In Visible

“I guess my position on race is….I see no color. I am an American.” – tweet posted July 19, 2013

Stephen Colbert periodically mentions that he doesn’t see colour, noting that he believes himself to be white because people tell him he is but that he otherwise wouldn’t know. In so doing, of course, he illuminates the difficulty in professing not to see colour – it is literally right there in front of you. Yet, a number of people do indeed profess not to see colour. Some are genuinely anti-racist and are trying to invoke an ideal which our society falls well short of achieving, while others are decidedly racist but want to avoid thinking of themselves and being thought of as such. Both groups, albeit with radically different motivations, will sometimes call out people pointing out instances of racism for “being divisive.” But realistically, instances of racism do exist, and how else can we have a conversation?

Our school includes an affinity group, SOC, for Students Of Colour. There were initial discussions about whether or not it would be divisive, but in the end, we chose to honor the demonstrated need for students of colour to have a protected space to discuss what it’s like to live in a predominantly white area of a country infused by white privilege. In the end, SOC’s existence has greatly enriched our school, going beyond its important initial goals to being an active voice in the community. An affinity group for international students also exists, and has similarly developed its own voice through the years.

While we do have a Multicultural Club open to all, white domestic students who want to become more active in anti-racist work will sometimes ask what they can do. I generally tell them that they can do anti-racist work every day of their lives whether or not they belong to an organization, but that they can also start an anti-racism club if they would like. Being a club, such a group would be open to all, but of course could still coordinate anti-racist work with other existing organizations.

Year after year, students in my Humanities 7 classes provide one possible avenue to dealing with the knotty problem of “seeing colour” and so on. At least one girl in any given class will typically discover research showing we take in and form our initial impressions in about a second. Those impressions are instinctive, based solely on appearance (skin colour, gender cues, clothing…) and may or may not have any bearing on who that person actually is. The key, they all decide, is to guard against first impressions and, whenever possible, take the time necessary to genuinely get to know people.

As a Black person fighting racism, José Vilson also suggests that White people who want to actively engage in anti-racist work listen to the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of people of colour, and learn from them – to be appropriate without appropriating. So when he recently found himself at the Aspen Ideas Festival where men far outnumbered women, he took his own advice in making a deliberate effort to hear women talk about women. Waiting in line to meet the Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy, he found himself being asked in a sweetly snide tone by a woman, “So, are you here to talk about women’s issues?” After a short pause, he responded, “What do you mean? I’m here to hear women talk about women. That’s an important thing.” The woman smiled and turned around, effectively cutting off the conversation. He completely understood – how could he not? – that the woman may simply have been tired of men telling women what to do. And yet, deep down in his heart – how could he not? – he wanted people to come to such interactions assuming good intentions.

In his blog post on the above experience, “Hear Women Speak On Women [A Small Rejoinder to My Privilege],” José noted, “Thus, in my male privilege… I want to come into these situations as someone’s equal, not above or below based on my gender.” He also wondered, in the comments section, whether he would have received the same reaction if he weren’t heterosexual. But of course, that opens up a whole new line of thinking. How would this woman have known he was heterosexual? She might have read him as heterosexual in that first second’s worth of impressions, but she wouldn’t really know for sure. For that matter, while gender is indeed visible for the vast majority of us, technically speaking you don’t really know someone’s gender until and unless they let you know how they self-identify. Over this summer, I’ve learned some colleges are now asking students, when introducing themselves at orientations, to state which pronouns they prefer. And, given gender fluidity, some offices have even learned to ask “And what pronouns are you using today?”

As it happens, I don’t doubt for a second the sincerity and good will of the specific person who agreed with and reposted the above tweet. But ultimately, if we truly want to create a society where all people receive the dignity and respect they inherently deserve, we need to both acknowledge the visible and learn to look past it to what is initially invisible. We need to really and truly get to know each other.

Ask my students. They know.

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Filed under Current Events, Gender, In the Classroom

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