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A few days ago in my film class, a classmate brought up the topic of racial representation. Any person of color at CU Boulder knows that when you talk about race in a classroom full of white people, it’s about to get problematic. The topic at hand was Zoe Saldana wearing blackface and a prosthetic nose in order to play the role of Nina Simone, 1950s singer and activist, in the 2016 biopic Nina.
After the classmate, a black woman, explained the wrongs of the casting choice and the need for representation of dark skin and features in film, a white man raised his hand and said something like, “I wish they could just be color blind and Zoe Saldana could play this character even if her skin isn’t dark.”
In a beautiful display of certainty, my classmate — the same black woman — looked directly at him and said, “Oh no, I’m sorry, but you’re wrong.”
And he was wrong. The argument he was making was the much-too-common colorblind argument that we shouldn’t see color or race. Colorblindness is the ideology behind phrases like “I don’t see color” or “you’re just a person to me.”
The problem with that belief is that it stems from a discomfort or fear of talking about race; the argument perceives color as a bad thing and race as a taboo subject. It’s the reason people sometimes hesitate to say “black” and squirm when a discussion of race relations begins. It’s the reason a girl I went to high school with said “I don’t see you as black.”
First of all, I don’t believe you because you literally just acknowledged me as being black. Second of all, that’s a problem because I am.
I remember seeing a clip of an old Oprah Winfrey episode that featured activist Jane Elliot and discussed this exact problem. I remember getting chills as a young teenager watching this white woman say, “‘I think what we need is a colorblind society.” Now folks, when you hear somebody say that they don’t see color, you know you’re listening to a racist because what they’re saying is, ‘There’s something wrong with this person’s color, so we’ll just pretend he isn’t this color.’”
Comments about not seeing race always bothered me, but I couldn’t ever put it to words until Elliot did it for me. A colorblind view engenders a society that erases a history of racial oppression and the identities of people of color. The colorblind ideology discounts the fact that race is often a source of pride for individuals — race is intertwined in culture, heritage and upbringing. When I hear someone say they don’t see me as black, I want to ask, “Did you ever stop to think that I’m proud to be black?”
Morgan Freeman has been outspoken on this topic, supporting the colorblind argument. Freeman said in an interview with 60 Minutes that to get rid of racism, we must “stop talking about it” and that he doesn’t want a black history month, asking his interviewer, flippantly, when white history month is. He goes on to say that he doesn’t want to be referred to as a black man and that he doesn’t want to refer to the interviewer, Mike Wallace, as a white man.
First, white history month is every month, and having a month — the shortest month of the year, I might add — for black history is the beginning on the road to having necessary representation. Black history month acknowledges the oppression and black triumphs that have been erased by white textbook writers.
Second, Freeman is a black man, and Wallace is a white man. I don’t appreciate the way in which people of color are so readily referred to or identified solely based on race (i.e. when someone points someone out and they say “the black guy”), but that has more to do with marked and unmarked terms. White, the unmarked term, is the default descriptor — when you describe someone, it is usually assumed that they are white — while any other race, the marked term, is made to be the “other.” When people of color are referred to by their race, it is done so to indicate that they are not the default, that they are different and these simple identifiers are loaded.
Unlike Freeman, I don’t believe that we should stop placing emphasis on race but rather that these races should be equal. If you’re describing someone by their race, remember that they have other features as well, and ask yourself if you would call attention to a white person’s race in the same way.
What Freeman is missing about race is that we have to talk about it. Because even if well-meaning people stop somehow stop seeing race — despite obvious physical differences — racists won’t, and they will continue to discriminate and degrade. Racism doesn’t go away if it’s shoved under the rug — to eradicate racism, people have to get comfortable with race. Education, greater representation and discussions on race, to me, are some of the best ways to eliminate discrimination. Progress can be painfully slow at times, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying.
More radical than Freeman’s argument for the colorblind perspective is the notion that race doesn’t exist. I’ve heard this argument touted by extremely well-meaning people in defense of why race isn’t biological but rather societal, but I’ve also heard this argument cross over into a problematic region. Scientists have recently found that there is so little genetic variation between individuals of different races that race does not exist, but that definition is only in relation to the study of genetics. Many people I’ve spoken to have taken this to mean that race doesn’t exist period. This belief is as problematic as the colorblind view.
The fact of the matter is that race is ubiquitous and significant in society, even if it is a social construct. Whether or not there is a significant biological difference between races, there are still physical differences and cultural differences that exist between people of different origin. Culture, skin color and facial and bodily features that have been stigmatized by European standards exist, and the history behind them matters.
Race is not something we can afford to be blind to — race can be everything for someone’s identity and often affects every aspect of their life either as marginalization or as privilege. Presenting race as something that should be ignored ultimately “others” people of color. When someone says “I don’t see race,” they usually do so in reference to a person of color. What they’re really saying is, “I can’t accept you unless I think of you as white like myself.”
The ideology that we should be supporting is multiculturalism. Rather than ignore race, we should celebrate it. The problem is not that we are all different colors with different features and different backgrounds but rather that these identities are subject to a social hierarchy that inherently breeds inequality. We shouldn’t have to be colorless to be equal.
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.