I was one of a handful of black students at my high school. I didn’t have a black teacher until my third year of college; and in most of my classes, I was the only black student. Discussions about race were rare among my classmates and in my high school classes. I have very fond memories of those years and strong connections with many of my classmates and teachers. However, in many situations it felt as though conversations about race were too uncomfortable, taboo for the classroom, so they were mostly avoided. When race was brought up among my peers, it was usually coupled with some joke: “You don’t talk like you’re black.” “You’re black, you can dance, right?” “Of course you’re good at basketball, Myriama. Black people are so athletic!” These words were always said with a smile or a pat on the back, and they weren’t meant to upset me. I was too afraid of being labeled an angry black woman to speak up, but in truth I felt isolated.
When a joke or a comment did come up, it was often followed by “It’s just a joke” and then “I don’t see color.” These words were meant to be reassuring. They were supposed to make me feel included, as though there was no difference between me and my white classmates. The truth is, the words “I don’t see color” scared me. They only made me feel more invisible than ever, as if my struggles and my people’s history were unimportant.
I’ve been seeing color my whole life. I see it when I’m the only black person in the room. I see it when I’m the only black person in the store and the only one being followed by security. I saw my classmates glance over their shoulders to check if I was upset when we discussed slavery in our history classes, one of only two units about my people while the rest of the school year was spent learning about mostly-white American history. If I was the only person seeing these things, that meant I was completely alone. Nobody seemed to recognize my isolation. Nobody seemed to want to. If they didn’t see my color, did they see me at all?
What needs to be understood is that there’s nothing wrong with seeing color. In fact, I want you to see my color. People need to recognize that the struggles of a white man and a black man in this country are not the same, partly because society has perceived the black man as a threat his whole life. People must recognize that the way a white woman maneuvers through each day is not the same as the way a black woman has to. The black woman faces an intersectionality of oppressions based on being both a woman and a person of color. People need to recognize that when black people are included in conversations, they bring personal experience and knowledge about the depth of oppression in U.S. institutions–in the criminal justice system and in education, among other things. By really listening to what black people have to say and then working together, we can help make progress in relation to these issues.
You can recognize differences in experience without making assumptions about the black men and women you are seeing. Don’t assume that we love fried chicken, that we can’t swim or that we need tutoring. Don’t assume that a black man walking after dark is committing a crime. Don’t assume that a black woman is living in poverty. And if she is, don’t assume that you know how she got there.
Denying you see color is an attempt to protect yourself from being seen as part of the issue and to deflect potential criticism. How can you be racist if you don’t see a difference in races, right? The thing is, when you say you don’t see color, there are many components of race that you’re blinding yourself to. You’re refusing to see the racial disparities that are an unjust part of life in our country. You’re excusing yourself from the self-examination that is necessary in order to change racial biases. Instead of making yourself an advocate of black lives, you contribute to their oppression by ignoring their stories. How can you recognize that black drivers are 20% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers if all you see are drivers? How can you recognize that a black woman makes $0.67 to every $1.00 that a white man makes if all you see are employees? How can you recognize that black men serve 19.1% longer sentences than white men for committing similar crimes if all you see are inmates?
Denying you see color doesn’t keep you from being part of the problem, it keeps you from being part of the change. It’s impossible to fix a problem that you can’t see. The question is if you shouldn’t say that you’re color blind, what should you say? The answer is that it’s not really about what you say right now, it’s about listening and learning from the experiences and stories people of color have to share, and it’s about acting on what you learn. Don’t seek to be innocent of racism, seek to be actively anti-racist.
As a black teenager, I should have been taught about people like W.E.B Dubois, Maya Angelou, Sojourner Truth, and so many more. I should have been taught about black history and the current realities of the black community. I should have been taught to be proud of the skin I’m in and the history that comes with it, instead of being rendered invisible. The good news is that it’s not too late. Now is the right time to educate yourself on the reality of black lives and how you can become an effective advocate for racial justice. You can start by seeing color.
Myriama Smith-Traore is a 2017 graduate of Whitewater High School. A shorter version of this op-ed was published in The Gazette on July 10. The Banner appreciates Myriama providing this thought-provoking writing for our readers. She has completed her third year of college at Saint Louis University, where she plays basketball and is majoring in English. Myriama told the Banner that her intention is to be an English teacher.