White People Who Don’t See Color

A white woman covering her eyes with her hands

White People Who Don’t See Color

What do we mean when we say these odd things? — Part 1 of 2

As you may have figured out by now, I spend a lot of time thinking about race. Specifically I think about my racial conditioning as a White woman and how I can replace it with truth. I find it helpful to look at the things we White people commonly say and their underlying assumptions. Two of the most predictable are “I don’t see color” and “I don’t see you as Black.”

Let’s examine these statements and try to uncover what we really mean when we say them. We’ll look at the first one in this post and the second one in the next.

I Don’t See Color

I’ve come up with three different things White people might be trying to say when we speak those words.

  • God doesn’t see color, so I shouldn’t see it either. Color doesn’t matter. We’re all the same on the inside.

I do believe that God sees us as colorless souls. But we are dual-natured beings, both spiritual and material, at least as long as we’re living in this world. Bodies have skin, which have color, and our society has assigned meaning and hierarchy to those colors. We are given or refused advantages based on color. We experience oppression or entitlement based on color. We have to be able to see these differences if we hope to work for justice.

Try this experiment: extend your arm straight out in front of your face, with your thumb up and at eye level. Close your right eye. What’s behind your thumb? Now, keeping your arm perfectly still, open your right eye and close your left. What’s behind your thumb now?

What you see behind your thumb is different, depending on your literal point of view. Nothing else changed. My bookshelf is directly behind my thumb, and my printer is directly behind my thumb. Both views are true, even though the objects are 18” apart.

So let’s say that one is your spiritual eye and the other your material eye. When you look at a person through your spiritual eye, you don’t see color; you see another human soul who is just like you. However when you look at her through your material eye, you see the color of her skin, as well as what that color means. It’s not dichotomous; one does not cancel out the other.

So we don’t see color and we do see color, both at the same time. Besides, if you believe in God, then you must believe She/He made humans colorful on purpose.

  • I look at you and I truly can’t distinguish your color at all.

I assume this one could be true if you have a certain kind of color blindness. But if your eyes perceive color normally, it’s more likely a statement designed to convince someone you’re not racist. I grew up thinking that if I noticed dark skin color, that automatically meant I was racist. It seems to me that younger generations have moved beyond this idea. Let’s hope it dies out with us old people.

  • I do see your color, but I don’t let it influence how I think of you. I treat everyone the same.

This is a worthy goal, but in our current society it’s not possible. Anyone who thinks they’re free of color/race bias can go here for a reality check. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html

This is Harvard’s Implicit (as in unconscious) Association Test, and it will mess with your mind. There are 15 different tests — I recommend the Race IAT and the Skin-tone IAT for our purposes. Once you’ve been sufficiently humbled, you might want to try some of the others.

When I took the Race test several years ago, my results surprised me. Here’s the test description:

“Race (‘Black — White’ IAT). This IAT requires the ability to distinguish faces of European and African origin. It indicates that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black.”

My results show “a strong automatic preference for Black people compared to White people.” Only 2% of all respondents have this preference. (I made a screen shot of my report and I keep it on my phone, just in case I ever have to prove that I’m not making it up.)

I was thrilled! I finally had official proof that I’d succeeded in overcoming all my racist attitudes. The following day I reported my score to a dear Black male friend, who knows me very well.

“I’m in the TOP two percent!” I boasted. I wouldn’t have said this to anyone else, Black or White. It can come off all wrong. In fact, I’ve told only a few people about my results. Up till now, that is.

“The top?” he asked.

“Yep! Top two percent, that’s me.” (If we could use emojis on Medium, I would place a face-palm here.)

When he finally stopped laughing, he said, “I don’t think that’s the goal Phyllis. I believe the ideal would be to show no preference for one over the other.”

Ego is a tricky devil. Mine got crushed when I took some of the other tests.

What could we say instead?

The best I’ve come up with so far is “I notice and appreciate differences of color and I’m working hard to overcome my unconscious racial biases.”

What would you say?

Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

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