Many well-meaning people talk about being colorblind or proudly claim that they are raising their children to ignore racial or other differences. I know they are sincere when they say those words, but I cringe each time I hear them. What are meant as good intentions can also have the opposite effect. For some, the term “colorblind” is heard as “I will pretend you are white and you pretend you are white and we will get along fine.”
The intent is admirable — treat everyone equally regardless of skin color, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. Do not judge people based on superficial appearances. Get to know people as human beings and not as labels. Children are taught that “no one is better than anyone else.” We are all equals. These are laudable beliefs but they hide some ugly truths.
For people of color, bias and discrimination are often a part of daily life. Women not only still struggle to gain respect and equality in the workplace, but also must guard against the ever-present threat of sexual assault. Ask any women who wears the hijab or any man who wears a turban what their experiences are like. And we are far from an equal society when some must still hide their sexual orientation for fear of reprisal.
The downside of promoting colorblindness is an underlying message that one should ignore the injustices faced by so many. Respecting each other and our differences requires that we understand the obstacles that prevents others from feeling equal.
We must also teach our children the reality that society and the law does not treat us all equally. We, as adults, must understand that some live a life of unearned privileges simply because of the color of their skin. A white teenager being followed around a store is not experiencing the same life as any black person similarly followed. My heart breaks every time I hear black parents talk about having to teach their sons never to run in public, especially with a parcel under their arms. When in a store, always keep your hands visible to avoid being accused of shoplifting. When confronted by the authorities, always remain polite and respectful no matter how badly you are treated.
I am Asian American. It is not uncommon for me to meet someone hesitant to speak to me because they are unsure if I speak English. How do you think Asian Americans born and raised in Connecticut feel when they are complimented on their good English?
I teach courses in multicultural education to teacher candidates. A mainstay of my classes is providing opportunities for students to simply interact with each other — physically. So many individuals have never been close to or even touched a person of color, and it shows. Black friends have relayed to me that they sometimes catch people wiping the palms of their hands on their pants after they have shaken hands. This is not a way to raise children for a global economy and diverse workforce.
Reach out to people who are different from you, and try to learn more about them, what life is like for them, their culture and their perspectives. Try to understand how your life compares. Celebrate similarities and differences. Differences are not deficits. Learn another language because then you will learn and appreciate another culture.
Electing a black president — twice — is not a sign that life for all Americans is good. The incidents of cross-burning and spray-painting of swastikas may be down nationwide, but they are hardly gone. Three men have been indicted in federal court in Tennessee for burning a cross on the lawn of a mixed-race couple, and a former Ku Klux Klan officer pleaded guilty to perjury in a case involving a cross-burning in Alabama. Cases of swastika-paintings are rife nationwide. (Check the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Incidents” page at http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-incidents.)
We are far from living a life where we can afford to be simply colorblind.
Bill Howe is chairman of the Connecticut Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission. He will speak at the Key Issues Forum on “Are We in a Post-Racial Era?”