‘I Don’t See Race’: An Open Dialogue Between Two Scholar-Mothers About the Unintended Consequences of Racial Blindness and the Importance of Celebrating Cultural Diversity
Co-authored with Donna Y Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice.
We came together in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy to talk honestly about racism because we believe the country is in the midst of a teaching moment. As scholars we believe all people have the potential to be lifelong learners, and as mothers we are concerned about racial inequality in our society. While our experiences differ, Dr. Leavy is a White woman and Dr. Ford is a Black woman, our commitment to social justice connects us. It is in this spirit that we have joined together again, in conversation, to talk about the implications of a so-called “post-racial” society where it is common to hear the phrases: “I don’t see race” or “people are all the same, race doesn’t matter.”
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
Dr. Ford, I want to begin by thanking you for your willingness to continue our conversation about race and racism in America. The responses to our discussion about “seeing” race made me want to delve further. When people say “I don’t see race” while they intend to say they don’t think skin color does matter or should matter, they do in fact see race. And the denial, the disavowing of difference and of truth, even when well-intentioned, can be quite harmful. Perhaps it’s helpful to think about it in another context. If we invite adults to our home for dinner, and one of those adults does something embarrassing or rude (say they double dip in the chips and salsa or tell a poorly executed joke), if we see that our child notices we may tell the child to pretend they don’t see anything. We tell the child to act like it didn’t happen. We do this in order to spare our guest embarrassment and/or to spare ourselves embarrassment. There is a parallel here to artificial colorblindness. When we deny that we do in fact see race (that is, skin color), and when we do so in front of our children, some are unintentionally implying and others are actually asserting that there is something rude or embarrassing and wrong about being a different race. And the fact remains that we do in fact see race.
Dr. Donna Ford:
Dr. Leavy, one conversation can never suffice to explain most topics, and race ranks extremely high among the most uncomfortable and awkward. I find it quite disheartening that we live in the nation of immigrants, but so many want to deny that race, meaning skin, does not influence their views about racial groups overall and individual members. As you know, race is the proverbial one or two ton elephant in the room. We see ‘it’ but we don’t want to see it. And your example says as much.
In your example, something negative occurred. This is when focusing on differences seems to become awkward. However, I have noticed that when individuals and groups from different racial backgrounds are harmonious, talking about race is not so disquieting. I hope this example captures the essence of my point. Two or three days after the Trayvon Martin murder trial ended, and my heart still aching from the acquittal, I saw a White male (maybe 50s, clean shaven, expensive car) offer a ride to a Black male (maybe 18, loose fitting pants, t-shirt, cap) walking in the blazing heat. The driver even held up traffic to help the pedestrian who did not, by the way, solicit the ride. I smiled. I got teary-eyed. I called a few of my friends. I was filled with joy. It was such a beautiful sight. I believe the driver was well aware that he was offering a ride to a Black person. But he was not, clearly, intimidated or afraid. You can notice race, but not react negatively or prejudicially to the ‘hype’ about skin color.
That was a priceless sight to me. And perhaps more so given all of this tension and hate over the Zimmerman trial. I have thought of that incident often to keep me optimistic as I watch the news and social media spew such opposing views. The White driver-Black pedestrian visual, that ‘random act of kindness,’ keeps me grounded. Two days later, I saw messages through social media with the caption “What if Zimmerman had just given Trayvon a ride in the rain?” I cried again but this time from sadness and mourning for the murder of a young Black male strolling home in the rain, talking with his best friend.
Race and all that it connotes is a complex. I know that. We live in the most racially and culturally diverse and different nation in the world! But we don’t have racial harmony. To advance socially and culturally as a nation, we must have, like you and I are doing, this necessary and courageous conversation. That is good thing. Recognizing differences does not make you or me a bad person. It means that we want to bridge differences and live in harmony.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
The image of the White male offering a Black male a ride to get out of the heat is glorious. I too saw the posts on social media speculating what our society would be like if George Zimmerman had offered Trayvon Martin a ride home that night, to shelter him from the rain. As the nation works or struggles to recover, heal and hopefully progress in a positive direction, it’s critical that we examine the roots of colorblindness and then become more honest and open about race and cultural diversity and associated injustices. I actually think when people say “I don’t see race” it is because they do not think they are racist and they do not want to be viewed as racist. They may think that just acknowledging difference, like obvious skin color differences, is itself somehow prejudiced. But this isn’t the case.
This denial of race and associated biases does at least two things. First, it fools people into thinking they have no biases or prejudices based on race, in this case physical features. However, biases often operate on a subconscious level, often out of our own awareness. There was a fascinating story on NPR the other day on this topic. It was a recap of social science research which found that well-respected doctors diagnosed people of different races with the same symptoms differently, based on biases they were not aware of. When the doctors were given the results of the study, they were horrified. They truly did not think they were prejudice and did not mean to act in biased ways. The only way to uncover and breakdown our biases is thus to excavate them. Meaning, we need to acknowledge that we do see race and then we need to dig deep and reflect on what that means: are the images, ideas and assumptions we have negative or stereotypical, and where do they come from? This doesn’t mean we are “bad” it just means we have been socialized in a culture where stereotypical images and narratives have become taken-for-granted over time, and they have seeped in and we need to recognize this. For example, the image of a Black male in a hoodie has been deeply associated with crime in hip hop culture, and this image needs to be acknowledged, confronted, and challenged.
Dr. Donna Ford:
Dr. Leavy, I feel like I am talking to a family member or close friend, although we have yet to meet in person. I look forward to that day. You both want to get it and seem to get it — meaning, empathy and compassion ooze from what you have shared. I appreciate your understanding that the colorblindness philosophy, while idealistic, is unrealistic, and can lead to negative outcomes. I find it so telling that the Zimmerman trial was indeed grounded in a colorblind approach. Yet, it was about the death of not just a male, but about a Black male. I believe he was racially profiled for two reasons — skin color and clothes.
Let me share this with you. A lot of attention is being placed on what Trayvon Martin wore — the now infamous hoodie, his clothing. Trayvon could have worn a cap, and I believe that he would have still been profiled. And the hoodie, I must frankly say, is an excuse to not talk about race. A Black teenage male wearing a hoodie sends a different message than a White teenage male wearing a hoodie. When a Black male wears a hoodie, as you’ve alluded to, notions of hoodlum and thug are evoked. When a White male wears a hoodie, he is often viewed a wearing a sweatshirt with a hood.
My next statement will likely be painful for readers but I hope that it sinks in and is a wakeup call. I feel compelled and obliged to share my worldview in order to protect and save more Black males. Yes, this is a personal and professional issue for me. Our nation is at the crossroad where a Black male wearing a sweatshirt may be wearing a deathshirt! Here are three examples. I have always worried about how my son (and now grandson) will be viewed based on two exteriors — skin and clothing. I get the notion that ‘first impressions are lasting impressions.’ Yet, I have seen my son (at every age) profiled in ‘urban’ clothes (say, sweats, loose pants), casual clothes (buttoned shirt and khaki pants), and a suit and tie. When my soul mate and I get to certain areas, we switch seats; I become the driver in places where cities have a track record of stopping Black males, especially in expensive cars or in suburban neighborhoods. I acquiesce to spare him being stopped and getting a ticket for ‘driving while Black.’
Lastly, and now I add gender (being a Black female) to this… I have been experimenting with how people in my high-income suburban neighborhood react to me on my morning walk. Note that I wear my hair very, very short! I often dress in all black workout gear — with one exception and that is the color of the cap that I wear. I have noticed that when I wear my pink cap, about 90 percent of White males and females greet me or at least smile as we pass each other. When I wear my tan or black cap, 8 times out of 10 (yes, 80 percent) even if they have a large dog, White females cross the street. White males will do so about 50 percent of the time, unless they have a large dog. They ‘stand their ground’, we make eye contact, they notice I am a female, and then we keep going on our opposite ways. Now, here is the most troubling reality — I am the same person in height, weight, skin color — but the color of the cap alone sends a certain message about me as a Black person, as I believe was operating in the case of Trayvon Martin being profiled and murdered by Zimmerman.
If we really lived in a colorblind nation, you and I would not be having this conversation. If we truly lived in a colorblind society, I believe that Trayvon Martin would still be alive. Zimmerman may or may not have sheltered him from the rain, but there would be one less dead Black male.
Dr. Patricia Leavy:
Wow, I hardly know what to say. Your experiences are so painful to hear. As scholars, you and I have such similar career paths, and I think of you as a deeply accomplished person whom I respect. To hear about your daily experiences of prejudice and how you adjust your behavior to deal with this, it is incredibly difficult to swallow and yet eye-opening. Indeed, our society is not colorblind, as your experiences and the Trayvon Martin tragedy illuminate. By pretending race doesn’t matter, we are also saying that experiences associated with race, like the daily prejudices you have experienced, are not important, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Beyond the unchecked biases that arise from false and superficial colorblindness, there is at least a second outcome in the form of missed opportunities. We miss the opportunity to celebrate differences. I know you have a wealth of research experience regarding multicultural and equitable education. Is there a takeaway message from your work that might help people understand the importance of celebrating — not disavowing — difference?
Dr. Donna Ford:
There are so many opportunities for change and progress to become a nation that values and reveres all of our citizens but children in particular. Reports and my experiences demonstrate that our communities, schools, and places of worship are very segregated along racial lines. This is not progress; it is a sign, a painful reality, that we have much work to do. Trayvon Martin was walking in a gated community. Traditionally, Whites are more likely to live in gated communities. Trayvon was, thus, not supposed to be there; nor welcome by Zimmerman. This physical separation in so many aspects of our lives disrupts a sense of community, a sense of being in this life together. When people from different races and cultures are strangers passing in the night, like Martin and Zimmerman, deficit thinking based on color rears its ugly head. Why? Because the less we know about others, the more we make up. We must get to know more about our brothers and sisters. The more we know about others, the less we make up.