If someone were to describe you, what are the first things they would say?
How would someone describe me: a white, blonde, young woman.
See, that wasn’t too hard to describe myself with the acknowledgement of my race. Now if I can use race to describe myself, then why is it so hard to acknowledge another person’s race when describing them?
I ask this question with the knowledge that for most of my life, race has been the last characteristic I use to describe a person. When asked to describe a person in the room, I have used a person’s style, clothing colors, hair color, hair styles, etc. before I use race as a descriptor. If I do use race as a descriptor, which typically happens when I can’t think of any other way to describe the person, the acknowledgement of their race comes with bated breath. Why?
It is scientifically proven that race is one of the first three things humans notice about each other (the other two being age and gender), and yet white people in particular have such a hard time saying a person’s race when describing them. Why is describing race so hard to do if our brains automatically look for race in each person?
Personally, I think that white people are uncomfortable mentioning race because of how they’ve been socialized to view race. As white people, our race has been taught to us in a subconscious, not clearly visible way. The invisibility of whiteness is one of the things that makes white supremacy so powerful. White people aren’t aware of how privileged they are, and this unawareness allows white supremacy to still reign unchecked. With the invisibility of whiteness in mind, white people might feel odd making someone else’s race visible through descriptions because white people don’t even acknowledge their own race and privilege.
Somehow, even though we live in a country based upon a history of and current systems that benefit white identities, acknowledging another person’s race seems to bring up the fact that there is a societal hierarchy regarding race.
Studies have found that white people don’t bring up race because they don’t want to seem racist. However, by not acknowledging race when it is relevant, white people are then actively dismissing the racial experiences of people of color, especially in the United States. By not mentioning race when it is relevant, colorblind racism creeps in and makes people of color feel uncomfortable or even unsafe.
White people, how can we hold ourselves and other white people accountable for acknowledging race when it is relevant? How can we better acknowledge race because it does have an impact on everyone’s lives?