Recently a gentlemen contacted me through an online dating site. He was the first one after having my profile on there for three months (I have the word feminist in my profile). After a few back and forth emails, he wrote this in one of this emails:
I’m pretty color/looks blind with my friends. I remember a dinner at my old place in London where a friend was saying that most people are a bit racist or make choices based on race. He asked me if I had any black friends, and I said no, I couldn’t think of any. He took this as proof of his point, I don’t think of myself as racist, but I chose not to have black friends. Then my flatmate walked in and said hi – and I realized he was black. It just hadn’t been relevant in any way, I so hadn’t seen it. Of course, if asked, I could have described him, but I tend not to classify people.
He is white (non-American) and I am brown.
I find this statement problematic because it is a clear expression of white privilege when you can be “colour blind.” When I sent his e-mail to a white female friend of mine, she responded:
i do not see a problem in this statement. i think that the closer people are in your life, the less you classify them in superficial categories. you tend to think of them as they are as people. it may be a bit strange to forget about race, since it is such an obvious visual part of a person. it suggests that race has never been an issue — for good or bad. my advice to you would be: do not try to find problems where there may not be any. this statement will not tell you enough about that person to be able to be a judge of character about him. it would literally only lead to a judgmental opinion.
Now, I could throw the gentleman under the bus in a heartbeat. But what of my friend? We are friends as well as colleagues. She is important enough for me to want to take this event and make it a teachable moment. She always sees me as the emotional, illogical of the two and therefore I am reaching out. I want to explain to her that her statement and that of the dude above is condescending to me. All of my attempts to write a response are well over two pages, single spaced and very academic sounding – which may very well be the way to go.
I ask you and your readers to help me with my response. The job of writing a logical and calm response despite the pain and hurt I am feeling has been very difficult. I did pose this question in the Jezebel groupthink section and did get validation that there was reason this upset me. But I want to know how to address both of them and tell them they are wrong in a way that they will listen and possibly even understand.
BeckySharper: It’s highly suspect when anyone says “I don’t notice race!” I always think “You must be pretty fucking dumb, then.” This dude’s roommate was black and he “never noticed”? BISH PLZ. Delete those emails in good conscience. I think he may have been trying to impress you with how open-minded and “real” he is, but he’s clearly a self-congratulatory asshat who does.not.get.it.
SarahMC: Pretending to not see race allows the (white) person to continue believing that people of all races are treated equally and that racism is not a problem. And if there is a problem, they are not contributing to it and can do nothing to solve it. As I’m sure you know, one way they try to sweep racism under the rug is to say they don’t see race!
Claims of “color blindness” come from a place of privilege and defensiveness, and of course, they are bullshit. I think these people tend to be the type to think bringing attention to racism is itself racist, because bringing attention to racism brings attention to race. People of color don’t have the privilege to just “forget” they are oppressed, unfortunately.
PhDork: Nth-ing the “ditch the dude” suggestion. Now, your friend. Can you talk about this with her? Can she listen? Or maybe an email will work better? It *might* be easier on both of you if its less about Blindy McNoRace specifically, and more about helping her see this as a huge pattern of behavior that you–and a hell of a lot of other non-white people–deal with all the fucking time.
BeckySharper: I agree, and I think your friend is just ignorant, but probably not malicious, just clueless. It’s easy for her to dismiss your feelings because she will never have to have that conversation herself. It’s an empathy FAIL and I think you’re right to be upset. The whole “don’t go looking for problems where there aren’t any” is exceptionally clueless; the dude’s attitude towards race is obviously very important in this situation. To say you’re looking for problems is a classic example the usual lack of empathy white people have for issues that POC face. So yeah, I think you got hit by the privilege tidal wave, and I’m sorry about that. It’s definitely worth saying something to her—even if it’s just for the sake of not swallowing your anger.
PhDork: It’s not incumbent on you to school her, of course, but if you want her to pick up the clue-phone, maybe you could send her a brief email with some links about racial privilege and why this does matter, and why you’re not over-reacting.
SarahMC: You can express your feelings to her without making it about her, per se. For instance, you could write, “You know, I don’t think I’m going to continue talking to so-and-so. His email really turned me off. He thought it would impress me that he mentally erases black people’s racial identity and defaults everyone to “white” but I hear that “colorblindness” spiel all the time and it’s insulting. [Then whatever else you want to say that might make her light bulb go on].”
Adam Serwer is pretty great on this issue:
Colorblind rhetoric doesn’t actually seek to end racism; it seeks to end the means by which racism is exposed and dealt with, like medieval Europeans carrying around pockets full of flowers to mask the scent of the plague
PhDork: And this has some choice words (and links to other stories).
BeckySharper: If I can offer one woman’s white perspective here for just a second—entirely for the sake of explanation, not as an excuse—I’ll just say that it’s fairly easy for white people to fall into the “I don’t notice/see/care race” trap. We’ve mostly been brought up to believe that racism is bad, and we don’t want to be that bad racist person. We get that message loud and clear; which is why white people squeal when they’re accused of racism—they know it’s wrong to be racist even if they often don’t quite know what racism is or how they’re being racist. Problem is, some of us have no idea how to deal with that or to relate to people of color. So, as SarahMC said, we try not to be racist by sweeping racism under the rug. Can’t see it! No problem! I’m not racist so let’s be friends!
Unfortunately, this overcompensation/rug-sweeping can lead to boneheaded statements that were genuinely well-intentioned, but got mangled when filtered through ignorance/privilege/awkwardness of Whiteness. I see this all the time and it leads to some real head/desk-y moments. I’ve inadvertently done it, my friends have done it, my family has done it. So these conversations are always useful checks, because needless to say, racism ain’t going to change anytime soon.