It seems like a noble, enlightened thing to say: “I don’t see race.” And in a sense it is, right?
I mean, race isn’t a biological fact, it doesn’t determine the content of a person’s character, and it really shouldn’t matter. But I’m tired of hearing the words “I don’t see race.”
Though people might be trying to say “I’m not prejudiced,” it sounds more like they’re saying “I’m open-minded because I’m ignorant” to racially conscious people.
I’ve seen these words used to deny racial privilege, to discount the experiences that people have with racism, to deny the whitewashing of people of colour in Hollywood.
I’ve seen it used to sidestep the lack of diversity and inclusion in higher education, to back away from the sense of pain and responsibility that comes from acknowledging all the ugly racial dynamics that play out in our society.
Because if you really don’t see race at all, it doesn’t make much difference to the people whose livelihoods, cultures, and identities are all affected by racial inequality.
There are plenty of other people who will remind them of their race when they look for jobs and housing, when they walk down the street, or when they seek legal counsel.
“I don’t see race” is a personal statement. You, person who doesn’t see race, may have a cookie for being so free of prejudice (not really), but the same does not apply to the world around us.
Because race shouldn’t matter, but it does matter.
It matters that the western world as we know it has a history of white supremacy that hasn’t been completely scrubbed away.
It matters that we had racialised slavery around the world.
It matters that there are still people alive today who remember segregation, and it matters that kids of color are still growing up with few positive versions of themselves in the media.
It also matters that many of us have racial identities, which are often reflective of our cultures and the people we grew up around.
At the same time, I get why looking at race head-on can be like looking directly at the sun for some people. They may benefit from ignoring race because in doing so, they don’t have to deal with the benefits they gain from a system of perpetual inequality.
So if you’re someone who’s having trouble seeing race, here are some things to start paying attention to so you can see it a little more clearly:
1. Racism isn’t rare, and it isn’t always obvious
Sometimes racism is extremely subtle—subtle to the point that the person on the receiving end of it may not even register how messed up it actually is. It may even seem complimentary on the surface.
These subtle bits of racism that are sprinkled into everyday interactions are microaggressions—they reflect a larger cultural problem, but don’t seem like a big deal in the moment.
For example, a white woman walking down the street might clutch her purse tighter when a black woman walks by. This particular white woman doesn’t think she’s hateful—she has black friends, eats Ethiopian food once in a while, and does other “culturally sensitive” things that make her feel like a totally not-racist person.
But she still did something racist, annoying, and hurtful.
The black woman posts about this experience on Facebook, noting that she believes the white woman did something racist.
Like clockwork, someone posts a comment to this effect: “Well, how do you know she was clutching her purse because you were black? Maybe she was just being careful. And why do you always insert race into stuff anyway? No one put race into this but you. I don’t see race, and it’s kind of prejudice you think that was racist.”
Often the commenter is another person of colour who has been lucky enough not to deal with this problem. Or it’s a white person who feels defensive because they don’t understand why people are still “making a big deal” about race.
Whatever the case, the commenter is also doing something annoying and hurtful by completely dismissing the fact that purse clutching, door locking, and profiling of all kinds are things that come with existing while black.
Whether that particular white woman on that particular day had a single racial thought going through her head, the black woman’s experience was not isolated, unique, or divorced from the issue of race.
Note that this situation is only partially hypothetical. I’ve seen it play out on Facebook, in person, with family and friends.
So even if you have trouble seeing race or are tired of people making things about race, realize that if they could, most people of color would ignore race, too.
The problem is that little racially charged things, like purse clutching ladies, and bigger racially charged things, like the Zimmerman trial and the conversations surrounding it, are hard to ignore when they hit close to home.
2. Pointing out racism is not a witch hunt or an attempt to make you feel bad
A person doesn’t have to be a moustache-twirling villain to do or say racist things. They don’t have to shun people of colour to do racist things. They don’t even really have to be intentionally racist to do racist things.
Because we live in a world that privileges whiteness. This isn’t something white people should feel guilty about.
But it is something everyone should be aware of. And when people aren’t aware of their own privilege, unintentional racism can happen.
Sometimes people who are aware of privilege make a point to call out racism. They point out how your favorite singer or comedian says or does problematic things, or they’re tired of the lack of Asian lead characters in Hollywood, or they make a movie you enjoy seem less fun by pointing out all of its unfortunate racial implications.
They do it in articles like these. They do it on Tumblr, Facebook, and Twitter. They don’t seem to be able to take a joke or relax because all they see is racism all the time.
But really, they’re just pointing out how normalised messed up things are. For the most part, people who notice subtler racism aren’t trying to crucify every single person who does problematic things.
They just want to make people more aware of how fucked up our culture is, and how equally fucked up it is that we ignore it most of the time just to get through the day.
3. Acknowledging people’s racial identities isn’t a bad thing
Telling someone that you “don’t see them as x race” or that you “don’t see race” in general is an easy way to dismiss that person’s racial identity. And by racial identity, I don’t mean believing that “everything I do and say is a result of my race.”
I mean people who are aware that they have a race, know that being of that race has given them a certain perspective of the world, and understand that had they been of another race, that perspective might have been different.
This identity is shaped not only by skin color, but also by the racial dynamics of the society you grew up in.
For example, I’m more likely to identify as a black person than my Nigerian parents, simply because I didn’t grow up thinking that blackness was “normal” or inconsequential where I live.
Had I grown up in a different environment or with a different race, my identity would be affected and my worldview would be as well. This is like any other aspect of identity.
Every facet of ourselves, from the deeply embedded to the purely superficial, affects our life experience. Acknowledging the way those superficial things have shaped us isn’t wrong—it’s realistic.
So if you’re someone who doesn’t see race, keep avoiding prejudice. Keep understanding that race doesn’t determine a person’s worth or personality or character.
But please don’t use racial obliviousness as an excuse to dismiss people’s experiences with race.
Don’t use your “colourblindness” to deny your privilege, ignore things that hurt to recognise, let inequality go unchecked, or ignore the place that race has in shaping our identities.
As a matter of fact, let go of the assumption that seeing race is a bad thing.
This is not a post-racial society. Just because the first family is black doesn’t mean racism is over and we all get to put on our rose-coloured glasses that make everyone the same shade.
Just see race for what it is —a neutral, but very real thing that holds way too much power in this beautifully diverse and messed up world—and act accordingly.
This story first appeared on Everyday Feminism, republished with permission.