Often during conversations about race, someone’s will say, “Oh, I don’t see color!” And I respond, “Of course you do!” We learn to differentiate colors when we’re three years old. It’s part of basic pre-school curriculum right along with numbers, letters and shapes.
Indeed, the first two things we notice about someone are his gender and color. We may not be sure of either but our minds instantly try to figure out both.
People have mistaken me for Afghani, greeting me in Farsi. Others have addressed me in Spanish and still others have tried Amharic, the language of Ethiopia. Some have attempted subtlety asking, “Where are you from?” They’re disappointed when I reply, “Brooklyn,” as they were hoping for a better clue. One man then boldly asked, “No, where is your father from?” To which I responded, “Harlem.” Still disappointed. Then I had mercy on him and cleared things up: “I’m biracial. My father was African American and my mother is Caucasian.” “Oh! I see!” Now all is right in the world; I’ve been categorized.
I sound cynical, but I’m not. I actually think it’s perfectly fine to try to figure out a person’s race or ethnicity. Your color and culture are part of who you are -- and it is interesting! Being biracial is intricately, inextricably woven into my personality. So many of my life experiences came from being half white and half black. It’s part of my story. I would not be the same person if I were Italian, or Irish or Nigerian or Norwegian. I embrace being biracial like I embrace being a woman, and to know me, is to know these and many other things about me.
If you’re trying to describe a black woman from across the room, it’s kind of ridiculous to say, “Do you see that tall woman with the curly hair?” – trying awkwardly to leave her color out. Saying, “Do you see that tall, black woman in the blue dress?” is perfectly fine.
The problem isn’t noticing someone’s race; it’s your emotional response and assumptions when you notice someone’s race.
If you see a cleanly dressed black man in the aisle of Target, do you draw your purse a little closer? Does a black youth in a hoodie make you more nervous than a white youth in a hoodie?
I wouldn’t want to be in a sketchy neighborhood late at night no matter who lived there, anymore than I’d want to drive down a lonely rural road much after dark. Each demographic has its own danger.
What about your assumptions of intellectual capacity and education?
A black friend of mine recently went to a job fair and sat down at a table to talk to the representative. The rep instantly showed her jobs that only required a high school diploma. My friend is very well spoken and has a master’s degree.
Similarly, my husband, who has a PhD in physics, was talking with a couple of white engineers. When he revealed his profession, the engineers instantly tried to “trip him up” by testing his math skills. They were trying to assess if he really was that smart. Especially when Marvin was younger, it was not uncommon for academics to spend the first few moments of meeting him trying to assess if he really belonged in their company.
These kinds of responses have everything to do with how many people of color you have personally known, the books and articles you’ve read, the media you’ve consumed and your basic beliefs about humanity. Do you truly believe all men (and women) are created equal or do you believe, even subconsciously, in genetic racial superiority or inferiority? Is a black youth genetically wired to be more harmful and less intelligent than a white youth?
Your reactions also have to do with how you were raised. Last year, a sixth grader said to my son, “We need a [border] wall because Mexicans rape women.” Why would an eleven year old possibly say that? My guess is he was merely parroting his parents. The sad thing is that he has already been wired to prejudge anyone who looks Mexican, and unless he wakes up and realizes the absurdity of this generalization, he will probably never have a Mexican friend. His world has already narrowed.
Having said that, people reject the prejudices of their parents everyday. We’re not involuntarily bound to them. My mother grew up in a small town surrounded by adults who assumed black inferiority and she came to the conclusion on her own that this was ridiculous. Then she married a black man!
Acknowledge color. Take it in. People are interesting and their racial and ethnic makeup is part of what makes them interesting. If you find yourself behaving in an odd manner when you see someone brown, figure out why and do something about it.