Alternate title: How to Quiet an Entire Group of White People in One Sentence.
Once at dinner with a group of friends who are all White I was ordering for my son who is Black. There were other kids at the table (White) and they were all at the far end from me. So, in order to ease the process of separating checks, I said, “The Black kid is on my check and he’ll take [food item].” Every adult at the table including the server got quiet and looked at me wide-eyed and open-mouthed. Some laughed nervously.
My good friend is Black and so are her kids. Once at the park some other little kids, all White, started talking about butts. As kids do. LOL. They started talking about how each of their butts are white. Then one of them pointed at my friend’s daughter and said innocently, not negatively, and not in an othering way: “And she has a brown butt!” The White mom looked at my friend, horrified, shushed her kids harshly, and quickly took the kids and left.
It’s a scene every White transracial parent or White half of an interracial couple knows.* Sometimes in order to spare the White person we’re talking to we start by describing clothing and proceed to age or hair color before we resort to referencing skin color or race. Other times we just go the efficient route, like I did, and narrow it down as quickly as possible, especially since we know we’ll probably get there anyway. And every time, this happens:
Thought process: “OMG! She just mentioned a Black person’s race/skin color!!! White people can’t do that! I thought we were supposed to be colorblind! What do I do now?!”
In my friend’s case the children were simply pointing out that her daughter had brown skin – which, if the other mom had waited for my friend’s response, would’ve received a laugh and the words, “Yes, she does.” The mom shushing the kids and hurrying them away gave or enforced the idea that brown skin is something to be ashamed of or something not quite right. It’s certainly not something we talk about!
But see, here’s the thing: my Black sons? My Black friend and her Black daughter? They are quite aware of the fact that they’re Black. It’s obvious. It’s probably one of the first things you notice about their looks – and there’s nothing wrong with that. They are quite OK with the fact that their skin is not white and quite OK with the fact that you realize that too. You’d describe someone by other positive physical characteristics like hair color, facial hair, freckles, or height. Why do we lump race in with things like weight, acne, and other “negative” physical characteristics that are not polite to say? What’s wrong with having dark skin? What’s negative about being Black?
I understand that the goal of the PC/colorblind movement wasn’t really to say that we don’t see diversity but to say that it shouldn’t make a difference in how people are treated; that we should all be equally kind to all people. And that’s awesome and accurate. But somehow it evolved into this bizarre thing where we’re not ever allowed to acknowledge someone’s race or skin color, ever, even if used in a positive or descriptive context. That teaches shushed-up white kids that something’s wrong with having brown skin, and often that eventually comes out in ignorance or cruelty.
Acknowledging diversity is not being racist. Repeat that with me: Acknowledging diversity is not being racist! In fact it can often be the opposite. Acknowledging something rather than hushing or hiding from it can be the first step to appreciating it – and diversity should be appreciated! It’s beautiful and wonderful that we are not all clones! (Although anyone who’s watched Orphan Black can tell you that not all clones are the same… but I digress.) Responding positively to a child’s innocent question about the new kid in their class with brown skin or differently-shaped eyes or maybe in a wheelchair rather than shushing them illustrates that these are not things to be ashamed of. When we white people don’t talk about race to our kids, or when we shush them when they ask why that guy is brown, it makes it seem to them that being different than we are must be a negative thing; something we don’t talk about because it’s bad. Please don’t do that. It might be somebody’s kid – it might be my kid – who has to deal with the aftermath of your ignorantly blissful colorblindness.
* I presume this isn’t much of an issue in predominantly Black communities since Black people kind of have to talk about race and can’t be “colorblind” since their color is very frequently a factor in our society.
P.S. The exception to this whole post is, of course, mentioning race when it serves no purpose and/or has the scent of “othering” or ignorance about it. I notice this with a lot of older people. They’ll say things like, “There’s a fruit stand at the farmer’s market run by a Black woman,” or, “I go to the practice with the Black doctor for my arthritis,” or, “The new neighbor is Black and has a really cool car,” etc. In those instances there was no reason whatsoever to mention a person’s race, and the person never mentions the white people they surely interacted with, so it seems a bit off. This is probably a gray area, and all the older people I’ve heard say such things are very nice to the Black people they interact with, but it just feels really sketchy.