I don't see color
Race is a sensitive topic and one that most people try to avoid. One of the ways people avoid considering race, racial issues, or racism in general is by assuming a stance of “colorblindness.” The phrase, “I don’t see color,” is more popular now than ever in light of recent racial disputes. It’s in sports — think Colin Kaepernick — on college campuses — think Charlottesville — and in our politics. Everyone feels the need to take a side — racist or not racist. The taking of sides brings forth those who are decidedly neutral, the people who don’t see color; however, colorblindness may be more problematic than those on neutral ground may realize.
“Saying that I am ‘colorblind’ perpetuates racism because it suggests that I will deny you who you are to make me feel better about myself so that I can believe that I am not racist,” Harry Hoffman, associate professor of sociology at Minot State University, said. “‘Everybody today has the same opportunities,’ that’s what we call the new racism.”
Hoffman sees the colorblindness stance as a way to avoid responsibility in the race discussion and exclude oneself in an effort to avoid addressing a historically polarizing topic.
“To say that I don’t see color is to validate myself that I am beyond hatred and difference. This is not possible. It even denies intersectionality because we have to look at all factors to see how individuals develop a social and personal identity,” Hoffman said. “Saying you don’t see color already suggests that you have seen it.”
Colorblindness does all of this unintentionally, stripping away the individuality of a person and the circumstances that have influenced them in order to ignore those factors and assume an idea of equality that may not be there.
“In a majority of cases, colorblind is racism without racists. People with these thoughts tend to believe that because you have a friend of color that you can’t be racist and you know everything about that culture because you have that one friend. Colorblindness can even make people think they are close enough to get away with saying racial slurs,” Hoffman said.
Annette Mennem, MSU Native American Center director and co-chair of the University Diversity Council, said equality comes from recognizing individual needs.
“When you don’t see color, you don’t consider the individual. You say, ‘I treat everyone the same.’ Well, yes; however, when you have diverse populations treating everyone the same or not seeing their diversity is not fair to them. It definitely is not conducive to our university, in this setting because you have to think of the individual not the masses,” Mennem said.
According to Mennem, ignoring differences does not stop racial tensions, it simply ignores the problem.
“There are too many people on this campus that don’t see color and think they’re doing the right thing,” Mennem said.
Trying to be colorblind is not conducive to the race conversation — the lingering question of how to talk about race in a way that brings about change stands.
“Talking about it does tend to create a little bit of defensiveness and uncomfortableness but those are the exact reasons we need to talk about racism; we need to make people feel a little uncomfortable,” Mennem said. “The change comes from stepping out of your comfort zone and recognizing that there is a concern, issue, or dilemma. Sometimes, people like to not talk about racism or recognize it because they do not want to admit it. They think, if we don’t talk about it, then it doesn’t exist. It’s like an ostrich — it’s sticking your head in the sand, but if your head is in the sand then your butt is in the air.”
Mennem recalled during the height of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, someone questioned a Native American student and referred to them as an expert on the topic simply because they were Native American. The student felt singled out and felt like a token. In this instance the student was able to go to Mennem and she advocated for the student.
“If there wasn’t someone here that they could go to, then they wouldn’t have anyone,” Mennem said. “It would be helpful for students of other colors to have an adviser. They would benefit from having a constant, consistent adviser they could go to that could advocate for them.”
In terms of ways the campus community can improve our racial relations, Mennem believes we should interact more with the diverse events held on campus. Mennem and the Diversity Council spend a lot of time planning diverse events but the attendance is not always high. She believes that with increased attendance, people would see that students and faculty care about diversity on campus and see the importance in learning about cultures different from their own.
Hoffman believes talking about race in a way to bring about change begins with education in self-analyzation for the majority population.
“First thing we have to do is to include whiteness in that question because when do we ever see white mentioned in the race question?” Hoffman asked. “Normally, racism is defined as someone who is in a position of power. Historically, whiteness has always centrally defined everything else. When race comes up, white guilt comes out everywhere and it’s hard to talk to students about it because they are not able to critically analyze themselves. They are not able to look at how they have historically been put in this place of power. They cannot look at white privilege and recognize that they have it,” Hoffman clarified. “You have to begin by talking about white privilege and whiteness as a default — address what it is, why it is, and the effects that it may have on everything else.”
Hoffman believes that if there were a class on the history of white people and the impact they have had on the world, maybe students could begin to see how far back prejudice and racial issues go and how white people have contributed to it over time. He believes that teaching students to look at themselves critically — and separate themselves from the guilt so that they can judge themselves — will make them less likely to repeat the same issues in the future.