Image courtesy of Adam Voorhes.

I AM AN ALLY IN PROGRESS

The Dangers of Racial Colorblindness

by Malika Benton

“I am not a white girl!” a young white woman shouts with tears in her eyes. “I don’t see color; I am someone who cares! Why can’t we just all get along!?” She’s in a heated argument with a Black leader of Refuse Fascism, a grassroots organization.

It was the Fourth of July. Earlier in the day she was dancing to Before I Let Go and the Cha-Cha Slide, which are staple songs at parties in the Black community. She danced, sang, laughed, and even chanted “Black Lives Matter!” until the moment the American flag was set ablaze by protestors. She was offended because her father fought for this country and the flag represented her beloved America. In that moment, she failed to realize that countless others, such as Army private Charles Lewis, fought under the same flag her father did, only to be denied the many of the liberties and privileges that her father has enjoyed.

December 1918, a couple of weeks after the end of World War I, Private Charles Lewis was lynched in his Army uniform. Lewis was suspected of being part of a robbery according to the local deputy sheriff, even after he presented his discharge papers and proper documentation to resolve the officer’s suspicion. Lewis was booked in a county jail and was dragged out in the middle of the night by townsfolk who had caught wind of the situation. They lynched him in his uniform and left his body to hang for the rest of town to see.

A few days after Lewis’ murder True Democrat, a Louisiana paper, published a piece on the matter titled “Nip It in the Bud.” The following is a quotation from the editorial:

The root of the trouble was that the negro thought that being a soldier he was not subject to civil authority. The conditions of active warfare and the regulations of army life have probably given these men more exalted ideas of their station in life than really exists and having these ideas they will be guilty of many acts of self-assertion, arrogance and insolence which will not be borne with, in the South at least, and which will be followed by consequences to them, more or less painful.

In other words, the Black soldier thought because he was innocent, lived an honorable life, and fought for his America that he would be afforded basic human and civil rights. It is a commonality for white people to only associate the military with other honorable white people. Even when this story was published, many newspapers left out the fact that Lewis was an Army private. The newspapers also left out that he was honorably discharged, and that he fought in the great World War I because he was Black and somehow deserved to die the way he did. The young white woman’s tears at the sight of the burning flag are a modern-day watering of the tree that grows disregard for Black life. She even went as far to tell the protesters “to not hurt anyone else,” though no one was harmed in the burning of the flag, which is legal under the first amendment. It was startling to witness how quickly her happiness and light turned into hysteria and terror. The argument ended after the leader, Jamel, realized that this woman’s issues were rooted in her racial colorblindness, “the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences promotes racial harmony” (Scruggs). How can you say Black lives matter if you don’t see them? How can you say Black lives matter when you don’t even see yourself as white?

A Study on “Colorblindness"

Assistant Professor Megan R. Underhill, Ph.D. wrote of the dangers of racial “colorblindness” in The Washington Post. Dr. Underhill, who has dedicated her work and research to racial and class inequality, refers to herself as a “Race, Family, and Inequality Scholar.” Her research highlights America’s deep-rooted race issues. Until these issues are addressed, America will never be great.

White supremacy is a natural result of and is perpetuated
by racial colorblindness.

After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Dr. Underhill conducted interviews with 40 white middle class parents in Cincinnati, Ohio to examine the conversations, or lack thereof, about the racial protest and tension. Underhill chose Cincinnati because of its deeply-rooted racial history. The city is widely known for its racialized poverty and segregation, even though the city is 49 percent white and 45 percent Black. She found that very few parents spoke with their children concerning the unavoidable headlines at that time. The families believed that they were protecting their children from unnecessary emotional duress. One interviewee, Lauren, shared “My sons get very scared of things. I’m still trying to shelter them both. I don’t want them to have [bad] dreams. I want to keep them kids as long as I can. The only thing they should worry about is going outside and playing.” Ironically, Aiyana Jones was the same age as her oldest son, 7, when she lost her life at the hands of the police in her own home. Another participant, Julia told Underhill: “we don’t watch a lot of news because there is really nothing good on it. So no, we haven’t [spoken about Ferguson]. Um, instead of pointing out that there is this Black-white thing, we just tell our children that we all love each other.” Julia’s reference of colorblindness echoes the sentiment of the young white woman in DC on the Fourth of July.

Pitfalls of a “Colorblind” Mentality

According to Underhill’s research, white families have “adopted a colorblind rhetoric, telling their children that people may ‘look different’ but that ‘everyone is the same.’” She continues by saying, “while these kinds of statements appear laudatory because they advance a racially egalitarian message, many sociologists point to what these statements ignore — enduring systems of stratification that privilege white and disadvantage people of color.”

A common example of this system of stratification is gentrification. The CDC defines gentrification as “the transformation of neighborhoods from low value to high value.” In many cases, the neighborhoods that were predominantly Black and possessing low value are suddenly changed to fit the standards for a higher value. Thus, many Black families are displaced because they can no longer afford the new cost of their environment (i.e., property tax and higher rents and mortgages). Rarely do other Black families of the same esteem move in when the displaced Black families leave — the new inhabitants are usually white. While this may help the local economy, it also transforms it so that a largely white population benefits from such renovations and changes.

Due to gentrification, Black people are left with many health consequences as documented by the CDC as higher cancer rates, greater infant mortality, shorter life expectancy, and a higher incidence of asthma, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. With gentrification also comes limited access to vital resources including affordable healthy housing, social networks, quality schools, healthy food choices, and transportation choices. Furthermore, the CDC indicates that gentrification can cause changes in violence and crime, injuries, stress levels, social and environmental justice, and mental health. The white families who ignore race consequently ignore these tragic disadvantages of Black people.

Image courtesy of Orenda Ayashe.

Unfortunately, this overlooking and colorblindness is also demonstrated by the man in the Oval Office and his loyal supporters who, knowingly or not, endorse white supremacy, the highest level of racial “colorblindness.” Many rightly associate the term white supremacy with extremist hate groups and an inherent belief in white superiority, but its definition must be broadened. White supremacy describes a multifaceted system in which whiteness is deemed ideal and the norm and marks Black, Indigenous and people of color as deviations from that norm. As described by scholar Frances Lee Ansley, it’s “a political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily re-enacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings.” White supremacy is ingrained into daily interactions, laws, social structures, institutions, and worldviews.

Beginning with his language, Donald Trump as president (and before) has unapologetically used racially-charged, white supremist verbiage when referring to different cultures and people. In an article by Nick Gass some of his worse quotes are catalogued such as: “the fact that I want a strong border and the fact that I don’t want illegal immigrants pouring into this country, that doesn’t make me a racist, it means I love this country and I want to save this country.” So how does this make him colorblind to race? His behavior, ideologies, and opinions are where racial colorblindness can and will ultimately lead. Donald Trump and those who identify with him and his sentiments liken themselves to being superior while adopting the belief that they reside above color, rendering all other peoples inferior. They promote inherently racialized, discriminatory systems and practices while simultaneously asserting that they live in a world devoid of racial privilege. Thus, Donald Trump’s presidency is the result of the pure racist blood that runs through America’s veins.

Taking a peek at Obama’s presidency, many Americans, especially Black Americans, were hopeful. The United States' first Black president and first family had finally arrived. That joy escalated once he was re-elected and these Americans felt accustomed to the uplifting presence of the Black man in the nation's highest office, many not at all anticipating the subsequent presidency of Donald Trump. The two presidential careers are comparatively night and day. The immediate changes that President Trump implemented, like plans to build the wall, reversing Obamacare, and defunding essential programs, have encouraged Americans to see the true nature of our country. Systemic racism is showing now more than ever as Americans can see the blatant differences between communities — e.g., Trump supporters and their stark criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of those differences includes racial colorblindness. It is a systemic and social problem when only one community has the privilege of and reaps benefits from not seeing color. Black people have never been afforded such opportunity and fortune. President Trump is the best thing that has happened to America now that we are forced to face our grave racial history in a way reminiscent of Reconstruction and the civil rights era. We cannot run from it anymore as our president is merely a mirror, reflecting our true image as a country: racist.

The chain effect of racial colorblindness is a simple one leading directly to white supremacy. Thus, the phenomenon of white supremacy isn’t white supremacy to some white people, it’s a way of life, thinking, and being. It is the highest level of racism where they have overlooked or ignored differences for so long that they only see themselves; they are the only ones that matter, leaving the rest of people with different skin colors to fend for themselves. White supremacy is a natural result of and is perpetuated by racial colorblindness. If one doesn’t choose to truly see the individuals of a racialized group, how could they matter? How could the plight unique to that racialized group matter? And if those individuals and their plight don’t matter, then any mention of them mattering in an attempt to draw attention to the inequities they experience is problematic to one’s comfortable existence. Upon insistence, it becomes harassment to the “supreme offender” and therefore, the defense mechanism for the white and possibly colorblind is to retaliate with indifference, dismissiveness, colorlessness, and even aggression hence the calls of "All Lives Matter," some representing a misguided attempt at inclusivity and others specifically meant to provoke conflict. And here we have taken the train from racial colorblindness to white supremacy. David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan said “What we really want to do is to be left alone. We don’t want Negroes around. We don’t need Negroes around. We’re not asking— you know, we don’t want to have them, you know, for our culture. We simply want our own country and our own society. That’s in no way exploitive at all. We want our own society, our own nation...” This is the end of the chain effect, the racial colorblindness has led to white supremacy where Black people are not only overlooked, they are not needed in a house that they built, America.

Overcoming “Colorblindness” and Call to Action

White people, think of those children whom you adore, those family members whom you vow to protect, those smiles that you cherish, those siblings that affectionately bug you, and those ancestors and elders that you value to their core. Note that none of the reasons in which you place such protection and adoration has anything to do with skin color. To this point, the colorblind person might believe we have solved the problem and cease reading. However, it has everything to do with their humanity and closeness to your earthly experience, and it also has everything to do with the care and fear as it relates to their physical, mental, and spiritual safety. Now, assess and apply these values to communities of people whose looks differ from you, and you will soon see that yes, we are bound together by the similarities of that very existence. An existence that values not only those we love but those that they love. A banner of “mattering” is easily understandable as it relates to those in our personal orbits.

The answer to colorblindness isn’t simply to see melanin and now deem it as ultra desirable as you see lighter toned flesh. The answer is not to suddenly understand all the plights of Black pain and suffering at the hands white America in this country. And last but not least, the answer to solving your colorblindness is definitely not found under the veil of our “shared humanity.” The answer to overcoming “colorblindness” can be found simply in empathy. If one can imagine their young white pre-teenage child being Tamir Rice, their vibrant white husband being slain George Floyd, their hopeful white sister being multiple gunshot victim Breonna Taylor, and their assailants being unjustly fearful murderers of another race, their colorblindness will begin to dissipate. They can now begin to recognize that maybe it is not within our human similarities where racial answers reside. It may in fact, be found within our differences, which must be acknowledged prior to forging through, and subsequently dealt with in inquisitiveness, patience, and empathy.

Websites to visit

"The Language of White Supremacy" - The Atlantic Racial Equity Tools Grassroots Law Project So You Want to Talk About Race Support the Equal Justice Initiative
ABOUT THE WRITER

Malika T. Benton is a filmmaker, wife, and mother. She serves as Executive Producer and Production Coordinator at Meccafilmworks Production Company based in Washington, DC. Meccafilmworks’ purpose is to tell impactful and emotionally-driven stories that cross cultural lines. Therefore, anti-racism means a great deal to her as she grasps the weight of racism on her everyday life. I AM devoted to making a change.

ABOUT THE ARTISTS

Born and bred in New York City, Orenda Ayashe started drawing at age 5 and began journal writing at age 13. Synesthesia is the rare ability to see sounds and in 2003, Orenda began visually interpreting music through her abstract acrylic paintings. Since 2007, many of Orenda’s award-winning paintings have been viewed and purchased through various organizations including Arts Unlimited, Allied Arts, Soco Culture, Maple Valley Arts, Poverty Bay Artists and other Puget Sound venues. Peter Max was the first artist to inspire the style of visual art that she enjoys painting. Her compositions include social realism, synesthetic depictions of music, abstracts and dream imagery. Regardless of subject, she utilizes bold color, graphic elements and exaggerated shapes to create worlds which are both whimsical and exciting. Dots, circles and stars are signature elements consistently incorporated in her pieces. You can find more of her works at orendaayashe.com

Adam met Robin. He complimented her shoes, she wasn't buying it. That was the beginning. They were married in a dog park by a fellow photographer who had been ordained online. The only camera at the wedding was a Polaroid SX 70. It has worked out. Adam's talent for lights and lenses pairs well with Robin's affinity for glue guns and spray paint. Working from their 6,000 sq.ft church turned studio, they and their motley crew of multi-talented creatives have produced content for the likes of Bacardi, Puma, Frito-Lay, Wired, Hearst Media, and Kraft/Heinz. When not in the studio, they can usually be found on a patio with a margarita in one hand, a sketch pad in the other and two ill behaved bulldogs at their feet.