by Rev. Richard Fernandez
In the 1960s, there began to develop in the United States much rhetoric that argued that the way we could end racial divisiveness was to become “color blind.” The overwhelming majority of people advocating this position were white. When we become “color blind,” the argument went, we would see others just as people. I still hear people expressing this view.
In a way, this idea that we could or should become “color blind” is an extension of an earlier idea that the United States is a melting pot of racial and ethnic identifies. For America to really be America, for the many to become one people, so the argument went, we needed to “melt” into a single people.
Blurring racial and ethnic distinctions between people is tempting in a world that is presently being torn asunder by racial, ethnic and religious strife. In the United States, striving to become “color blind” is, at first, very seductive.
If we could really become “color blind,” it would mean that we were able to control or perhaps eliminate one of the most divisive issues of our time – racism. If so, the logic of this argument would suggest that we we can make people “color blind” through education and training, then we could surely end racism. Who can be against ending racism?
At the simplest but perhaps the most profound level, to become “color blind” is an attempt to enter into a world of illusion. If people are not seen as having color, then how could other aspects of our lives be enriched by color?
We live in a world of great beauty and our capacity to see the blending and contrasting of colors everywhere is one of life’s wonderful joys. The idea that I could enjoy a sunset, be inspired by a work of art but only see other humans as color neutral is as frightening as it would be sad. It sounds like something from Margaret Atwood’s chilling novel, “The Handmaiden’s Tale.”
The second reason to resist the “color blind” argument is because it denies the reality of race and, by extension, the existence of “racism” in our culture. If there is no color, there can only be individual acts of wrongdoing not based on race.
Finally, becoming “color blind” would mean that each of us, whatever our racial or ethnic heritage, would be asked to omit this critical aspect of our personhood from our identity. Racial and ethnic distinctiveness would become blurred. What would be important would be our human sameness, not our racial/ethnic variations tempered by history and personal experience.
In the new “color blind” environment, the fact and fiction surrounding all of our ancestries would be erased from all discussion; how racial/ethnic heritage plays out in the arts, literature and alike would be of only minor interest. Legacies of pain and sorrow that are racially/ethnically specific, which deepen our sense of personhood – the Holocaust, slavery, the experience of Native Americans, the World War II internment of Japanese citizens – would be but minor footnotes in history books seldom read.
As seductive and simple as being “color blind” might seem, it is a direction we would follow at our moral and psychological peril. I think that our task is much more difficult. Our work involves affirming our diversity in the midst of our unity as a nation. We need to think of our country as a delicious stew and not a melting pot. All of the elements of our stew retain their flavor even as they combine to make for a savory treat. We need to find ever new ways to affirm the fact that our lives are made richer by the variety of our friends and experiences. To do less would be to deny the dream we call American and sabotage the experience we call democratic.
The Reverend Richard R. Fernandez is the former director of the Northwest Interfaith Movement. He lives in Cathedral Village.