I Don’t Want a Colourblind World
When you “don’t see colour”, you don’t see the time I sat at a restaurant table in Sudbury being virtually ignored by the waitress while my two white friends were addressed. You don’t see the times the word nigger or chink or spic or paki has been hurled at us. You don’t see the time that I was called a coon by a homeless man begging on the sidewalk who, as I neared, found asking me for change less important than reminding me that despite our lots in life, he was still superior by birth. You don’t see the Sunday afternoon drive my family took to a town not far from our city, where we were met by stares while driving along the street as if the starers were already envisioning their property values plummeting. You don’t see that moment, everytime we wait for a job interview with strangers, of wondering if we’ll catch the fleeting look of “Oh…” in their eyes when they realize we’re not white. You don’t see the time I stood in line at a burger joint while the cashier asked everyone around me if she could help them but would make no eye contact with me. You don’t see the sting of constantly seeing yourself either misrepresented in the media or underrepresented in the very industry that you love and are trying to devote your life to. You don’t see the time a man told me I would totally be his type if only I were white. You don’t see the landlords who, when you show up to see the place, suddenly come up with reasons why the apartment isn’t that great. You don’t see the woman who called me an effing spade on the subway. You don’t know what it’s like to deal with men who think their cases of “Jungle Fever” are a compliment. You don’t see my sister and me shopping at a jewellery store, being watched every moment, then the clerk telling us when we ask for a box for our purchases that there aren’t many boxes left and they’re for – before she catches herself. You don’t know the burden of feeling like your conduct and speech will be seen as representative of your entire race. You don’t see the dozens of times I’ve been called “well-spoken” only after people find out I’m black. You don’t know the pain of knowing, deep down in your heart, that you or your child going missing wouldn’t be the headline that the disappearance of a white person or their child would be. You don’t feel the weight of silently wondering, if you were the one facing the pointed rifles and tear gas, if your white friends would stand beside you or allow their skin hue to shield them.
These are moments I have known here, in a city far away from Ferguson, Missouri. In the most multicultural city in the world. There is nothing I love about my hometown more than its diversity and its welcoming, integrated nature. Yet even here, and despite the fact that I feel blessed and fortunate, my run-ins with racism remain inescapable.
This is what it is to be a person of colour, and in my particular experience, to be black. This is what you negate when you “see past” skin, when you say that you don’t see black and white.
If you don’t see my skin, you don’t see me.
I have only once in my entire life had a white person ask me – and it was someone I was extremely close to – “What is being a black woman like?” I was both engaged and caught off guard by the question, but more than anything I remember being moved by the fact that he wasn’t satisfied to remain sheltered by our insulated relationship which was completely egalitarian. He wanted to know how my colour impacted the rest of my life, so that he could better understand what I carried. I have often wondered since that day how many white people, living in societies where they are the majority, have ever actually asked their friends of colour to share with them the truth of the experience. If more did, things might be very different. Or they might not. We won’t know until people begin asking. But when and if they do, then and only then will goodhearted white people finally stop being “surprised” by racism.
The fact of the matter is that surprise in this instance is actually a misnomer for naivete. I have heard my fair share of dramatic gasps, as if people need to prove how non-racist and blown away by the concept of racism they are. People of colour are tired of hearing even the most well-meaning Caucasians reiterate time and time and time again how surprised/flabbergasted/in disbelief they feel whenever something overtly racist happens. Such proclamations only emphasize that one group has the good fortune to be far enough insulated from it that they can actually be surprised. You would be hard pressed to find a dark-skinned person who is ever surprised. Shocked by the brazenness of it at times, yes. But by the vitriol and discrimination itself? We are never surprised.
When I ponder this naivete and think back to the conversation with my dear friend, I understand why so many black people are reticent about, or completely eschew, interracial relationships. I don’t feel remotely that way; I believe that love rears its head wherever it chooses. For some people, it is simply about a desire to be with someone of one’s own culture. But I see why for others the gap in perspective, and lived experience, can feel just too wide. Racial prejudice is something that you can research and study and talk to people about until you are blue in the face – and it should and MUST be discussed. Still, one thing will always be true. It is not something you can truly comprehend until you feel the sting of it. It just isn’t. I can imagine how extremely painful it is for a white person to see a loved one who is non-white go through it, especially the white parent or mate of a non-white child or spouse. But until it is your skin, your body that is deemed unacceptable or inferior, you cannot internalize it in the same way. This does not mean that one should not seek to learn and to listen — these are the ONLY ways to a peaceful and truly empathetic world. But in moments when the ample bigotry hangs in the air like thick smoke, the divide can feel like a chasm. I empathize with blacks who feel, in times and towns like Ferguson, that intimate relationships with whites are not possible. I understand the mistrust born of a seeming lack of common ground or connection and a history of cruelty over tenderness. I understand why persons of colour would need to feel that the arms holding them at night belong to one whose walk is also their walk. I understand why people feel the need to look into the eyes of someone they needn’t explain anything to. I understand that as much as someone may love you, there are moments when the brutality of racism makes you long for someone who doesn’t have to say “I’m sorry” but can instead say “I know”.
I wish that any two people could fall in love and never have to think of these things. I wish that the police and many of the citizens of Ferguson and towns like it could see a white woman and a black man holding hands, appreciate them as two humans of different colours, and see love. But they don’t. They see red.
When you look at me, I want you to see black.
That is NOT – however – ALL I want you to see.
I want you to see a strong, loving, creative, silly, impassioned, nurturing, contemplative person. A person with a heart, mind, body and soul informed by a million things — being female, being progressive, being in the arts, being Canadian.
But I want you to also know, if you love me as a sister or like me as an acquaintance (or dislike me – we are not all each other’s cups of tea), that that person has been created in part by the experience of wearing the skin that I do. When you choose me as a friend, or an actor or a teacher or a songwriter or a mentor or a director or a singer or an activist or a confidante, I bring my life experience and perspective with me. That doesn’t mean that it will dominate the air or have obvious relevance to the particular situation; it is of course ludicrous to think that it would. I am an individual with individual beliefs, likes and dislikes, and I wholly reject the idea of black people being lumped into a whole as if we share a common opinion on all issues. I know that to be black in North York and to be black in Compton are not the same thing. But there is an innate shared experience that cannot be escaped or denied. As much I am an artist, and a woman, I am black. You cannot love or respect me if that is something you are willfully blind to. It’s that simple.
Combatting such blindness begins with an unflinching and deep acknowledgement by those with power of entrenched racial inequities. Along with the endless list of black thinkers and civil rights leaders who have addressed this for centuries, there are the Peggy McIntoshes and Tim Wises and Jane Elliotts of the world, who have confronted the reality of oppression and their own potential complicity in it. While it is itself a display of racism that many of the points they affirmed fell on deaf ears until ‘legitimized’ by whites (they were enlightened enough to know that that would likely be the case), their work has earned them the designation of ally. The degree of transformation our society demands, however, requires the fierce and unapologetic allies to be far greater in number. This means taking off the glasses that make it easier to convert the world to greyscale.
I do not want a colourblind world. I want a colour-kind world.
When people the world over were lashing out at people who “looked Muslim” after 9/11, I produced a benefit concert called ColourKind. Thirteen years later, colour-kindness is still my hope for this planet. I want us to live in a world in which we see people’s races as part of their humanity and seek to explore the breadth of that humanity. I want us to realize that pigmentation is incidental, yet beautiful. The palette that is the range of human skin is breathtaking, and the reality of colour has created a wealth of experiences both positive and negative that we can learn from in order to co-exist more lovingly. I want to confront the ignorance that allows the lives of dark-skinned people to be viewed as expendable and turns neighbourhoods into duelling factions. I want to never harbour resentment towards the white people I adore.
I want the biracial niece and nephew whom I love beyond words to never look in the mirror and see one part of themselves as the adversary of the other.
Let us abolish the term “racial tolerance” and realize that a person’s race is not something to be tolerated, but an invaluable vault of stories and knowledge that multiplies the wisdom of the planet. Let us stop being so afraid — afraid of criticism, afraid of loss of status, afraid of guilt, afraid of dialogue, afraid of honesty — so that we might understand that fear is always an opportunity for courage and discomfort a chance for evolution. Let us learn that the fruit of truth is progress, the fruit of lies is regression, and the fruit of avoidance is stasis. The alternative to learning is more Michael Browns and Trayvons and the litany of others lost, more day-to-day injustices, more animosity, more separation. Less love and no justice.
No justice, no peace.