*I am writing this from the perspective of a white person, as I have not experienced this issue from any other perspective. When I say “we” in terms of white people it is not with any disrespect, but simply acknowledging that this is the perspective that I share.
In the aftermath of the murder of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, as the echoes of “No justice, no peace” and “Black lives matter” echo in our hearts and mind, as the smoke begins to clear from the air – we are left with the reality of either changing, or justifying the old norm. So often lately, I have heard the defense of, “I don’t see color.” This is usually proceeding some justification of police behavior or reason why the protestors are in the wrong. I’m sure that the people who say this phrase like it’s some profound truth mean well, but as our grandparents were so fond of saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
“We don’t see color.” What does that even mean? I’m going to give some benefit of the doubt and say that the people saying this are meaning to say that they see everyone in the same light, they hold people accountable to their own behavior and words, etc. I’m hoping that’s what they mean to say. But what I hear when this is utilized is that we are trying to ignore the issue of color because we are uncomfortable with taking it head on. It is uncomfortable, you’re right. It’s uncomfortable to see our police officers target and murder citizens for no reason other than their skin color. It’s uncomfortable to see a 6-year-old child crying, who now has no father because his skin color was black. It’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the fact that the system that we live in automatically puts a large part of our population at a disadvantage simply due to their skin color. It is very uncomfortable. Imagine how uncomfortable it is to live it.
Color is an objective fact. We have different skin tones. I’m sorry if that is uncomfortable for some people to acknowledge, but that is the point I am trying to make, that it should not be uncomfortable. Color should not be uncomfortable. Color should be celebrated. Until we are able to see color and celebrate it, we will never be able to see every person for who they are. When you are ignoring a person’s color, you are not seeing them. Their color is a part of who they are and a part of their experience in this world. Perhaps that is why the people who are usually so uncomfortable with seeing color are the same people who are uncomfortable with admitting that your skin color does indeed change your experience within society.
A person’s skin color is part of their identity, part of their heritage, part of their being. When we claim to ignore that and hold that up as some benevolent act, that we don’t “see” their color… What a disservice we are doing to both the other person and ourselves. We are not acknowledging a part of their uniqueness and personhood, and we are denying ourselves the opportunity to learn from an experience different than our own. By not seeing color we are not seeing the real issue. Because by not seeing color, we can continue with the falsehood that everyone has the same experience and opportunity in our society.
The truth is, that none of that is true. We are different colors. We have different experiences and opportunities within our society. We have much that we can learn and teach each other from those different experiences. Only when we are able to do that, to acknowledge all of that, will we be able to have a society that can make the necessary changes to correct the injustices that are a part of the current system. Only when we accept and see our differences, can we even begin to appreciate them.
As a counselor, one of the biggest struggles with a new client is to work on becoming aware of the problematic behavior or modes of thinking that are contributing to their presenting problem or unhappiness. Our first step is always to begin working on identifying those problem thoughts or behaviors, before we can even consider working to change them. If we are not aware of a problem, of course we will do nothing to change it. That problem essentially does not exist for us, even as we experience the consequences of the underlying problem.
For example, say a person has a history of negative relationships, job failure, unhealthy physical habits, etc. They might come into the therapy office believing that things are the problem to change. We may work on changing those things, but will likely have little success. Then one day this person mentions that they often tell themselves how they deserve these negative things because they are worthless. Then we realize that it wasn’t the relationships, jobs, or habits themselves that were the problem, but the real problem was that self view. From there, we can work on changing that self view, which will then carry over into changing the symptoms of that view.
From my perspective, it appears that our society is suffering from something similar to that. We have the riots, the anger, the discomfort, that hate between groups, etc. We can say those are the problem. But they’re not, they’re a symptom, just as this denial to acknowledge other’s experience is a symptom. Our society is suffering from an inability to be wrong, to acknowledge that we are not doing it right and we need to change. That can be a scary thing to admit. Because change is unknown. Change, of course, changes things. If we are fairly comfortable with society as it is, even if it is harming someone else; what if we change it and it then harms us instead. It’s frightening. So we don’t admit it, we bury it, we deny it. We cloud over the truth of it by creating this fictional world where we don’t see color, even as it becomes painfully more obvious every day how clearly our system sees color. But if we deny color, we can deny the injustice surrounding color.
I would like us, white people, to challenge ourselves to see color. See it. See it in all it’s beautiful shades and complexities. See it. Then maybe take the next step and talk to someone with a different skin color. Ask them about their experiences. Ask them what their skin color means to them, what they feel their experiences have differed from yours based on your different skin colors. Let yourself to become conscious and aware that skin color does change our experiences in the world. Sit with that. Think about it. Think about the justice of that.
Then, I would challenge you to stand up with that friend and say to them, “I see your color. I see you. I will stand with you against the injustice that targets you because of that skin color.” After that, I would challenge you to appreciate that different skin color, the heritage that goes with it, the cultural uniqueness, the sharing experience that can be gained. When we can do that, truly see our different colors, our uniqueness, we can truly begin to value one another as equals and change society.
But, I implore you not to wait too long. People are dying, and we are needing you to see.