Colorblindness Is Just Blindness

I was talking today to a white woman I know who has a child whose father is African. I keep up on her son’s progress, partly because her doting is infectious–and partly because I worry about this kid.

I’d worry even if he weren’t black, because he’s as tall enough you look at him and assume he can drive. He’s not even a teenager. There have been periods through the years that I’ve known his mom that has been a big problem, particularly with his teachers. They know how old he is–he’s been in a grade-segregated school, so all the kids in a class are about the same age–but they still expect him to have the maturity of someone of his apparent age. Some of them have gotten very frustrated with his “misbehavior”.

That’s a problem for any kid who looks older than he is. It’s an extra problem for a black boy, who is expected to be a problem. It’s an even bigger problem here, in a northern, urban area that hasn’t seen much of its black population migrate from the working class into the middle class. (If you live in one of these areas, I suggest traveling to Raleigh, NC or Atlanta, GA to really experience the difference first-hand.)

So there have been problems, not with this kid’s development, but with the expectations he’s had to meet. His mother has had to intervene on his behalf. He’s had to learn coping skills that are beyond his age. He’s had that pressure to carry himself “just right” earlier than anyone with any empathy would want. Not that they’d want it at all.

Then along came this kid’s maternal grandfather.

I’m sitting talking to my friend today, and she mentions, “And grandpa got [her son] an Airsoft gun.”

My jaw dropped. For those of you who don’t know what an Airsoft gun is, they look like this:

Or like any other gun that you can faithfully recreate out of plastic and plop some BBs in. Airsoft guns are largely collected by adults who would like to collect real guns but can’t quite justify it to themselves. This is as close as they’re going to get. And that’s the problem.

I looked at my friend and said, “Does your dad…have any idea…how people look at black boys?”

“He does now. I explained it to him. Even [her son] said, ‘Yeah, grandpa.'”

So now this child has a cool present he can’t play with except in the most limited of situations. (His mom’s taking him and the gun to a range this weekend.) He can’t even have it accessible to him most of them time, because one error in judgment could be very easily the last. As sadly savvy as her son is, he’s still too young for decisions that are potentially fatal.

It isn’t because the present is that dangerous. Grandpa got that part right. This kid is mature enough to handle a BB gun. It’s because we’re too dangerous, something that grandpa never even thought to think about.

That, mesdames and messeiurs, is why “colorblindness” is one of the biggest white privileges there are.

Colorblindness Is Just Blindness
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16 thoughts on “Colorblindness Is Just Blindness

  1. 1

    When it comes to (color)blindness, libertarians of the Ron Paul variety are the absolute worst. Ask a paultard about any race-related issue, and the most likely response will be something like “those people should stop thinking of themselves in terms of their race or ethnicity.” Like being treated unfairly because you’re black isn’t the problem, thinking of yourself as black is the problem. Because that’s “collectivism” or something.

    I’ve even heard some libertards say the government shouldn’t even take note of what race or ethnicity people are, because the very act of noticing someone’s ethnicity is part of the problem of racism. Just another glaring sign of the right’s appalling disconnect from reality.

  2. 2

    Urgh, kids being “too tall” for their age really get a bad deal.
    It happens even if you’re pretty experienced with kids and can generally estimate their age.
    Given that the boy is blck I can see how this greatly worsens the situation and he is likely to be made the “troublemaker” via selffullfilling prophecy.
    Teachers really need better training.
    And yes, the grandpa’s gift really is a prime example of the grandpa’s white privilege: He never needed to think about the dangers of carrying such a toy himself.
    And since he’s most likely a genuinly good guy who’d never think about shooting a kid in “self-defense” he probably can’t imagine anybody else doing it.
    And this is the same day I learned that Trayvor Martin’s hoodie is as much to blame for his death as the murderer. Because it made him look like a gansta, you know…

  3. 3

    I had one of those ‘too tall for his age’ sons who was expected to act more mature than he was emotionally able too. I mean, why would you expect a 10 year old to act 15? Paradoxically, my next son was always smaller than his classmates, and there were FEWER expectations from him–equally bad in my eyes. Especially when you are black.

  4. 4

    I hate the libertarian paulbot comments I hear on race. They argue that the government looking at race to prevent or even just examine racism is more racist than the private, free-market racism of whites.

    Or else they support the right of whites to be racist since demanding that they employ or serve minorities is an infringement of their sacred property rights, which I guess also means that white people had the right to exterminate native peoples to get their land.

    When I bring that up, I usually get told that it’s ‘in the past,’ though my point (questioning where property comes from and how the people who got it came to get it, and what that implies for a fair society) is always lost.

    Government sanctioned racism is pretty bad, but at least it’s something that’s in legal codes that can be opposed. Private racism is harder to fight since it rests in the minds of people with power and not in any set of rules or regulations that you can overthrow.

  5. 5

    “And grandpa got [her son] an Airsoft gun.”

    Choked on my water.

    I’m not mad and the grandparent for giving their grandson a fun gift but…jesus, how do you miss that?

    Hopefully he can get some fun out of it at the range. Airsoft guns are some of the best toys out there. Especially if you plan to have mini wars in your office.

  6. Pen

    We might also make more headway if we realised that colour-blindness is not just one thing. Nor is it the exclusive preserve of white people when it comes to that.

    There is the colour-blindness of people who have grown up in very monoracial areas. Sometimes they have not acquired any vocabulary or concepts to think about race, sometimes they have but in very cursory ways. Sometimes they then suddenly get dumped into more complicated social settings.

    There is the color-blindness of people who aren’t aware of race for people they are in close relationships with, but might be for strangers (perhaps like this grandfather).

    There is the kind of political colour-blindness that believes race is a bad concept and intends to be part of the solution by ignoring it, or believes that equality or the golden rule should equate to a ‘one size fits all’ attitude. And some of those people are genuinely doing what they think is best with respect to race, others are rather cynical as I suspect many Ron Paul type supporters of being.

    There are people who are asserting their own lack of a self-conscious racial identity, or who have explicitly decided that the many things all humans have in common are more important than those they do not.

    BTW, I just have to say it, cultural differences are such that my jaw also dropped when you told me what this grandfather thought was a suitable present, but race didn’t come in to it. A gun!!??? Even a ‘toy’ one that looks real!? That’s not suitable for any child of any age where I come from (bright green water pistols excepted).

  7. 7

    I was going to say, I was kind of wondering how old the grandfather was – I don’t even remember many kids getting toy guns growing up and when I heard about kids getting bb guns as presents, I thought it was something that probably went on before say, World War Two. Perhaps that shows some ignorance on my part.

    There’s many different kinds of ignorance concerning race out there; I think it’s good policy to realize that no matter how conscious you try to be or how informed you try to be, there’s always something more to be learned. It’s kind of how despite being white I realized that I don’t necessarily share the same culture as other white people and many of my feelings towards other people have been shaped by the fact that I’ve lived in racially and ethnically diverse places my whole life. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up without that.

    One comment about ‘colorblindness,’ at one place I worked we had these racial sensitivity videos to watch and I thought one was pretty good – one guy tells the other ‘when I see you, I don’t see a Black person” and the other guy says “why not? I am Black. Is there something wrong with being Black?”

    Perhaps I’ve always thought that the whole “I don’t see race” idea is ridiculous.

  8. 8

    So, what, I should treat my younger siblings different to how I normally do, just because they’re black?

    Not. Happening. I was raised better than that.

    People are people are people, regardless of skin color, and I refuse to treat anyone differently because of something so petty and insignificant as the amount of melanin they produce. It makes me angry and sad and disappointed that there are still people who DO.

  9. 9

    @WMD Kitty:

    I think at this stage of psychological research it’s fair enough for me that it’s unscientific for any of us to think that our personal narrative, or self-concept, is likely to accurately reflect our behavior or dispositions when it comes to emotionally charged and socially fraught issues. I don’t subjectively feel racist either, but as a Bayesian basing my priors on studies which compare other people’s behavior with their subjective self-reports, me feelings don’t give me very much evidence to think that my behaviors aren’t fairly racist.

  10. 10

    WMD Kitty
    Well, I hope you are aware that your black siblings face different obstacles and challenges in life than you do (if you’re white), just like your sisters face different challenges than your brothers.
    Is this bad?
    Yes it is.
    But acting as if we already lived in a post-racial, post-gender, post-heteronormative, post-cis-genderist society isn’t going to fix that, it’s going to reinforce that because it breaks down everything to “personal” and “individual” and makes it impossible to see the relationships, the big picture.
    It makes the Trayvon Martin murder a case of individual fuck-ups and not a symbol of US-racism and gun-fanaticism.
    But it would only be if you could reasonably believe that the boy would also have been murdered had he been white, and that Zimmermann would also be walking free if he were a black man who shot a white kid.

  11. 11

    I see “race” the same way I see cat breeds — different patterns, but still the same animal underneath. I guess, in the same vein, some people have a preference, conscious or otherwise, for this breed over that breed. (Meanwhile, I’m sitting here wondering why it’s such a BFD.)

    I know, I know, idealistic Hippie, put down the bong, etc.

  12. 12

    Thing is, WMDKitty, even if you do see people that way, other people _don’t_. Your siblings are in a social environment you don’t share. They _are_ seen as different in a ways different cat breeds pretty much aren’t, and that will make a difference.

    It shouldn’t. Of course it shouldn’t. But you’re not doing the people you care about any service by pretending the world isn’t the way it is and isn’t prepared to give them the shaft in ways it won’t give you.

  13. 13

    WMDKitty, Unfortunately, at some point you may need to treat your younger siblings differently in order to deal with the fact that the surrounding culture will. It may be safer for you than for them to run certain errands, for example; saying “I went last week, so it’s your turn” isn’t always the right answer.

  14. 15

    […] The idea that colourblindness is good (ie. “I don’t see people in terms of race, I treat all people equally”) seems to be quite popular. If you’re not aware of the problems with this, here is a comprehensive argument by Tim Wise, as well as a study that suggests colourblindness reduces kids’ ability to see/challenge racism. Finally, a post by Stephanie Zvan about an example of how colourblindness can kill. […]

  15. 16

    […] The idea that colourblindness is good (ie. “I don’t see people in terms of race, I treat all people equally”) seems to be quite popular. If you’re not aware of the problems with this, here is a comprehensive argument by Tim Wise, as well as a study that suggests colourblindness reduces kids’ ability to see/challenge racism. Finally, a post by Stephanie Zvan about an example of how colourblindness can kill. […]

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