White People: It’s Not Racist To Call Them “Black People”
But saying “I don’t see color” is certainly tone deaf
It always happens. Well-meaning white folks show up to conversations centered around race and racism and interject with, “Well, I just don’t see color.” We all know what the phrase is meant to convey — that you consider yourself unprejudiced, someone who embraces diversity and believes everyone is equal. We know that’s what you mean. But the white folks among you who know better cringe, because they know the black folks within earshot must steel themselves against yet another case of unrealized white privilege.
As a white person myself, who writes for a (predominantly) white audience of readers, and sometimes tackles the topics of systemic racism and white privilege in America, I frequently encounter misguided arguments on the topic. And those arguments are not coming from black people; they’re coming from my own race, my fellow Caucasians.
Look, I know most of y’all are not racist. I know that. We all have some degree of implicit bias; I know that, too. But some of y’all seem to twist logic and reason in your efforts to have some kind of “gotcha” moment — I guess — where you get to proclaim that white people who attempt to educate other white people on systemic racism are actually the racist ones.
One such argument I hear from time to time is that I’m racist against white people. I can’t even entertain that one. Another one is that, by calling African Americans “black people,” I’m being racist… because (as I’m told by other white people), I’m unnecessarily ‘othering’ human beings on the basis of skin color alone. Which = racism. (Or so they say.)
Now, I’ll admit, this philosophy is actually a common perception in much of white America. At times it seems like white people are afraid to even say the word “black” as a human descriptor. They look around for an “all clear” before saying it, and even then, say “black” it in a whispered voice.
Last holiday season, I was shopping at the mall when I witnessed an interesting interaction. A young black woman at the register was ringing up lingerie for a young white woman. As happens in retail, the cashier engaged in some small talk — “Did you find everything you were looking for? And was anyone helping you with your purchase today?”
The young white customer thought for a moment and then said, “yes… but you know, I can’t recall her name.”
“Can you tell me what she looked like?” the cashier asked.
The customer shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. It seemed apparent she was struggling to find the right, inoffensive words.
“Umm… she was… kinda tall… I think?” was the only thing she came up with.
The cashier rattled off a couple of female names, thinking one might sound familiar. But it wasn’t helping.
The white woman tried again to describe the salesperson who’d assisted. When words failed, she started craning her head around to see if she could spot the girl nearby in the store.
The cashier finally ended this misery by bluntly asking, “was she black?”
The customer turned back, looking a bit awkward. She answered “yes,” proceeding with caution.
The cashier was all smiles as she clarified, “oh, okay. That was Jordan. I asked because she’s the only other black girl working tonight besides me.” She finished her statement with a friendly laugh.
The customer laughed in return, admitting, “I’m sorry, I was trying not to mention skin color… or, you know, bring race into it. Oh, God. I feel so embarrassed… I never know whether it’s okay to say that or not!”
From there, they shared more casual conversation, a few more laughs, and ultimately, had a very productive and powerful conversation — an honest conversation.
Seeing color does not make you racist; it makes you normal.
Of course we see color. It’s one of the most obvious characteristics of human beings. To ignore that aspect of someone — especially a racial minority — is to ignore their lived experience, and indeed everything about their lived experience that’s vastly different from our own.
Thinking “I don’t see color” is a noble, harmless thing to say, or that it’s racist to use “black” to describe someone are both problematic thoughts. “I don’t see color” is really a phrase that (unconsciously, for the most part) aims to liberate white people from any guilt or discomfort they might experience from the white privilege they benefit from — often in ways unknown to them. It completely disregards the power of the dominant group, and by default, dismisses the oppression experienced by the minority group.
The thing is, we all know that skin color shouldn’t matter, but it does, especially here in America. Racism has not been eradicated. Rather, it has learned to be less conspicuous, to operate in a more covert, fairly sneaky way.
If we truly want to attempt moving away from our racial biases, the goal is to not be colorblind. How can we possibly work on or fix something that we can’t even see? In order to keep our biases in check, it’s absolutely critical that we see color, and moreover, it’s the only way we can recognize and regulate our actions in response to any implicit biases we may have.
And the other (maybe more important) thing is, black people want you to see their color. They want you to see the many shades of their blackness. And they want you to see exactly how their color shapes and affects their experiences in this world. When you can really see your black friends in all their distinct and glorious colors, then you’ll be better poised to see everything else they bring to the table — their beauty, their pain, their skills and talents, their knowledge and wisdom, their multi-layered intersectionality.
The history of America is not pretty or convenient, even though it has been packaged and sold that way to public school textbooks and curricula across the country. The truth is that the white people in power have built systems that consistently and continuously disenfranchise black communities (and other people of color), and us white folks need to see that, rather than try to not see it.
If you consider yourself someone who truly “doesn’t see” color, then you’re probably not looking hard enough to really see who these people are. Which also means you may not be honoring them in the ways that you think you are. Start by looking closer.