Color Blindness Is A Disability

Color Blindness Is A Disability

Note to my white self…

When it comes to race, color blindness is not now – nor has it ever been – an admirable goal for a white person. Color blindness, both physically and metaphorically, is a human deficiency.  It has a negative impact on a person’s ability to navigate in a world where recognizing and discriminating between colors is a necessary and valuable tool.  While you – and most other white people – were taught to strive for color blindness in your racial interactions, this is not commendable or helpful.  Color blindness is always a disability.

Think about it.

Where else in our culture is a lack or deficiency in sight considered preferable? Parents are rightly saddened by a child born blind.  A loss of vision in an adult is considered a tragedy.  The restoration of sight is thought miraculous.  When used as a metaphor, blindness is almost universally negative.  Acting, judging or loving blindly is irresponsible. To be blind to a condition of life is a cause for concern. In “Amazing Grace,” we do not sing that “I could see, but now I’m blind.”  To do so would be ridiculous.

Though physical color blindness is certainly less traumatic, it is hardly celebrated. When severe, color blindness is a dangerous condition causing many difficulties for those so afflicted.  An inability to discern between red and green makes every major street intersection challenging.  When it comes to identifying colors, discrimination is not a negative activity.  It is a positive attribute allowing the person to make better judgments and avoid mistakes.  That, when it comes to race, color blindness is upheld as noble should seem odd.   That, in a white dominated culture, color blindness is applauded should be suspicious.

Why, in this instance, has a white dominated culture used a lack of visual acuity as a positive metaphor?

You know why.

As with all things white, this practice is advantageous to white people. By extolling color blindness, you escape the responsibility of identifying, acknowledging and addressing real social, economic and political disparities between yourself and people of color.  You can pretend, though racial prejudice is deeply embedded in your psyche, that the color of someone’s skin does not influence your attitude, judgment or actions.  You can even use the exaltation of color blindness to further oppress people of color.  People of color who refuse to affirm the positives of color blindness can be accused of “reverse racism” and identified as morally deficient.  After all, good people are color blind.

Think about how absurd that sounds when applied to the physical condition of color blindness.

Can you imagine a culture that extoled the physical condition of color blindness as superior and condemned those who discriminated between red and green? How would you explain a culture where not being able to see differences in colors was considered admirable, as something to brag about?  What would you think of a culture where people were pressured, even if they could see the differences, to ignore this discernment and pretend that they couldn’t?  How would you judge such a culture?  Wouldn’t you assume something odd or unacknowledged was behind such an attitude and behavior?

Such is the case with the use of color blindness as a positive metaphor in a white dominated culture. The something odd or unacknowledged is white privilege.  This privilege gives white people the power to demand that people ignore real disparities and inequities in how people of different skin colors are treated in our culture. According to the proponents of color blindness, if we refuse to see the differences, they will go way.  This claim that there are no real differences between black and white in America is as absurd as claiming red and green are the same.

Here is the truth.

Color blindness is not your goal.

Your goal as a white person is to see yourself and people of color as they truly are, to recognize how differences in skin tone continue to seriously impact the experiences of men, women and children in our society, that these differences privilege some and oppress others. To treat people equally, regardless of the color of their skin, isn’t inherently admirable or just.  When justice is blind to past injuries, this blindness is also negative.  When justice does not acknowledge the color of someone’s skin, it inevitably perpetuates rather than rectifies injustice.

Color blindness is not your goal.

To ignore the inequities that still exist because of differences in skin color is insulting and irresponsible. It is only in removing our blindfolds, that we become capable of seeing discrimination for what it is; the diminishment of some colors more than others.  The reason color blindness is metaphorically extoled and blackness is metaphorically maligned has the same ugly source – racism.

Stop claiming to be color blind.

It is not true.

It is not admirable.

It is not helpful.

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I Don’t Hate White People

I Don’t Hate White People

Note to my white self…

You should be used to it by now.

It happens repeatedly. You acknowledge your personal struggle with racism and a white person – rather than admitting to their own racial prejudices – accuses you of self-hatred. You challenge racist attitudes and behaviors in white people and a white person – rather than addressing the malignancy of racial injustice – accuses you of being racist, of hating white people. Your accusers often follow their attack with a defense of white pride. They complain, “Why are white Americans the only ones who can’t be proud of their race and heritage?”

I know you were initially surprised by such responses. For you, honest self-examination is a sign of self-respect rather than of self-hate.  Acknowledging your personal struggle with racism has led to greater self-awareness.  You feel good about that. For you, challenging societal and systemic racism is an act of integrity. As a responsible adult, you intentionally critique the societal groups to which you belong.  You don’t simply defend them. You acknowledge their flaws and offenses, past and present.  You commit to correcting these ills and imperfections in yourself and in society.

You do not hate white people.

Most of your family, friends and acquaintances are white. You love and care about them.  What has changed in you is not your opinion of white people, but your appreciation for people of color.  You are slowly learning to love and care for them as well.  You no longer see them as alien and their complaints as irrelevant.  You are finally seeing them as fellow citizens, deserving of equality and justice. Racism, once an abstraction to you, has become a focus of time and attention.

As a white person raised in a historically racist society, it is your responsibility to carefully examine your attitudes and behaviors, to see yourself as you truly are. In examining your attitudes and behaviors, you will also become aware of how they permeate your society.  You will see your culture in new and often disturbing ways.  To refuse to acknowledge white cultural dominance and privilege would simply be intellectually dishonest. Understanding the racist themes within American history should not make you proud of your race or heritage.

This is the terrible truth.

You are part of a group of people who have historically and repeatedly done great damage and evil to those who were not white. That other groups of people might hate white people is understandable. Your response should not be self-hatred.  It should be embarrassment followed by regret and action.  If you love yourself and your white friends and family, you cannot perpetuate ignorance, apathy or justification.  You must change.  You must speak out.

Those who accuse you of self-hatred and of hating white people are defending a corrosive American myth, one in which white people are portrayed as generally treating people of other races fairly. They are upset at you because you are challenging this convenient delusion.  When another white person accuses you of racism, of hating yourself or of hating other white people, understand their motivation.  You are asking them to do something most people resist.  You are asking them to be self-reflective and culturally critical.  You are asking them to do something that you have experienced as difficult and painful.  You are asking them to be courageous.

This is especially frightening because at some deep level they are aware of their prejudices and privileges. They recognize that acknowledging what you are saying and writing will demand change on their part.  The myth of racial equity is so alluring because it absolves them of this responsibility.  It allows white people to do what we’ve been doing for hundreds of years – to blame the victim of our racism for their oppression.

Remember that. The proper pronoun when talking about white attitude and behavior is “we” and not “them.”  We white people who acknowledge racism and privilege and we white people who resist its reality have this in common – we all continue to richly benefit from a culture of white dominance and privilege. By rule, white Americans are racist.  That you have become aware of your racism is positive, but it is a beginning and not the end.  Your task – when it comes to being white – is to become an exception to the rule.

There are exceptions. There have been white people – throughout American history – who have recognized the injustice of racism and have radically aligned themselves with people of color.  While they have always been a small minority, they have often been instrumental in bringing about change, challenging the myths and delusions that sustain racism and white privilege.  Though they have often paid dearly for their disloyalty, they have persisted in the face of censure and condemnation.  Being told you hate yourself is of minor consequence.  In the past, those expressing your opinions were sometimes lynched or killed.  They would not be impressed by your acknowledgment of personal and societal racism.

They would respond, “What took you so long?”

I Am Not A Hero

I Am Not A Hero

Note to my white self…

During the past year, you’ve received hundreds of responses from people either provoked or inspired by your writing.  Some have called you disloyal and racist, accusing you of inciting hatred and inflaming racial tensions.  Others have applauded your words with glowing accolades, calling you noble, wise, brave and heroic.  Be careful.  The accolades are more dangerous than the accusations.  Constantly remind yourself of these truths.

That you never use the N-word, tell racist jokes, or express deliberately racist opinions does not make you noble. It simply means you are not a bigot.  People who brag about not being blatantly racist imply – though they seldom realize it – that they’ve made some great sacrifice, that they’ve given up some white prerogative out of the goodness of their heart.  Ironically, thinking the absence of such behavior noble is the surest indication of deeply ingrained racism.

While I’m glad you’ve advanced beyond such shallow understandings of racial enlightenment, recognizing your unconscious racism and accepting your daily participation in white privilege does not make you wise. It simply means you’ve come to see what every person of color already knew about you.  You are hopelessly enmeshed in your white privilege.  While being aware of this reality is positive, don’t act like you’ve discovered something newsworthy.  If there were a headline, it would read, “Ignoramus Finally Looks More Deeply.”

That you speak out to your white peers about systemic racism and white privilege does not make you brave. It simply means you’re finally taking some responsibility.  As a white person, you risk very little in calling out and condemning such behavior. Ironically, your immunity to censure only emphasizes your privilege.  The brave ones are those people of color who stand up and speak out knowing the possible consequences.  You risk losing a few friends.  They sometimes risk their lives and livelihoods.

While I’m pleased you’re doing more than simply speaking out, attending Black Lives Matter events and contributing to organizations who are fighting on behalf of people of color does not make you heroic. It simply means you are being a decent human being.  Expecting accolades for such behavior – though you seldom realize it – suggests that people of color should be grateful for all you are doing.  Don’t expect credit for repaying a long overdue debt.

Be so careful.

There are two kinds of white ugliness. The first kind of ugliness is exemplified by those who claim or imply that black lives matter less than white lives.  It is easy to identify and condemn.  The second kind of ugliness is far more subtle.  It belittles people of color by implying that the respect that white people demand and expect of one another is a generosity when extended to a person of color.

Here is how to test whether you are guilty of this second kind of ugliness. Attend a Black Lives Matter rally and listen to what people of color are saying about white people.  When they are critical of white people, listen to your internal dialogue.  If you are defensive and outraged, you are likely experiencing your discomfort at not having your white generosity acknowledged.  You are not getting the credit you think you deserve for attending their rally.  They are not treating you as you’re accustomed; as a benevolent and enlightened white person.

You are not the guest of honor.

Your presence in the fight for equality and justice does not make you noble, wise, brave or heroic. It makes you empathic, someone willing to sit uncomfortably in the presence of someone else’s pain.  If what they say about white people does not apply to you, be glad.  If it does, be honest.  This, more than anything, is what people of color yearn for from white people.  In some ways, they are more comfortable with the blatant racist.  At least they know where they stand.

The greatest obstacle to racial reconciliation in America is in ending this second kind of white ugliness, the kind so pervasive in progressive and liberal circles. When supporting people of color is about feeling good about yourself, you have objectified people of color once again.  Like the slave owner, they are a means to your end.  They are the context for you to be noble, wise, brave and heroic.

In the story of the emancipation of people of color, you – as a white person – can play a role. Some have chosen to be the villains.  Many have chosen to be spectators.  A few have become allies and accomplices.  None are heroes.  That role rightly belongs to only one group of people – the people of color who’ve paid for their freedom and their civil rights with their blood, sweat and tears.

Paying My Reparations

Paying My Reparations

Note to my white self…

I’m really glad you understand the depth of the injustice inflicted on people of color in the United States. You’ve done your homework.  You’ve educated yourself about the genocide of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, the massacre at Wounded Knee, the reign of the KKK, the exploitation of Chinese workers in mines and on the railroad, the institution of Jim Crow Laws, the exclusion of people of color from the New Deal, the internment of the Japanese, the oppression of migrant workers and the continued mass incarceration of people of color.  You’ve expanded your understanding of history beyond the whitewashed version you were taught in school.

I’m glad you’ve become a proponent of reparations, of systemic compensation for systemic oppression. This isn’t a popular position in a white culture enamored by the myth of a level playing field.  You can expect to be mocked and vilified for suggesting white people have a responsibility for the racist acts of their ancestors, for pointing out the presence of systemic racism today and for acknowledging the need to balance the scales.  Stand firm.  Your verbal support for reparations helps deconstruct justifications for past and present injustice.

But verbal support isn’t enough.

You’re not naïve. You know, in this present political climate, the odds of reparations becoming a reality are slim to none.  You know that for the past twenty-five years, US Representative John Conyers has introduced the HR 40 bill, calling for a study of the impact of slavery and appropriate remedies, and has watched both Republican and Democrat Congresses ignore that bill.  You know rhetoric is unlikely to make reparations a reality.

So don’t be guilty of what conservatives claim. Don’t let your support for reparations be an act of virtue signaling.  It is far too easy to support reparations when they are unlikely to ever occur.  You can claim nobility without any personal cost.  If you really support reparations, you don’t have to wait on other whites to agree.  You don’t have to wait on a Congressional study committee.  You don’t have to wait on legislation remedying past injustices.  If you truly believe in reparations, you can begin paying them today.

Here are a few simple suggestions…

  1. Make a significant monthly donation to organizations that work with or for people of color. Treat that donation as a monthly debt obligation and not as an act of charity. Give enough to notice the difference in your bank account.
  2. Seek out businesses and professional services owned by people of color even if they aren’t the lowest bidder. Invest in the entrepreneurial endeavors of people of color, knowing that traditional sources of capital are often denied to them.
  3. Offer your products and services to people of color at a discounted price. Eliminate any economic behavior that exploits people of color. Make certain domestic workers, roofers, and landscapers aren’t being exploited for your benefit.
  4. Tip people of color twice the norm when they serve you.
  5. Assist a person of color in attending college or vocational school.
  6. Attend events and performances created and sponsored by people of color. If you are never the minority at an event, make that happen.
  7. Financially support people of color who are seeking political office.
  8. Consider including people of color and their causes in your will, thereby redistributing your accumulated wealth.

Since you are in favor of reparations, begin today.  Until you begin doing these things, your economic footprint is exactly the same as that of a white supremacist.  You both benefit equally in the advantages of white privilege. Neither of you are paying your debts.

Be the change you want to see. If thousands of white people like you began to pay reparations, the economic scales in America might begin to subtly shift.  In that process, more people of color will be empowered and political momentum could change.  Perhaps, if enough people commit to personal reparations, “justice will finally roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

(This post is the third in a three part series on reparations.  The first post in the series was “How To Tell If A White Person Is Racist With One Simple Question” and the second post was “A Reasonable Reparation.”

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Reminders For Recovering Racists

Note to my white self…

Congratulations! You have committed to being an ally to people of color in their struggle to end systemic racism in America.  You are sharing anti-racist memes, donating to anti-racist causes and even attending anti-racist protests.  Good for you.  However, don’t forget your most helpful contribution in this struggle.  First and foremost, address the unconscious racial bias within yourself.  Here are six daily reminders as you navigate life as a white person…

It is impossible to be aware of your unconscious racial bias.  If you were aware of them, they wouldn’t be unconscious.  This means, as a white person, you should never say, “I was not being racist.”  This implies you are aware of your every motive.  This is very unlikely.  When your motives are challenged, it is better to respond, “I was not consciously or intentionally being racist.  Thanks for making me aware.”   This is more honest and reflective.  It also implies a genuine interest in becoming aware of your unconscious racial bias.

When someone of color points out a racial bias, they are most likely correct. When interacting with people of color, they are much more likely to be aware of your bias – one they have consciously experienced countless times – than you are.  Could they be wrong?  Certainly.  However, it is more likely you were unaware of your bias.  Immediately responding “I was not being racist,” without carefully reflecting on their perception, may actually suggest another unconscious racial bias – people of color should not correct white people.

Being unconscious of a racial bias is not an excuse. An unconscious bias is not less problematic than a conscious bias.  It is just the opposite. An unconscious bias is much more dangerous.  You can address a conscious bias, but an unconscious racial bias can repeatedly do damage.  When someone makes you aware of a racial bias, don’t say, “I didn’t mean to be racist” as if this excuses your behavior.  If you were unconsciously standing on someone’s toes, you were still causing them pain.  The proper response, when a racial bias is exposed, is always an apology.

For every racial bias of which you are aware, you can assume there are several of which you are not. The racial bias of which you aware is usually the tip of an iceberg.  Therefore, when you become conscious of a racial bias, it is always worthwhile to dig a little deeper in your own psyche.  For this reason, having an unconscious bias challenged need not be understood as an attack on your character.  You are being offered an opportunity to better understand yourself.  Exposing one racial bias may allow you to become conscious of others.

In any interaction with a person of color or discussion about racism, it is best to assume you will be bringing some unconscious racial bias into the interaction or discussion. Assuming your interactions or discussions will be free of racial bias is arrogant. Accepting the likelihood that you will be acting out of your racial biases allows you to be receptive, rather than defensive, if someone challenges your attitudes or actions.  Remember, the person of color – based on many encounters with white people – already assumes you have conscious or unconscious racial bias.  They don’t expect you to be unbiased.  They expect you to respond to any challenge with defensiveness.  Surprise them.

Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias does not eliminate it. A bias took many years to develop.  If it is an unconscious bias, it became so normative that you could not see it.  Becoming aware of an unconscious racial bias is merely the beginning of the process of becoming less racist.  Initially, you will continue to act out of that bias.  All that has changed is your awareness.  Only with time can you diminish the power of a bias to influence your behavior.  Expect to have your bias pointed out to you repeatedly. When challenged, respond, “Thanks.  I needed that reminder.” With each reminder, you will become less likely to act out of that racial bias.

In the battle against systemic racism, always remember  – as a white person – you are part of the problem as well as the solution. Purging the unconscious racial bias within yourself is the first and greatest contribution you can make.

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Claiming “Everyone Is Racist” Is Racist

Note to my white self…

Claiming “everyone is racist” is racist.

I know other white people are telling you that anyone – regardless of their color or ethnicity – can be racist. They’re quoting the definition of racism from the dictionary – “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”  They’re arguing people of color can be biased or antagonistic toward white people, that everyone is equally capable of being racist.  They tell stories of when they’ve been personally attacked or mistreated by someone of color.  Or they point out situations in the world where people of color have marginalized another group.

Don’t be confused.

In most cases, these arguments are attempts to normalize racism and not to end it. Indeed, once they’ve convinced you that everyone is racist, racism is no longer a problem requiring societal change.  It becomes a personal issue.  After all, if everyone is racist, white people have no greater responsibility for addressing and combatting it than others.  Ironically, while these people are fighting for an equal application of the definition of racism, they are far less concerned about actual social inequities, such as the power to define language.

When we who are white insist on a definition of racism which includes everyone, we are arguing that we – and not people of color – get to define the term. When we quote from Merriam-Webster, we seldom acknowledge George Merriam, Charles Merriam and Noah Webster were all white men, or that the academic and publishing worlds continue to be dominated by white people.  This assumption that our definition of racism trumps alternative definitions, especially those of people of color, exposes a dynamic white people seldom want to discuss – the differences in political and economic power in America.

Systemic racism is so insidious because it permeates every societal institution, including the publishers of dictionaries. Thankfully, in recent years, alternate definitions of racism have gained credibility.  Most sociologists define racism within a societal structure where there are significant differences in power.  They understand what most people of color know intuitively – without power – prejudice, discrimination and antagonism toward someone of another race is powerless.  It can do little systemic damage. In America, while anyone can be biased and prejudiced, it is only white people who have the power to be racist.

Think about this. Obviously, black people were antagonistic toward their white oppressors during the era of slavery.  Was this antagonism racist?  When they ran away, or killed their owners, or led rebellions, should these actions be seen as reverse racism?  Of course not.  Most people would acknowledge that their actions were a legitimate response to their mistreatment.  Yet, today, if a person of color expresses anger or resentment about their mistreatment, many white people want to define their behavior as racist.  Don’t be confused.  Resisting oppression is not racism.

When you confront other white people with this reality, don’t be surprised when they call you racist. When white people call other white people racist for challenging racist attitudes or behavior, they demonstrate how little they really care about Merriam-Webster’s definition.  By that definition, it is impossible for you – another white person – to be racist toward them.  What they are upset about is your lack of loyalty.

Merriam and Webster did get one part of their definition correct. Racism has always included a deep seated conviction that one’s own race is superior.  This loyalty to your race is vital to sustaining injustice.  It is difficult to justify inequality if we acknowledge the worth of another group of people.  Racism thrives on an underlying assertion of superiority.  This makes the claim that everyone is racist, when mouthed by white people, even more ugly.  If we who are white want to emphasize our common humanity with people of color, offering them equality in the propensity toward racism seems a ridiculous place to start.

Theoretically, is it possible for any group of people to be racist?  Of course.  If Africans had preceded Europeans in the Industrial Revolution, colonized North America, brought over Europeans as slaves, oppressed white people for generations and resisted every attempt to create a just and equitable society, it would be possible to legitimately accuse people of color of racism.  However, short of that, claiming everyone is racist…is racist.  We live in a country where racism is a white affliction that can only be cured when we who are white acknowledge this ugly disease and seek treatment.

Here is my challenge to you.

Work for a society where people of color have enough power that they can be rightfully accused of racism.  Create a society where power is distributed so evenly that blame and responsibility for injustice can be equally shared.  This will not happen by accusing everyone of racism.  It will only happen when white people surrender the power of defining and dominating the conversation.

Habitually Racist

Habitually Racist

Note to my white self…

You are not a white supremacist. You don’t hate people of color.  You don’t consciously think of them as inferior.  You never use derogatory language to describe them. You believe people of color deserving of the same civil rights and legal protections as you have.  Unfortunately, none of these behaviors or attitudes are admirable.

While I’m glad you think such things, these convictions are hardly noble. It is a little like bragging that, when it comes to your children, you “put food on the table and a roof over their head.”  Of course you do.  You and every other decent parent.   Likewise, not being a white supremacist isn’t an achievement.  It is a reasonable expectation.  Not belonging to the KKK doesn’t mean you are not racist; it means you are not morally deficient.

For you and many others, your racism is far more subtle. It is not an intentional commitment to see people of color harmed or diminished.  Your racism is more like a bad habit, gradually developed from observing your grandparents, parents and peers in a racially prejudiced culture.  You had these habits reinforced by the media, in school and even by your religion.  In such a culture, it would be nearly impossible for you to not be racist.

I know it is difficult for you to see this. Your racism is a habitual behavior.  These behaviors – like all such habits – seem ordinary, innocent and normal.  Identifying the race of someone of color in describing them.  Assuming drug dealers are people of color.  Using phrases with racially derogatory histories.  Checking your car locks when a black male appears.  Fearing people of color who haven’t straightened their hair.  These are bad habits shared by many white people.  They are habits that often take an outside observer to point out.

Unfortunately, when someone points out a racist behavior, you tend to hear this as a moral indictment. You hear an accusation of some heinous crime.  Often, your conversation partner simply wants you to be aware of a bad habit.  They are not claiming that you belong to the KKK.  They are reminding you that you’re a white person raised in a racially biased culture with a long history of racial injustice.  They are not accusing you of being evil, but of being oblivious.

Understanding your racism as a bad habit should lessen your defensiveness. Your racism is not a character flaw.  You can continue to see yourself as a good person.  Indeed, you are such a good person that you appreciate when someone points out a bad habit that you need to correct.  The proper response is, “Thank you.  I wasn’t aware of how off putting and offensive that behavior or attitude could be. I will try to act and think differently.”

Understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests a course of action. You know how to eliminate a bad habit.  You’ve addressed them before.  Awareness is the first step, but you must actively work to change your patterns.  This involves quickly altering your behavior when you catch yourself in an old habit.  Initially, you’ll catch yourself often, but each incident will reinforce your awareness of your negative behavior and increase your desire to change.  Every time you hit your car locks, you’ll be aware of your behavior’s racist overtones.  Instead of that behavior reinforcing your prejudice, it will make you aware of it. With vigilance, eventually you will find yourself developing more positive behaviors and attitudes.  When it comes to racism, you can become less and less racist if you are committed to eliminating racist habits.

Finally, understanding your racism as a bad habit suggests racism can be greatly diminished in our society. You know of negative behaviors and attitudes – smoking, sexual harassment, gender inequality, homophobia, domestic violence, etc. – that were once either ignored or silently condoned within our culture.  While none of these societal habits have been completely eliminated, we’ve made progress.  This progress has largely been the result of more and more people understanding such behavior as negative and unacceptable.  Many people have rejected the behaviors and attitudes they learned from their grandparents, parents and peers and acted differently.  This is equally possible in the case of racism…if you acknowledge you have a problem.

So start acknowledging your racism today. Your subtle racism may not be immediately obvious to you, but it will be if you are willing to accept outside critique.  If you are open to this critique, people who are more aware of racial bias can point out your bad habits.   When they do so, hear it for what it is – an opportunity to become a better person, to be a little less racist, and to help create a more wonderful world.