Dear White Folk Who Say You “Don’t See Race”

Dear White Folk Who Say You “Don’t See Race”:

I am a white male, and when you see me, you should immediately notice both—because the parts of who I am are ultimately the whole.

To say to someone you don’t see race (or gender), you are in effect refusing to see the person, you are dehumanizing the person as somehow not worthy of being fully seen.

But there are also a few points of logic that make “I don’t see race” truly offensive.

First, the only reason to make the effort not to see race is the implication that once you see race you have racist or bigoted thoughts or actions connected to race.

Second, to consciously not see race (which is an odd concept to begin with since eyesight doesn’t allow us to filter) or to make a false claim of not seeing race also simultaneously prohibits you from seeing racism.

“I don’t see race” is admitting “I refuse to acknowledge racism”—and denying racism has a real evidence problem.

Those who claim “I don’t see race,” then, are likely either racists who are fronting (consciously or unconsciously) or people who consider themselves “good people” but by taking a so-called neutral stance are actually supporting the status quo of racism in the U.S.

Humans have recognizable nuances and differences, and it is ours to denounce equating surface differences as signals of deficits or stereotypes.

We cannot see each other as fully human by refusing to see any of our parts, including the social construction of race that we associate with how we look.

For those of us—especially those of who are white—committed to racial equity in the U.S., we must resist “I don’t see race” and instead seek for ourselves and others: “I see human dignity in all races.”

7 thoughts on “Dear White Folk Who Say You “Don’t See Race””

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about Eric Liu’s definition of racism while watching the news lately:

    “Race, you see, is a fiction. As a matter of biology, it has no meaningful basis. Genetic variations within any race far exceed the variations between the races, and genetic similarities among the races swamp both. The power of race, however, derives not from its pseudoscientific markings, but from its social trappings. It is as an ideology that race matters, indeed matters so much that the biologists’ protestations fall away like Copernican claims in the age of Ptolemy.”
    — Eric Liu
    in The Accidental Asian

    “Race” is indeed powerful; yet it shouldn’t be because skin pigment tells us nothing of a person’s character.

    When considering Eric Liu’s definition of “race,” maybe both the recent turmoil about Rachel Dolezal and the tragic shooting in Charleston are opportunities to give people a chance to talk about what “race” is and isn’t, and perhaps the discussions could remove some of the power of this damaging social construct.

    Rather than “I see human dignity in all races,” since that in itself perpetuates the myth, how about we consider the fact that our differences, both internal and external — rather than confining us to particular families or tribes or nations — have the potential to make our families, workplaces, tribes, and nations stronger?

    1. Race, as I note, is a social construction (not biological), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real or a “myth.” Once we disassociate racism from race, then the social construction of race no longer is a problem.

  2. I mis-typed what I intended to be “race” as “racism” in the first line of my comment, probably adding to the confusion. Maybe I need a few lessons on why the concept of race is a good thing (or an unavoidable thing?) in the modern era, rather than just an anachronism that helped justify imperialism initially and a whole host of evils later on. I’ll go back to thinking, studying, and listening for now. Thanks for the discussion, sir.

  3. I’m a black man I agree with what u saying 100% people don’t be real with themselves by saying I don’t see race is an acknowledgement that u do indirectly God made us different in order to get to know each other and live in peace but ignorance and acting upon ignorance keeps us segregated.

  4. @Andrew: I don’t know that race is either “good” or “unavoidable,” but it is unmistakably here and now. It may be based on outdated biological thinking, but it’s the framework into which we’ve built racism — and, as Thomas says, to ignore the framework (for whatever reasons) is to render ourselves incapable of dealing with the thing it contains.

    Consider language: We have many words that have deviated from their original meanings, but we don’t eschew using them because they are “wrong”; rather, we speak to the world as it is, that we may communicate and be understood. So it is with race.

  5. I aspire to be tolerant of “I don’t see race” and to encourage of those who aspire to it to keep moving on their journey with the concept.

    As a child growing up in the South, I employed the same mechanism to cope with prevailing racist attitudes. Willfully ignoring race was my way of silencing the racist voices in the environment long enough to think about race and come to some conclusions of my own. Many white adults do the same thing but find they can endure the self-imposed silence more easily than letting the voices back in. They opt out of the conversation.

    Sometimes, I fear, we don’t make it easy for them to get back in. Years of repeating the “I don’t see color” mantra make it hard to admit their own biases, and fears of being seen as racist (even momentarily, as they get their bearings and suss things out) prevent them from talking to the people they need to hear from.

    Looking past race is like mastery of addition and subtraction. It’s a good skill to have, and it gains you entry to a higher level of discourse than someone who has yet to question their inherited notions of race — but it’s woefully inadequate to function as adult. We have to build on that skill by learning the more complex ciphers of letting race back into our lives and making critical judgements about how it affects the treatment of ourselves and others.

  6. @Scott
    Re: “race is unmistakably here and now.”

    It is scientifically accurate to say that race is a fiction, that our DNA indicates we are all descendants of Africans.

    Race is like a magic spell, a curse, a mindset that we keep embracing, rather than breaking.

    I am thinking of how I might approach the topic in the classroom. And I want to help shape young identities. And many young people see race as a box they are trapped in. They say, “white people can’t jump” or “black people don’t do science.”

    I wish I could break the spell. I’ll keep trying. The best way to do it in the classroom seems to be through presenting the evidence, provoking discussion, and then listening respectfully to students.

    Race might have one value: as a lever, a box on a form that tells us where to direct resources to repair injustice. But does that really work?

    Is race a useful concept in terms of shaping an identity? Giving a young woman or young man self-esteem? Is it all harm, no good? I don’t know. I still have a lot to learn. Thanks for the discussion.

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