Were you aware that you “do race” each and every day? Four years ago, I would have maintained a colorblind stance. Quite frankly, up until a couple months ago, I was colorblind. I believed noticing race meant I was racist and because this is the ultimate fear of White Americans, I chose to remain silent, and, in a sense, ignorant. Today, I confidently admit I was very mistaken. Noticing race is imperative. Looking back, I was feeding into the societal norm of colorblindness.
I am sure you have all heard someone say at one point or another, “I am not racist but….” Or “everyone’s a little bit racist” as a way of telling an ethnic joke in a “socially acceptable” way. Would this allow them to be “off the hook” from being called racist? Is the impact of their words less severe? In a world where we have been taught to be colorblind leaves little room to speak about race and to abide by societal rules for what is and is not appropriate. Although after the Civil Rights Era, it became illegal to make openly bigoted comments, does this mean people do not make racist remarks in private, or even in public in a way that is “lighthearted” and to not be taken seriously? When it comes to racism, no racist comment or joke comes without harm. It is up to us to call people out when they say something either intentionally or unintentionally hurtful.
My sophomore year of college, a particular incident left me feeling very unsettled. I was walking with a classmate of mine when we crossed paths with my friend’s boyfriend. After saying hello, my classmate turned to me and asked me who that was. When I told him, he was in complete shock. He said in a whisper, “How is that possible?” I asked him to clarify what he meant. He continued, “Well, he’s black, and.. uh.. she’s white”. I stopped in my tracks. I was taken aback by this comment and had no idea how to respond. Did we not live in the 21st century? So many thoughts were running through my head at once. My instinct was to tell, or, rather, scold him about how socially incorrect this statement was. Instead, I asked him to clarify what he meant. He repeated, “Ya know, he’s black”. I managed to respond in a relatively calm tone, “What? That was such an openly racist thing to say.” He defended himself by saying, “I’m from Virginia. I’m going to be a little bit racist. Everyone is racist. So are you.” This was a person who would not convey racist ideals in public but whose true beliefs arose in private by the comfort of being with one other person—me.
I was both angry and overwhelmed by the justification for his comment and his accusation that I too was racist. How dare he call me racist? I thought to myself. In a world that purports to be colorblind, I did not have much experience speaking about race, and did not feel comfortable confronting the topic at the time. Although as a sophomore, I was horrified by his comment, I did not have the confidence to continue the conversation any further. I decided to change the subject as a way of avoiding a potentially awkward conversation about a sensitive issue. To this day, I wish I had approached the situation differently.
After exploring the dynamics of race talk as a college senior, I understand why I remained silent several years ago. Speaking about race is often characterized by extreme tension and anxiety, especially in a world where we are told to not do this. I knew racism still existed, but I believed it was easier to pretend I did not see it—if you don’t see it, you can’t talk about it, and if you don’t talk about it, you can’t do anything to change it. My senior- year self knows how wrong this is. My senior-year self knows I was conforming to the colorblind ideologies of our society by remaining silent. I wish I could go back in time and decide to not change the subject. I wish I knew that doing nothing is doing something. Today, I strive to be anti-racist—to use my voice to stand up for what is right.
In the future, I will use my newfound knowledge to teach myself useful lessons and to have productive conversations in regards to race. I realize that avoiding the topic and the failure to acknowledge racial differences is both counter-productive and offensive to people of color. On the other hand, I will keep in mind that White students often feel offended, insulted, or misunderstood when confronted with their avoidant behaviors. I will approach confrontation lightly and in a non-attacking manner. I will no longer reinforce a “conspiracy of silence” (Sue, 2005).
What do you think? Will you remain silent or be an activist in regards to confronting colorblind ideologies?