We like it when we don’t actually have to change anything about ourselves.
I like to start difficult conversations off with a statement everyone can all agree on.
So here goes: racism is bad.
I hope we can all stand beside that. I mean – I really hope that in the Year of Our Lord 2016, we all agree that discriminating against someone because of their skin color is absolutely not okay.
But here’s where I might lose some of you: racism goes way beyond that.
See, there’s overt, institutional racism, and then there’s subtle, ingrained racism. Institutional racism is when people aren’t just subject to bigotry based on their skin color; they are actually punished for it by a system that upholds and perpetuates it.
While we may not have laws on the books anymore that separate our water fountains, people of color are far, far more likely to be victims of unjust bigotry.
Here’s an example. Say a white person is assaulted because of their skin color. That can absolutely happen. However, when they report the attack to the police, they’re far more likely to be taken seriously than a person of color would be. The police are more likely take proper notes, conduct a genuine search for the perpetrator, and bring them in for questioning. The attacker is far more likely to be prosecuted – and if they go to court, far more likely to be convicted.
That’s racism. And it’s part of the conversation we don’t talk about anymore, while we pat ourselves on the back for “ending” racism on a legal, institutional level.
We like to use obvious racism as a barometer for two reasons: it’s easier to spot, and it usually involves things we don’t actually have to change about ourselves.
We’re all ashamed of that uncle we have that uses the N-word, and of those small towns that still have Ku Klux Klan rallies. We may even stand beside the #BlackLivesMatter movement to fight against racial injustice when it comes to the rate at which people of color are murdered by police officers.
But subtle racism sneaks in everywhere. Even when white folks are at our most well-meaning, we can verbally trip up or make an assumption that just plain isn’t true, because of the perspective our white privilege gives us. This isn’t necessarily inherently wrong. For the most part, we’re not in control of the paths we were raised on. When it is wrong is when we choose to continue to ignore the fact that we have this perspective – or worse, insist that our viewpoint is inherently superior.
When I was in my early twenties, I considered myself an ally to my POC – that’s people of color –friends. I understood that my whiteness gave me privileges other people didn’t have. I understood the necessity of programs like affirmative action, and I tried to check myself when speaking in spaces that didn’t belong to me. (No, Natalie, you do not need to speak over a black woman in a conversation about black queer women, no matter how important you think your words are.) I considered myself colorblind.
If you aren’t familiar with the phrase ‘colorblind,’ it’s when a person (99 per cent of the time a white person) says they just don’t ‘see’ color. They see all human beings as equal. The intentions are good: the implication is that skin color, in your eyes, has no impact on the way you treat a person. The problem with that is, it’s a kind of covert racism; the underlying message is a lot less benign. What you’re really saying is ‘I see everyone as white.’ You’re affording everyone the same benefit of the doubt that the world gives white people.
But as comforting as it may be to imagine that we can will those realities away, we can’t.
When we tell someone we don’t see their skin color, we’re ignoring their life experience. We’re saying nothing they’ve gone through because of their skin color matters to us. No matter how well-meaning we are when we say this, at the end of the day we’re telling them that white people are superior.
And doesn’t failing to acknowledge a person’s skin color mean we’re mentally eliminating their culture as well? Cultures and languages are made more brilliant by their color.
If you’re struggling with the idea that colorblind means ‘all white people,’ I challenge you to think about what you really mean when you say that. And no – the canned answer of ‘well it just means I let people define themselves’ doesn’t work. Because we’re all smarter than that. We all know our labels come with baggage. For example, being a queer person means that whether I like it or not, part of my life is shaped by not being heterosexual.
And besides, isn’t it a tad arrogant to say the world’s view of people should be reversed to suit the way you’ve decided to view them?
That lightning bolt is what shook me out of my ‘colorblind’ habits. As genuinely mortified as I am by my younger, more naive self, I’m glad I had the opportunity to have that awakening.
We’re all about more than our skin color, but let’s not pretend that it doesn’t make a difference.
GIFs via giphy.com.
Comment: What kinds of subtle racism do you notice on a daily basis?
Natalie is a former Texan currently living in LA who enjoys politics, cooking, video games, comic books and spending more money than she should at ModCloth. She takes her nerd title as seriously as she does her writing and believes anything's a good story if you tell it right. Follow Natalie on Twitter and Facebook.