On Colour Blindness
By Annika Patni
“I don’t see colour.”
I’ve heard this numerous times over the years. Every time I hear it, a sigh of exasperation mingled with anger cages my throat.
As a person who is constantly surrounded by a white majority, I have come to see why some people would think that this is a progressive thing to say. In the twenty-first century, being called racist or sexist is one of the biggest insults to the self-declared left-wing liberal. However, skin colour still paints the world we live in. Racism isn’t a thing of the past, and without outwardly acknowledging this, it will never become a thing of the past.
My experience in this world is marked by the colour skin I have. This is true for all bodies; skin colour (as well as a multitude of other things, for example, gender or class) will shape the types of perceptions, spaces and opportunities that will be open to an individual. Let me just debunk the everyday understanding of racism; racism is not solely name calling. When I speak of spaces and opportunities, I speak of how racism is structural. By structural, I mean that it is woven within the very fabric of society.
Racism manifests itself in the small parts of everyday life. Like calling your local corner-shop owner unsavoury words that you only call him because he looks or speaks in a certain way. It happens when you sit next to a brown man with a briefcase on the train and your whole body becomes hesitant with suspicion, because we are told that Arab and Middle Eastern looking men are potential terrorists. When you think a young black man is up to no good as he walks through the streets at midnight on a Friday evening. When you assume that a Muslim woman is subjugated and submissive because she is wearing a headscarf.
These are cultural presumptions that we have of people based on ‘other’ skin colours to whiteness. Whiteness is never subject to the same presumptions of delinquency, terrorism or subjugation as the person who is ‘Other’, who is different, from this whiteness. This is not to say that white people are never judged, but mainstream collective consciousness never condemns white people as a whole based on their skin colour. Whiteness is never disparaged in the same way that ‘all Muslim (which really just means all Middle Eastern appearing) men are terrorists’, or ‘all black boys are more criminal’, or ‘all brown women have no voice’. Of course there are groups of people within whiteness who experience stigma; the white working class, in many European countries at the moment, are incredibly marginalised. However, this has nothing to do with their skin colour, but instead to do with their socio-economic status.
What seem like small reactions to people of colour (which admittedly usually are so unconscious or normalised that they go unnoticed), are small indications of how entrenched racism is in our society.
Academics often talk of structural or institutional racism. Without all their flowery words that prevent most people from accessing their ivory towers, structural racism means that the doors that are always open for white people, are not always open to people of colour. I’ve heard a lot of people respond to this saying they never judge people on their skin colour - that they never even think about skin colour.
Let me take this into the real world for a second. As a recent university graduate, I have some friends who have started to work in recruitment. They describe instances where companies who have sought their help have said that they don't want to consider people with non-English sounding names. This is just another way of saying that they do not want 'foreign', non-white people to work in their companies. This means, for the person of colour, that their job pool is made smaller by racist prejudice, despite being as qualified as their white competitors.
…Queue the few utterances that say, ‘but few places must discriminate that way. I mean look at Obama - isn't that reason enough to say that racism isn’t really a thing anymore?’. I’m not saying that people of colour do not hold positions of power, but I am trying to say that it is much harder for them to access these positions (and using a few individual tokens does not eradicate the presence of white supremacy). If we just take a look at the numbers on representation within positions of power in the work force, we can clearly see that the field is dominated by white men.
People within positions of power also need to conform or adopt characteristics which are regarded as successful; this means conforming to a particular culture, whether thats entails the way you act, dress, or speak. Specifically, it means enacting a straight, white, middle class, male culture, if you are to be perceived as part of the gang. This imperative creates huge barriers for people of colour, particularly women, queer, trans and gender non-conforming individuals, from accessing these positions, while at the same time reproducing the existence of this cis, straight, white, male (and quite frankly, narcissistic) culture.
This is why my throat constricts, and my eyes become wet, when people say they don't see colour.
Being able to say you are colour blind comes from being in a position of privilege. You can only say you are colour blind if you have never adversely felt the affects of your skin colour. It makes sense to me that I have only ever heard white people remark that they are colour blind. People of colour feel the presumptions, the accusations, the prejudices, the difference, of their skin colour.
When people say they are colour blind, it is an individual declaration that says ‘I am not a racist.’
This difference is felt when I usually only see black and brown men being stopped and searched by police and airport security. This difference is felt when people say certain foods are smelly, without the consideration to the fact that 'western' foods could also be conceptualised as 'smelly'. When people say that eating with your hands is unsavoury, strange and uncivilised. This is felt when people touch, fascinated by cornrow, weave, and afro. When people of colour are asked where they’re really from upon saying they’re from a western country. When it is only the black men I am with who get searched when entering a club. When you see celebrities exotisising brown babies and transnationally adopting them as a status symbol or fashion accessory. When you are described as someone's ‘exotic’ friend.
People of colour know what it feels like to be perceived as atypical. Colour is part of our lived experience. To say you’re colour-blind is to deny mine, and many others’ experiences in this world. The ironic thing is, when the left-wing liberal says that they don’t see colour, they are maintaining, and reproducing, racism. They make natural the idea that we live in a post-racial world, which makes conversations about race incredibly difficult.
By saying you are colour blind you are eradicating the voices that say they experience injustice. Racism cannot be undone by individuals professing that they are not racist. By saying that you are colour blind, you ignore the structures behind individual consciousness, making it harder to tackle the very real problems that people of colour face. Moreover, self-congratulatory declarations of non-racism or ‘colour-blindness’ does’t stop the white individual reaping the benefits and privileges that come from the structures that marginalise people of colour.
We need to acknowledge that society is structured by racism, and we need to engage with how some people privilege from this, and some people definitely don’t.