Dear Fellow White people:
We need to have a serious chat, ok? Like a nice, fireside, “hey friend let’s tackle this together” chat.
I’m not trying to scare you or condescend to you, but you really need to stop and think about this. And it’s not a person of color’s job to educate you on this. It’s mine. So as another White person to my fellow White people, I’m going to sit down and tell you.
We, both of us, need to strike the phrase “I don’t see race” from our vocabulary when we are talking about race relations.
Ok, I know, I know. This is literally how some of us were taught to deal with racism. I remember my elementary school really pushed this one to try and stamp out racism! It’s not your fault that you are using these words, and I believe that you are using them from a place of love and kindness. Ok? I hear you. You really don’t see race when you’re deciding who to buy a newspaper from or who to hire. You look at resumes and prices. But I need to tell you that it’s possible for you to do that and still be hurtful when you use this phrase, and I just need you to read this and think about it.
My Fellow White People, I have Three Reasons Why We Need To Strike This From Our Vocabulary
Because for real, I’m not blaming you, my fellow White people for thinking this is a just and fair way to deal with race. It used to be the best we could do. But this is 2017 and I’m going to give you 3 reasons we need to do better. And isn’t getting better a goal we can all aspire to? I’m not asking you to shoulder any burden. Just delete a pretty short and simple phrase from your vocabulary. Start there.
#1 “I don’t see race” literally makes no sense anyway. Seriously, my fellow White people, does it?
Here’s the thing. We were given mixed messages a lot of the time when our teachers were trying to teach us how to be not-racist. Think about it. We were told “race doesn’t exist!” and “we all bleed red!” and at the very same time, in the same breath, we were told to “celebrate our differences!” and “diversity is our strength!”
Ok, elementary school phrase makers – which is it? Is it great to be the same or different?
Treating everyone with respect doesn’t mean treating them the same. If you have an extrovert, you respect their need to talk through their feelings and be around people a lot. If you have an introvert, you respect their need for silence and solitary moments. But if we subscribe to the same school of thought we use for racism? No one’s going to win except for us, White people, because we’re the ones who get to stay exactly as we were without changing.
And to answer the previous question, in all ways, it’s better to be different. Differences are not profitable – it’s better to be able to sell the same product to millions of customers – but they are life saving.
Say you have a farm. You plant a whole mess of corn because that’s the best crop for the price this year. But then a plant disease comes through. Just like that, all of your crops are dead.
Now think again about that same farm. This time you plant 25% each of wheat, soybeans, corn, and potatoes. Now a potato disease comes through. That’s fine though; you still have the wheat, soybeans and corn.
I’m not suggesting that some disease is going to come through and wipe out all the White people or something. What I’m saying is that diversity, in genetics, culture, and thought processes, are what’s going to make our society innovative and strong.
To that end, it’s not a bad thing to see race. The problem is in the reaction to race. So you have to ask yourself, why don’t I see race? If race isn’t a dirty word, why am I avoiding it? Saying you don’t see race is kind of like saying “I can’t trust myself not to react.” If you’ve gotten this far into the article, you’re braver than that and we both know it.
#2 “I don’t see race” ignores a part of a person’s experience and culture.
Race and culture are not the same. Let’s just get that out of the way right now. But they also aren’t unrelated.
But hey, let’s say you love the color blue. You buy blue clothes and a blue corvette and everything you see is just blue, like him, inside and… wait, no, I’m sorry, that’s the song. But no, seriously, you love blue and you decide to even get your hair dyed blue! You are obviously a person from the blue side of things.
So you go to the store and they have this awesome dress, but it’s red. “Hey!” you say to the customer service person. “Could you help me find this dress in blue?”
“Oh,” the customer service person says, “But we have it in red!”
“I see that,” you say, “Do you have it in blue?”
“I don’t understand,” they say, “it’s a perfect cut and size for you. It’s just red.”
“Ok,” says you, “but I want it in blue. Blue is my favorite color.”
“Oh,” says the sales person, “I’m sorry. We just don’t see color here.”
“That’s fine,” you say, because you are a reasonable person and hey, not everything is for you. You go back to the dresses and keep looking but every dress is red.
“Excuse me,” you say to the customer service, “all these dresses seem to be red.”
“Oh?” they say, “I didn’t notice. I don’t see colors.”
“All the dresses are red, though,” you point out. “Are there any blue dresses?”
“I don’t know,” they say, “I don’t see color. They might be mixed in with the red ones?”
Look ok, my fellow White people, I know that’s a long metaphor there, but that’s the thing that’s going on here. People of color want spaces where they find the blue dresses. But when they walk in to a White space, they aren’t seen. No one knows where to find the blue dresses, or even cares to look for the blue dresses. So, for instance, people of color can’t find hair care products and their hairstyles are considered ‘unprofessional’ even though they are the logical and true method of caring for their hair.
And again the question comes down to what are we afraid of? Why is it so terrible to sort the dresses so that we can look at the numbers and say “huh. We don’t have any blue dresses? Maybe we should get some.” White people, take it from me, a person who used to think that if we talked about the blue dress it was calling attention to our differences, which was a bad thing, we should probably count the blue dresses.
#3 “I don’t see race” is more like “I am ALLOWED to not see race.”
Ok guys, this is the biggest reason not to say this annoying and obnoxious phrase.
Again, I’m going to use metaphor.
Have you ever been the lowest employee at your job and accidentally walked into a room full of people, all of whom had the ability to fire you on the spot? Or have you ever walked into a restaurant only to encounter twenty cops having lunch, and they all look up as you enter? Or, if you’re a woman, ever look up to find that suddenly, you’re the only woman in the room?
In all these examples, no one specifically means you any harm. No one is even likely to harm you. But there’s still a moment, just a split second, where you check yourself and go, “oh shit.”
Now, if you are a White person in a White space, you’re one of the execs in the room. You’re one of the cops. You’re a man in that room. You don’t feel the ‘oh shit’ moment. You don’t have to. And odds are, you don’t intend for anyone to have that moment. Hell, even most people on the receiving end of that will say it’s silly to have that reaction, like when you have a brief freak out on seeing a cop car even though you’re going the speed limit.
That’s exactly what’s going on here. My fellow White people, we get to ignore race. We’re allowed to walk around not thinking about how the natural hair growing out of our head might affect our performance review. We’re allowed to say ‘so long as you follow the law’ because that rule applies to us. We don’t have to police our natural speaking patterns in order to match the red dresses at work. It’s not that we’re purposefully creating a hostile environment by denying difference, it’s just that we’re taking advantage of a place where it’s simple for us to exist without regard to how difficult it is for other people.
And in Conclusion, My Fellow White People…
One more metaphor:
Ever needed to buy matching outfits with someone? You’re out with your friend and you both see the same, gorgeous dress? And there’s two of them! How lucky!
When you try on the dress, though, the bust is too small. It technically fits; you can do the zipper up and nothing is straining, but you end up looking like a blimp. Whereas your flat chested friend fits it perfectly and looks like a million bucks. You’re both size 8, but because of a difference in measurements, the dress only fits one of you.
In a perfect world, your friend would say “aw man, bummer, let’s find one that fits you, too!”
In a world of “I don’t see race,” though, your friend says “Well, it works, let’s do it!” and ignores you when you point out that, hey, this one isn’t working so well.
My fellow White people, we can do this. It’s not that difficult to acknowledge other people’s races. Try asking for people of color’s thoughts on subjects, their feelings on topics, and then listen. People of color don’t need your apologies or guilt. They need our support, and halting this “I don’t see race” nonsense is a good start. Remember, it’s not exactly about beating yourself down, it’s about recognizing how far up you are and then raising others up to your level.
KR Nichols lives in the blue dot of Nebraska called Omaha. She has two cats and sells cars while studying for her MFA in Creative Writing. She enjoys writing, anime, and science. She is extremely White, but tries not to let it get the best of her.