This is something I often hear from students and faculty when hard discussions of race come up. And, since I teach early American history, the history of slavery and African history here at JBU, the topic of race comes up often.
“I’m colorblind” is a sentence that I grew up using, too. I was raised in the multi-ethnic environment of the U.S. Navy, where I lived near, went to school with and became friends with people from a variety of backgrounds. And my black and Filipino friends were people with cool toys and music — not people who I identified primarily as members of particular ethnic groups.
After I started my graduate work in the history of slavery at the University of Maryland, I stopped saying I was colorblind. While my studies of race as a social and cultural phenomenon were enriching and certainly changed my beliefs about the role of race in society, what really changed the way I thought were the encounters and relationships I had with the people in the neighborhoods I lived in — first Hyattsville and then Riverdale Park, Maryland. Through my experiences in these two white-minority neighborhoods, I was educated in a new way.
I was educated by the single black mothers in the crisis pregnancy center where I worked who, often with resigned discouragement, recounted how they were treated with disdain by the welfare officials who used access to a welfare check as an opportunity to provide lectures on personal responsibility. My heart became heavy.
I was educated by the black Ghanaian shopworker I befriended when he mentioned his anger toward African-American teenage men, and how he intentionally exaggerated his West African accent so as not to be identified as a black thug. This saddened me.
I was educated by my son’s daycare provider, the inimitable Miss Novella, whose pride in her family’s ownership of the land on which they once worked as slaves was palpable. In this, I shared her joy.
I was educated by Miss Shirley, our neighbor down the road who cussed about the dirty immigrants coming to the neighborhood, even as she handed over generous bundles of clothes for my newborn baby. While I appreciated her generosity, I was perplexed by her disgust at newcomers.
I was educated by the very immigrants whom Miss Shirley cussed about as they fought for a quality education for their children at one of the worst schools in the state. And I was educated by my black UMD students, who handled insensitive statements in class with a dignity and patience I could never have mustered. Living in this world changed my understanding of God, justice, human nature and love.
Here’s what I learned from my beloved friends in the DC suburbs:
• I learned that the pernicious “welfare queen” myth is alive and well and that it deeply affects black women who need to be shown love, concern and respect rather than condemnation.
• I learned that many Americans, including my Ghanaian immigrant friend, assume that young black men are threats rather than contributing members of society.
• I learned that owning a home is a point of pride for many African Americans because it means they’ve been able to beat a government-sponsored system of discrimination that has systematically denied blacks access to one of the most critical paths to middle-class status.
• I learned that well-meaning white folks who care deeply for others can still hold violent ideas about people whom they fear — people like our immigrant neighbors.
• I learned that when undocumented immigrants face injustice in the schools, they often have little recourse for making things right because speaking out might mean deportation.
• I learned that some people — like our neighborhood school officials — take advantage of that reality to maintain a discriminatory status quo.
• I learned that I had inherited the privilege of blindness to systematic injustice simply because I am a white person who lives in a world where “white” is “normal.”
• I learned that the only way I can see these injustices is through the eyes of those who have experienced them.
• And, through my exploration of Scripture during this time, I learned that God sides with those who are oppressed, beaten and discriminated against — and so should I.
After my time in Hyattsville and Riverdale Park, I swore to never again utter the words “I’m colorblind.” This isn’t because I’m not interested in treating everyone with equal dignity (I am) but because I’ve come to realize that saying “I’m colorblind” amounts to saying “I have not lived your experience, and it therefore means nothing to me.”
The reality is that my minority friends’ experiences are more inextricably linked to the color of their skin than I, as a middle-class white woman, can ever imagine. And I have a lot to learn from them because of the uniqueness of their experiences. And so does the whole JBU community. My hope for JBU is that we become a place where people, in class, in the residence halls and in their offices, are less likely to say “I’m colorblind” and more likely to ask, “What colors your world?”