Tuesday, May 19, 2009

on being "colorblind"

often i find whenever i bring up a recent newsworthy incident about race and/or skin color, the response i get (from caucasian and people of color alike) is, "well, i don't see a person's color" to which i don't know how to respond... except to take the response as another way of saying, "i don't want to talk about this." and so i go with the flow and the subsequent change of subject...

a few weeks ago, i picked up the may '09 issue of chicago parent magazine and read this clear, thoughtful and positive letter written by kara wright, founder of mindhearted, inc. i was so thankful to kara for writing the letter and have read it often (see multiple coffee cup rings surrounding it...) and plan to use her advice in any future conversations about race, stymied by the "colorblind" flag.

for a while, i tried to find her letter on the magazine's website (my newsprint copy will not last much longer) and couldn't and had decided to post it here... well, as i said, a few weeks have past and i finally found it here. but the letter is posted below (hey, typing with my toes in a kitchen cabinet is a mad skill!) :

Colors and race matter

I love your magazine and use it as a relevant resource for my parenting needs every month. But I was really disappointed in some of the information shared in the article, Embrace the differences and similarities: New president helps open discussions about race in your home

As a parent and diversity practitioner who works specifically with parents who are committed to raising open-minded and compassionate children, I was very happy to see the article. However, I was absolutely horrified when reading the first tip that suggested, "Teach your kids to be color blind." While I cannot speak for all diversity practitioners or researchers who specialize in this field, I cannot think of one who would suggest that we teach our children to be color blind. Why? Because ALL of us notice variations in physical appearance (even very young children) that cause us to draw conclusions or raise the question as to what race a person is. Not doing so suggests that it’s not safe to discuss race or any difference and makes children feel as though they have done something wrong.

I applaud Ms. Monaghan for writing about this subject and appreciate some of the other tips from Ms. Clarke, but I can’t tell you how important it is to really understand a subject matter that highlights any of our society’s -isms (i.e. racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, etc). Why do people insist on suggesting being color blind is the answer? Because most are scared to death of being labeled racist. The fact is that noticing a person’s race does not make you racist. What does make you racist are judgments, assumptions and beliefs about that person’s intellectual, physical or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.

More importantly, when one teaches their children to be color blind, what you’re really teaching them is that race doesn’t matter in America. I do believe the story of our nation is changing. I also believe and celebrate that the story our children will come to know will be different from the one I learned—thank goodness. But I think we should be honest—race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country who still fail to have adequate access to health care, education and housing. Continued disparities in wealth, contracts granted in business and everyday experiences for people of color are still affected by race.

Yep, it’s a heavy subject and it is hard and painful to talk about for everyone. But if we really want to create change for our children so they can have a better world and a true opportunity at a "post-racial" society, we have to be honest with ourselves first and then with our children in appropriate ways. We also have to model and teach our children how to go beyond the concerns of a specific group to which we belong and recognize when another group is being discriminated against. It’s an injustice to us all. We can teach our children at all ages to speak up and advocate in ways where their physical or emotional safety is not compromised, but we have to be willing as parents to learn the skills.

Instead of putting the burden of defusing, diverting or departing on the person, child or adult who falls prey to racist or hurtful statements, we can teach our children a little skill called inquiry. It is a wonderful way to ask, "How did you reach your conclusion about this?" Usually the person making the statements then has to be the one to be accountable to defuse, divert or depart, not the one who is subjected to the racist remarks. And while it won’t magically change that person’s values or beliefs, sometimes a simple question can help us all to reflect. Something we all could do a lot more.

Founder of Mindhearted Inc.


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