like “I’m so proud of you for being so open to all human beings, but you must understand that your friend X is black or brown and might get harassed or demeaned by others so make sure you understand that about him…” is a rich one to have. Avoidance is an abdication.
To get people to understand this requires patience and love, but it is necessary especially in a world in which pernicious ideas are on the upswing.
Romi Mahajan can be reached at email@example.com