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Government, Politics & Issues

Commentary: Seeing a different color isn't a problem

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 5, 2008:  I've never liked the term colorblind. I think it's problematic and a complete contradiction. How would you feel if I claimed to be unable to see a significant part of you? Even if you wouldn't have a problem with it, the concept is inherently flawed. Being blind to people's differences isn't the answer; not judging them on these differences is.

I could continue with my rationale about the falsehood of "colorblindness," but my 14-month-old son proved my point more succinctly than I ever could. We were in the pharmacy recently waiting for his first antibiotic prescription to be filled. As Murphy's Law would have it, I'm waiting in line with a sick child and the script isn't ready -- nowhere to be found.

The clerk was really nice about it and helped move things along, so Avery and I went for a walk in the aisles. He proceeded to spot his father ("Da-Da") three times. He was spotted on an advertisement for the store; Da-Da reappeared as a clerk moving merchandise; and he made his last appearance as another customer picking up his prescription. What did all of these men have in common? They were African-American males. 

The first time this happened, I told Avery that the man was not Da-Da but did happen to be black like his Da-Da. The second time, I must admit, I felt a little uncomfortable fearing that the other customers might assume my son was longing for a father figure, desperate enough to seek one in a random passer-by in the store -- you know, the stereotypical fatherless black boy, single-mother home story. The third time, I was simply amused and laughed at his observant, and consistent, behavior. Let me just add that Avery played a game of peek-a-boo with a white man with no mention of Da-Da.

What does this story suggest?

Research has found that, by pre-school age, children are aware of racial differences. Some people might get up in arms and claim that if a child is noticing racial differences at that young of an age, the parents are too race-conscious. I would disagree and reiterate that seeing difference is not the issue. It's all the social baggage that comes along with these labels that are problematic. 

My second reaction to Avery's declaration confirms how quickly these stereotypes come to mind. He wasn't making any judgment about black men, but I sure was immediately cognizant of how others perceive them.

For example, when white parents claim that their child doesn't even realize that their friends are of color, I bet the reality is that the child is aware but not influenced. As adults, we see someone's race and immediately the stereotypes are activated. We find out where they work and attended school, and more are filled in. This process continues because stereotypes are short cuts for the brain. They allow us to conserve cognitive energy and avoid processing fully every stimulus we come in contact with. Children have yet to learn all of these short-cuts and collect all of our baggage. 

Don't get me wrong, children can and do learn the meaning that we place on race. The social construct is powerful, and a historical study found that young children were aware of the ways people from different racial groups are treated. Children also learn by example and are keenly aware of how the adults in their world interact with others. So, what starts out as innocent awareness in time becomes fodder for preconceptions. 

It's not the awareness that we need to eradicate. We are no more colorblind than we are genderblind. If someone were to make the claim that they don't see gender, I doubt you would believe them. Gender norms are deeply engrained in our society. Simply note the recent uproar over gender identity disorder in general or the pregnant transgendered man in particular.

Claiming to be colorblind doesn't make it so, nor does it make it desirable. It's just not that simple. We see color; we notice racial differences; we are not colorblind. My 14-month-old son can tell you that. 

About the author

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., grew up in Edwardsville, and is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.

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