Don’t Tell Me You “Don’t See Race”

Originally posted at 5:52 PM, February 11, 2010

I’ve heard several people say that they “don’t see race” or “don’t see color.” Without exception, these people have all been white. All of them meant well, certainly; I assume that what they meant was that they do not consider themselves prejudiced against people of color. Still, a statement that one “doesn’t see race” — in this society, at least — reeks of white privilege. Allan G. Johnson quotes James Baldwin in Privilege, Power, and Difference: “To be white in America means not having to think about it” (22).

For me, there are two main issues with the idea of someone “not seeing” race. First of all, it dismisses the fact that most people do see the color of a person’s skin. It makes invisible the racism that people of color experience and the privilege that is given to white people. It is a privilege, granted by being white, to not have to pay attention to issues of race. As Johnson writes,

[White men] might try to be fair, which is to say, to treat people of color as they would whites, or women as they would men. But this approach pretends that racism and sexism don’t exist beyond their personal intentions, and it makes it easier for them to feel unconnected to the trouble (64).

One person’s belief that they do not see the color of people’s skin does not change the reality of institutional racism. Johnson continues,

. . . a lot of the trouble [with racisim] doesn’t begin and end with interpersonal relations and emotional wounds. Much of it is embedded in structures of power and inequality that shape almost every aspect of life in this society, from economics to politics to religion to schools and the family (66).

If a person with white privilege pretends that race does not exist, that person also can ignore systemic nature of racism. That person can pretend that racial issues can be solved by making people act nicer to each other; however, focusing on eliminating prejudice and racism between individuals can obscure the need for eliminating the racism that is so deeply ingrained in our social institutions.

Secondly, for many people of color, myself included, race and ethnicity are an important part of personal identity. Being a person of color, being Asian, being Korean — that is a part of how I view myself. It is a part of who I am. If you “do not see race,” you ignore not just the experiences I have had as a person of color but a large part of who I am.

There is a significant, though perhaps subtle, difference between seeing all human beings as being inherently valuable and not seeing — or rather, not noticing — the color of a person’s skin. Seeing all people as equal, as opposed to viewing some people as better or more worthy on the basis of skin color, is a good goal for society. Attempting to simply not notice the color of a person’s skin is, to my way of thinking, perhaps not the best way of achieving that goal. Whenever someone has told me that they “don’t see race,” it has felt to me as though they were saying that they see everyone as being white. They assume that everyone has the same white privilege as they do because they do not realize their privilege. In this society, being white is the norm. Not seeing race makes people of color invisible.

Johnson, Allan G. Privilege, Power, and Difference. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.

5 responses to “Don’t Tell Me You “Don’t See Race”

  1. I know this is a common complaint, and I think I understand the point. I wouldn’t say I don’t see race; obviously I do. However, I do very often forget what race people are, the way I might forget what colour hair or eyes they have. I’ve never really known what to think about that one.

    • Huh. Interesting. I’m not sure what to say. Of course, I don’t usually forget what colour hair people have (unless they dye it a lot). Interesting. At the same time, I mean, for some people it’s a lot more a part of who they are than, say, their hair color is. Does that make a difference? Like, if the person in question were the president of Mujeres or BaCaSo or Sisterhood or ASA (and of the typically presumed background/heritage/ethnicity/race for each respective group), would you be more inclined to remember someone’s race?

  2. Hmm. I’m not really sure. Probably? But I guess if they were president of the Redhead Club I would maybe also remember that more, not that such a thing would exist, probably. I mean, I do remember it for most people, and I think it happens far less often when someone has really dark or really light skin. It’s pretty odd, though.

  3. Pingback: Privilege in an occupation « mixosaurus

  4. Pingback: on “genderblind” | rainbowgenderpunk

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