On the myth of colour-blindness: why I want to talk to White people and all peoples about race

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I’m late to the game. I have only started reading Reni Eddo Lodge’s book: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. I’m almost halfway into the book but I could no longer contain myself.*

I came to this country at the age of nine from Nigeria. Although I was born in the UK, as a nine year old, I had no ‘memories’ of any encounters with white folk. My first inkling that the topic of race might be a ‘hot potato’ came when I went on a camping trip whilst in primary school. I made a comment about someone being white and I was told by another white person that I was racist. The mere mention of race became racism.

We were kids back then and this was obviously a misinterpretation of what it means to be ‘racist’. Essentially what I was doing back then was using an identifier. I still do it unapologetically as an adult even though I am sometimes reprimanded for it. I do it because I SEE RACE. There, I said it. I see it. That’s no crime. What matters is what I do with that information.

Is it even possible to be colour blind?

When police officers speak about an individual, the first thing they often do is refer to an IC code. IC1 being White, IC3 being Black. They may then go on to talk about height, build, hair colour, clothes etc. These are all identifiers. There is nothing inherently wrong with identifying someone by the colour of their skin. What is wrong is attributing a trait to someone based on the colour of their skin. Here’s an example. I remember working for the Met in my early 20s as an analyst. I remember a White police officer talking to an Asian police officer about someone he had stopped. The White officer was annoyed with the ‘attitude’ of the young man an in describing this attitude to the Asian officer he said: you know, giving it typical IC3 behaviour. So, I will return to what I said. There was nothing wrong with identifying the young man by his race in my opinion. But I did have a problem with this idea that there was a behaviour that could be deemed ‘typical IC3 behaviour’. It is exactly this stereotype of the behaviour of Black folk that can land our behinds or heads on the wrong end of a truncheon.

It is impossible to be colour blind just as it is impossible to be blind to buck teeth when an individual is speaking or stank breath when someone comes close to you. We all have assumptions that we make about people based on their race. Sometimes those assumptions seem justified and at other times, they are not based on reality. Even kids notice race and they are pretty honest about it. It’s we adults who pretend that we cannot see race. The only difference between adults and kids in my opinion is that kids don’t allow race to stop them from having a new play partner whereas adults do allow race to stop them from interactions with other races. Adults may do this consciously or subconsciously.

Another example: I went to a fantastic secondary school. It was predominantly white and perhaps about 10% black. This is a guesstimate. I remember being in a year 8 history class when a teacher started separating students. She said that she didn’t think all the Black folk should sit together. Now I didn’t actually take note of the fact that this is what had been happening. It seemed the Black students naturally gravitated towards each other and perhaps the White folk did the same (I cannot be sure). But perhaps as Black kids, we veered together subconsciously simply because ‘birds of the same feather flock together’. Some may disagree with the actions of the teacher who was White but I think she was onto something. When I look back on it, I can’t be sure whether we as Blacks or Whites ‘chose’ to sit with their own. Whatever the cause, the outcome was still the same – a segregated class – until the teacher’s intervention.

There is nothing inherently wrong with noticing race. I say it again. But there is something wrong when people consciously or unconsciously ‘ignore’ ‘the other’ based solely on their race. When I say ignore I mean choose not to mix with someone based on their race.

There is a kind of colour blindness that I as a Black woman have experienced. On one level, it’s the kind of invisibility that sees me waiting to get served at a bar whilst others around me who look nothing like me get served ahead of me. It’s the kind of invisibility which makes me wonder why Prince Charles rather than the mother of the bride, Doria Ragland, will be the one to walk Meghan down the aisle.** It’s the double invisibility of being a 1) Black 2) woman. It means that in environments in which I am in an absolute minority (firstly because of my race) it can be hard to be seen unless I am seen. I call it ‘being invisible until you become visible‘. This visibility is often a negative kind of visibility (you’re late, you’re aggressive, you’ve done something wrong). It is very rarely a ‘that was a brilliant idea’, ‘let’s promote you’, ‘what are your thoughts on the matter?’ kind of visibility.

There are at least 2 forms of colour blindness (I suspect there are a few more when we talk about race):

* I don’t see race at all (I don’t believe this really does exist in our day and age)

* I don’t see you because of your race (this is more prevalent in our society in my opinion. It may mean that you find someone of a different race unattractive so you ‘cannot’ see them or don’t care to see them or it may mean that you have beliefs about a person of a certain race and don’t see the value in them because of their race)

Being blind to colour is in my opinion impossible: If we think we are truly colour blind then why don’t white folk walk into Black hairdressers and vice versa?

What is more likely is that as human beings, we see race just as we see the massive spot on someone’s forehead and we are left to choose one of the following options:

* I see your race but you are a human being first and foremost so I look forward to getting to know you more…..

* I see your race so consciously or unconsciously, I will stay away because we have nothing in common, because I don’t know how to interact with you…..

* I see your race but I don’t care because there are much more important things for me to focus on such as your ideas and opinions, how we can help each other etc…..

* I see your race so I can’t see you…..This happened to me and a friend of mine when we were studying abroad in France. We were the only 2 non-White students from our university. The university in France decided to enter us for a lower level exam than the others students. After scoring high marks, we were told by one of the university staff members that they thought we would not be able to cope with the higher level exam hence the reason we were entered for the lower level one. What they really meant was that ‘we saw your race not your brilliance’.

I am sure there are other variations on the ‘I see your race’ theme. What matters to me firstly is not that there are a multiplicity of perspectives but what matters is that we talk about these perspectives and the impact it has on individuals and groups. 

My teacher did me a favour in school. She didn’t pretend that she couldn’t see race. She spoke about it openly and gave me something to think about. She forced me to interact with others that I would not naturally interact with. I see race. Without a shadow of a doubt. But most of the time, what I care more about is the humanity of the individual and our interaction. My friendship group is full of people of different races and I love it. I love learning about culture, I love the different perspectives this brings. I love that I can joke with them about our differences. But I also love the fact that I can talk openly about race with most of them. We may not always agree (different lenses) but at least we can have a conversation and surely that is the starting spot.

Just because we say or pretend that we cannot see something does not mean it does not exist. The only way to truly make oneself blind to race is to tie a piece of cloth around one’s eyes and use some earplugs too. Race is not going anywhere so we might as well confront the issue of its impact on individuals and groups.

*Whether people agree or not with the author’s sentiments, I still believe it to be a fantastic read in our day and age and I hope it will continue to provoke discussions without accusations.

**This is pure speculation on my part and I acknowledge it as just that. Double invisibility for me is not just about how Black women are perceived and treated by others. It’s also about how we feel about ourselves and how we treat ourselves based on our experiences as Black women.

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