09/07/2011 01:19 pm ET | Updated Nov 07, 2011

Why Color Matters in America

A student of mine asked, "Why do people put so much emphasis on race and colors?" The question seemed fair and innocent enough. Though I will admit, I was taken aback by the question. In my truest fashion, I turned the question around on her and said, "Why do you think color and race matter so much?" As I awaited her response, my mind darted to the state of affairs in America today. After all, the country was about to witness the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Race and racial scrutiny is on many people's minds, including my own. Still, I waited patiently for the response and was slightly disturbed when I got it. She retorted, "Well, I don't know but I think we shouldn't focus on race at all. People are just people and everyone has it hard."

Immediately, I was searching for the appropriate response. While her words had some truth, they also rang of the soft bigotry that resonates with many individuals in this county alone. For one, two people can experience the same event in different ways. Joe X cannot feel my pain, just as I cannot do the same for him. Thus, telling me that 'everyone has it hard' only shows how little you care for my feelings and experiences. Until you have lived my life, do not assume you know what it takes to walk in my shoes. Then too, the idea behind melting people into one does nothing but marginalize the cultures and experiences of those people.

This idea that race and color have no bearing on life, which is the hogwash being fed to many children, is a complete and utter lie! Take for example, Glenn Beck's latest comment. Beck asserts calling Blacks "colored" is not only appropriate but completely fine. In fact, he argued that it is done in South Africa, so we should all be ok with it, and this country is fine for Blacks now. In essence then, South Africans are the same as Americans, which makes his whole premise, hypocritical. Additionally, what he failed to consider is that this country has made the term "colored" inappropriate because of the social and cultural context with which it was used. Further, Beck's insistence that this country is fine for Blacks showcases just how wrong he truly is. While Blacks have come a very long way, we are by no means fine. Beck's lack of empathy is proof of the soft bigotry and maligned placement that Blacks face, day in and day out.

The more Blacks are pushed to forget the past and get over it, the more we will feel the salient sting of a festering and rotting wound. Socially, Blacks are belittled and told that they should not be so sensitive when it comes to race. We are pacified with the words that cut like a machete, "... but our president is Black... " Our president is also a scholar, a Harvard Alum and a devoted father but we refer to him first and foremost, by what, his race. Do we stop and remark that Bush, Clinton and Reagan were white men? Likewise, Blacks are culturally cornered away from focusing on our sub- populations, in much-needed research and academic fields. This is common practice for fear that the research will further marginalize the group. How can Blacks effect change if we never learn where to begin? This too is bigotry at its finest.

I answered my student with my opinion as well. I told her this, "Think about your most hurtful moment -- the moment when you felt emotional pain that was too strong for your words. Can you remember that feeling? Now, how would you feel if someone told you that it is in the past, get over it? That is why race and color are so important. People haven't learned that in order to unify, we have to work together with empathy and understanding for our past experiences, not in spite of them." She smiled and said, "Thanks, I finally get it."