At some point during my first full year teaching 3rd grade in Indianapolis, a veteran teacher said something that has stayed with me for nearly two decades. The topic of conversation was the racial make-up of our respective classes, and this teacher—who I respect greatly, by the way—said, “I don’t even notice whether my students are Black or White. They’re just kids.”
I can still recall my reaction to this comment; I wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be “colorblind” to the kids in my own class. I felt guilty that I could have told anyone the exact number of Black and Latina/o kids in my class. And so I kept my mouth shut, feeling a sinking sensation in my gut: I had SO MUCH to learn.
Well, yes… I DID have a lot to learn (still do, in fact), but one thing I’m certain of: the notion of “colorblindness” is a hugely flawed one. In a recent post on the open book (Lee & Low’s excellent blog), Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman points to research showing that the approach is damaging for children of all races, writing, “[N]ot addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society.”
That is a pretty huge deal. And think about it: this slow and insidious poisoning of our children (sorry to pull a Mrs. Lovejoy, but it’s true) is happening across America simply because most White people are too “polite” (i.e., wimpy) to take a risk. Because it is risky to bring up race as a White person—most of us simply don’t know what to say. I will readily admit that I struggle to have conversations about race with anyone, be it people of color and First/Native Nations or other White people. But that is no excuse not to try, or to simply ignore race—if I close my eyes, it will disappear, right? Nope. And make no mistake, the “colorblindness” is yet another manifestation of White Privilege. I can afford to not think about my Whiteness. But think of how devastatingly easy it is to find proof of just how often a person of color and First/Native Nations is reminded of their race (and that link is just the tip of the iceberg). The idea of a colorblind/Utopian society where we all eat Bon Bons and ride on shiny unicorns is something we White people really need to put to bed. It’s up to us to take that risk, to start the conversation, and not just to hear what is said, but also to see who is doing the talking. So pull up a chair, open your ears and your eyes, and let’s start a conversation.