To My White Friends: You Are Not Colorblind. That Is Not A Thing You Get To Be Anymore

07/07/2016 08:01 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2016
David Ryder / Reuters

I was born in a tiny town in northern California full of primarily white Republican farmers. The majority of public arguments were about water rights, endangered species, and the effect on the economy each posed. There were only a handful of racial “incidents” at my high school, always ending with the white students involved being scolded while the students of color were somehow found at fault.

I didn’t get involved. I looked away. I hadn’t participated, so I wasn’t part of the problem.

My community was not particularly diverse by any definition, but I had parents who taught me to love people, all people, and to not see the color of people’s skin as a marker of separation. When I was seven or so my mom, a Washington D.C. transplant, bought me a black Cabbage Patch doll, which I promptly named “Claudia.” I loved Claudia. Claudia played with all of my dolls and stuffed animals just the same as my little white girl dolls. I saw no difference between them, they were all my dolls with equal access to my affection.

I loved everyone the same. I had a black doll, and I didn’t “see” her color.  I wasn’t part of the problem.

We traveled often, to many places, and I was lucky to have experienced many different cultures and places and things. Traveling alone or in a group of other white middle class children, I, a young white woman, encountered almost no discrimination. I rarely saw it, and if I heard it from someone else, I never spoke out against it, I just didn’t participate in it.

I wasn’t doing it. I wasn’t part of the problem.

I learned about our history, in the way that old adopted textbooks, dated American-made films, a few token “cultural” novels, and weekly episodes of CBS’s Sunday Morning portrayed our great and glorious nation.  I read about the atrocious acts that had happened to people in the past. I learned about how much progress we had made countered by information about new hate groups. I watched movies that portrayed modern racism, and it made me sad, so I just chose not to look at it anymore.

I wasn’t participating. I wasn’t part of the problem.

In college studying to be a teacher I learned more, and I felt called to champion education reform for the underprivileged. I wanted to be a bilingual teacher, and the kind that changed lives. Jaime Escalante, kindergarten edition. I was full of knowledge and empty of wisdom. My experiences gleaned almost entirely from media and the carefully curated experiences I received during my education. I was going to save the children, be the hero, and fix a broken system with really great teaching and a big mouth. So I got a job in one of these schools and I started teaching.

I wasn’t part of the problem, I was part of the solution. I was helping.

I was learning, and awakening to the real world, and still what I saw was limited only to my lens, my very white, very privileged lens.  I didn’t see the kind of discrimination my students were really facing. I saw them walk in the door and I did whatever I could for them. I listened, I watched, I supported, I taught. I saw things that broke my heart. I didn’t know what to do, so I just loved them.

But I wasn’t participating. I wasn’t part of the problem.

I went to graduate school to learn more, to do more, to increase my impact. Confidently, I asked the only black woman in a class what it’s like to grow up as a black child in the public school system. She’d gone to private school with mostly white kids. I will never, ever, ever, forget the moment when I realized what I’d done as she stood there crying in justified outrage to our professor. I had not only profiled her, but then asked her to speak on behalf of all black people.

I was starting to see how I might be a part of the problem.

Later, as a college professor at a city college where the majority of students were people of color, I taught from a place of love and respect, and it was reflected back by my students. I’d hear a colleague lament about behavior problems with their classes and comment about cultural norms interfering with instructional time. They spoke of feeling disrespected, but I couldn’t relate. That didn’t happen in my classes. But, I didn’t call them out, I just kept doing my thing.  

I wasn’t participating. I was creating a safe learning environment. I wasn’t part of the problem.

As an adult, I have friends of color, many, many, many friends of color. Good friends. Even my husband is black. That proves I’m not racist, right?  I’m not part of the problem. I love people of color, and white people. I am filled with love, and being filled with love is all I need to do to not be a part of the problem, correct?

No.

Absolutely no.

My experience is not unique. My experience is not so different than yours. That story is duplicable. Common. Replaceable in a few short keystrokes and name changes. And while I hope you’ll relate and reflect, it is entirely not the point.  

Because it’s not about me, or what I have done. It’s about people of color, and what I have NOT done.

Being filled with love is not, not being part of the problem. Doing nothing, saying nothing, turning off the news and avoiding emotional confrontation and uncomfortable discussions does not create resolution. It keeps the problem real, and alive, and breeding.

Racism is real and alive and we are at fault. We, being you, and me and every other person who is not of color. This is our beast, and we continue to feed it through inaction. Our indifference offers naught but an endorsement of the status quo. What I’m saying is that:

You are complicit in the construction of white privilege, as am I.

Here is what I want to say to you, and to me:

Standing in defense of yourself and your privilege, getting all into your feelings because someone dared to say that black lives matter and you read that to mean that yours does not? That is exactly the kind of problem in which you continue to indirectly participate. Pay attention. Get your facts straight. The imbalance in our system is egregious, disgusting, and undeniable.

Can you truly not see how blackness has been weaponized?

You, as a white person, get the choice to look away. You get to focus on the “good stuff,” and to try to smooth out the wrinkles in your own discomfort by saying that “all lives matter,” ignoring the injustice that continues to manifest itself day after day, after day. A malignant growth, as Cohen explains.

You, get to carry a weapon without consequence. You get to walk into a store and behave however you want and never run the risk of death by doing something like playing with a toy gun. You get to say it isn’t a racist country, because you don’t experience it, and you never will.  

You know who does not get to do those things? Black people. People of color. People who are not white, and who weren’t born in an automatic position of power and influence by genetic inheritance.

To ignore the fact that you have the tools and the power to actually do something is a condemnation in itself.

You cannot continue to choose to be colorblind. That is not a thing.

I invite you to change your thinking and your actions. I’ve offered a few readings and videos below to get you started. Share them. Talk about them. Get involved in the active dismantling of black oppression. Be constant in the calling out of racism. Make that, a thing.

Ask yourself:

  • Where are you trying to be the savior?

  • Where are you looking away in discomfort of indifference?

  • Where are you part of the problem?

  • What opportunities do you have to share what you’ve learned?

  • Who do you know than can share your words, increase your reach, and spread the message?

  • What do you not know that you should? Who and what can help with that?

  • Do your children know what you stand for? Absent of your presence, would they stand for the same?

This is just the beginning, but in order to make a shift it must be an actual beginning. Do something. Say something. Stand for something.

Many will tell me, and you, to be careful with your words. To be quiet. To make nice.  I say to that— NO. I will not be careful. I will be REAL. Will you?

 

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