Why Being Color Blind is Never the Goal

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

If you pay attention to discussions about race and racism in the news, chances are you have seen the quote from MLK, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech thrown around with the claim, “I don’t see color.” or “I have taught my children not to see color.”  This is usually insinuating that “color blindness” should be the ultimate goal of society and that anyone who discusses race is perpetuating racism. Or, to put it simply, it’s a claim of a “nice white person” telling the world that there is no way they can be racist if they are color blind.

However, to simply take a quote out of context and parrot it whenever someone feels uncomfortable about race was not Dr. King’s vision. He wanted a completely new vision for America. This vision was “based on the principle of justice, a word he used ten times in the speech that is often derided by today’s conservatives, who mock King-like activists as ‘social justice warriors.’” (Keith Boykin, Why Does Everything Have to Be About Race?, Page 22, italics mine). Instead of ignoring skin color, Dr. King referenced differences in skin multiple times in many of his speeches. His goal was that we should celebrate our differences. The goal was for Black people to be proud of their heritage. What he wanted to end was the perpetuation that Black means “bad” and White means “good”. He worked towards the fair treatment of ALL people, no matter the color of their skin. He did not want Americans to stop talking about race, but to stop using race as a reason to mistreat people.

Studies show that avoiding the topic of race and skin color causes people to miss out on understanding how we got to where we are as a country. In addition, however, if an individual refuses to acknowledge race as a factor, that person is in great danger of overlooking their own inherent biases. 

Think about it this way: If someone was taught their entire life not to discuss someone’s skin color, the general message learned is that it’s “bad” to point out those differences. When skin color is not discussed, the systemic issues that are historically tied to skin color cannot be discussed either. After all, if the goal is a “color blind” society, then no one is allowed to discuss the reasons why so many systemically racist policies are in place. This perpetuates the idea that the Black man not reaching the same achievements his white peer isn’t because of systemic racism– it has to be laziness.  It also minimizes gaps in knowledge about racism. These gaps mean that someone will not acknowledge their internalized racism and will not work towards anti-racist education.

When we say things like, “I don’t see color” we insinuate that anyone who DOES see color is perpetuating racism. However, what many white people do not understand is that throughout American history white people had the privilege of navigating a world without thinking about the color of their skin. When you say, “I don’t see color,” what many BIPOC people hear is, “I do not feel comfortable discussing race with you, and I do not want to discuss your feelings about it.” This immediately shuts down the conversation. In addition, it also tells the person on the receiving end that a part of them is being erased and ignored. Announcing color blindness says that others’ perception that they cannot be racist is more important than any race-related issues that need to be discussed.

One problem is that we are not given opportunities to discuss race and skin color in positive ways. Parents tend to hush their children when they point out differences. “Mommy, that man has black skin!” can either be a teaching moment or a moment of perceived embarrassment. The mother can either shut her child down and give the perception that we do not discuss skin color differences because there is something inherently bad about doing so (i.e. “Shhhhh!!!”). Or, she can initiate a discussion about skin color (i.e. “Yes, he has beautiful black skin. We have lighter skin.”). When parents and educators are given the tools to discuss skin color and speak freely about the history of our country and what skin color has meant, it takes away the fear that we will say something wrong.

We have a very long way to go, but there are many tools out there for people who are willing to grow. A few children’s books discuss the topic of skin color and celebrate the reasons why we all look different (as well as touching on the topic of racism in ways that are age-appropriate for younger children). Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race, written by Megan Madison, Jessica Ralli and Isabel Roxas discusses melanin and its use as well as how some people with Black skin are mistreated because of it, and identifies that as racism.

Author Valerie Bolling has written a book coming out June 2, 2024 called “I See Color”. This book was written to celebrate people from various backgrounds who fought for change. Bolling will be at Middle Gate Elementary School on April 29th for an author visit. During her time there, she will read a few of her books out loud to the elementary students as well as discuss with them her journey to becoming an author.

In addition, NAFC is hosting three separate book discussions at C.H. Booth Library about the new book, “Why Does Everything Have to Be About Race?” by Keith Boykin. The first meeting is THIS WEDNESDAY (April 24th) at 6 pm! These are just two of the many opportunities you can participate in to help you become more comfortable with discussing race and work towards being an ally.