Yarrow House

I’m Not Color Blind: Race in My Life

March 11, 2013

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” James Baldwin

Why am I not color blind? How is it, after all these years of valuing interracial equity, that racial awareness is still alive and well in me? I’m almost always aware of the race of the person I’m talking with, or at least aware of it when that person is black. I hate it about myself. I want, in the interpersonal moment, to be colorblind. So what do I need to do, what can I do, to erase that automatic racial awareness?

My first awareness of African Americans was in 1951 or so, when I was around eight. We were driving through residential Tacoma streets to Grandma Signe’s. I said, “Look, mommy, there’s a nigger.” “We don’t use that word, Judy. We say Negro,” my mother said. How did I know the N word? How did I know about black skins? In our rural Western Washington community of mostly Scandinavian immigrant families, pre-TV, I probably heard it in the schoolyard. My only information about Negros came from Little Black Sambo and Jack Benny’s butler, Rochester, heard on the radio. (Much later I discovered the actor wasn’t African American.)

Dark skins were a matter of curiosity on my part, of etiquette on my mother’s, perhaps,—more an issue of how to be lady-like than of racial sensitivity.

My next memory: I was still in elementary school, we were driving past the house where some new people had recently moved in. I noticed the man working in the yard was black. “Are we going to stop and say hello?” I asked. “No,” my mother said. It was an era when the country around us was building up. Many new people were moving in, and we didn’t visit any. But somehow I had the sense that it was more than their newness that prevented our visiting them. How long did they stay? I don’t remember them beyond that moment. I’d guess they were military, since our community was relatively close to Ft. Lewis.

So, what did I learn from these experiences? To be respectful, but at a distance. That African Americans were, somehow, different.

During my summer between high school and college, I worked as a nurse aide in St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tacoma to earn money for college. The nurse aide who trained  me in the job was a friendly, young, black woman. She had a flirtatious, sideways, way of looking at people when she talked with them. It was a revelation to me. I finally saw how flirting worked. And I tried to copy her.

When I was in college at Whitman, in Walla Walla, Washington, in 1962, we had one black student in our dorm. I was curious about her, but too shy to approach her. She was a senior. I was a sophomore. Grade level hierarchy divided us. And also my mother’s example

The civil rights protests in the South were discussed on campus and in some of our classrooms, but they were far away from our isolated corner of the Northwest. When the sociology professor asked who could imagine joining the freedom riders if they lived in the South, I alone raised my hand. I was shocked that no one else felt any motivation to act against the obvious injustices toward blacks. Maybe they were just more aware of the danger connected to the Freedom Rides than I was. I didn’t leave college, though, and go ride. My raised hand was a safe gesture, and how is that an example of my entire life? Safe gestures, unchallenged and untested beliefs.

In 1964 in San Francisco, my husband, who was white, and I lived in the Fillmore district, the ghetto. (In my first draft of this piece, I didn’t indicate his color. Unless stated, it goes without saying that a person is white. That’s what color-blind means for a white American; we are blind to our own color.) Our neighbors were an interracial couple. Our friends included other interracial couples and single black guys. The issues of civil rights and black-white relationships escaped my notice. Everything was personal, and I didn’t look beneath the personal surface. No conversation ever touched on the issue of race or the struggles that any of the black people in my life may have been experiencing.

I not only couldn’t see the bigger picture, I didn’t even know there was one. I thought that by virtue of being friendly, of being in some kind of friendship, I was contributing to integration, and therefore, interracial harmony and justice. As a result of the racial isolation in which I grew up, I didn’t understand how much race was an undercurrent in the relationships I formed.

Nonetheless, my intention was to contribute, through my life, to integration. I thought it was important to raise my son in an interracial setting so when we moved to Seattle, I was happy to live near and enroll him in an inner-city school. I was happy to see that his friends were black and Hispanic. It escaped my attention how much the values he was adopting — especially disdain of higher education and glorification of violence and exploitation of women — differed from my feminist, pacifist values, and therefore, I didn’t talk with him about the value conflicts he faced, or how he might balance my values with those of his friends.

I’ve had four black housemates in Seattle. Two women and two men. Three of these experiences were varying degrees of positive. One woman, Lynn, was young and troubled, not the person she presented herself to be when I rented to her. She quit her job after moving in and didn’t pay her rent for the next three months. I finally asked her to move. It took me a long time to decide to ask her to leave. Did I delay because I didn’t want to appear to be discriminating in some way? Because I wanted to be understanding about her situation? How much of the leeway I gave her would I have given to her if she’d been white?

I’d had another young, troubled housemate before, a white woman, whom I’d eventually also asked to leave. Race seemed unrelated to the circumstances of either of these experiences. But asking them to leave took longer with Lynn, and I take that as a measure of some kind of reverse racism.

I really liked having Sala’, the other black woman, as a housemate although she, too, was struggling with jobs and goals in life. Still she was interesting, creative, and honorable. We shared a number of interests, including Eastern religions, and we went to a weekly meditation center together for a while. We talked about our lives and experiences pretty openly. She asked me to braid her hair one time, and I was hopeless at it. I couldn’t get the braids tight enough to hold, which embarrassed me. My teenage son was going through a difficult time, and consequently so was I, and I wept on Sala’s shoulder many times, far too many for her, I’m afraid, but she was kind about it.

Did I finally reach a point where I didn’t see her race? I’d like to think so, but from this distance in time, I’m afraid that’s only hopefulness talking. I’m sure I still saw her color. I’m always looking at people and noticing things about them, but color as “Other?” Maybe I moved beyond it. Maybe not.

My two black male housemates, Will and Bob, both worked at a juvenile correction center as counselors. When Bob moved out, he introduced Will to me. Bob had been an army kid. He’d lived overseas when he was growing up, had gone to integrated schools, played football at WSU, and projected a quiet self-confidence. He seemed comfortable in a white setting, and we talked occasionally, briefly about race and racism. When his African American girlfriend from New Orleans came to visit, she remarked that in New Orleans you knew where you wouldn’t be welcome, as an African American, but here in Seattle she didn’t know how to tell. Naively, I asked Bob if there were such places in Seattle. “Oh, yes,” he said, “but you don’t know until you go into them.”  That I even had to ask is a reflection of how much my own color insulates me from the realities African Americans face.

Will, on the other hand, had grown up in LA. Despite our fairly open and easy conversations, I always felt some sense of guardedness in him. Was it that he hadn’t had the opportunity as a youth to travel and live in other settings with other people, or just the nature of our landlady-renter relationship? A different sexual dynamic than with Bob? The reverberations of race echoing through us both? Maybe all of the above. I still don’t know. 

Since I left San Francisco, I’ve rarely engaged socially with African Americans. And this is another place where the value I placed on integration and the reality of my life show a marked contrast.

I am friendly with black people, and sometimes even go out of my way in group settings and at work to make contact, but I don’t pursue a social relationship. I consider this a failing but one I don’t know how to overcome.

When Sharon, an African Canadian originally from the West Indies, joined the staff in my UW research center, I went out of my way to talk with her and became a sounding board for her in her struggle to establish herself as a credible member of the staff. A struggle that ultimately failed, for reasons that had to do in part with her resistance to taking direction and in part with the expectations of  her supervisors. They gave her a lot of leeway but, in a confusing way also gave her no leeway. They had, I thought, if not higher expectations, more criticisms, than for new white researchers.

Is going out of my way to be friendly with the only black person in the group discriminatory? Condescending? Or was it an example of my concern for interracial fairness? Asked another way, was it something I would have done for any new member of the staff? I did make an effort with new people, so was there any difference in my efforts with Sharon? I thought she needed an ally in what was an emotionally challenging environment, but the challenge wasn’t necessarily racial, and she never implied that she found the issues to be racial, more a classic academic, degree-based hierarchy, the nature of academia.

But did I make an extra effort with Sharon because she was black? I thought being the single black person in an all white environment would be hard, and that I should make an effort with her to make it easier for her. So in that sense, I did react to her race rather than to her as an individual.

I didn’t pursue a friendship with Sharon outside of work. But on the other hand, I don’t go out of my way to develop friendships, in general, with new people I meet, so singling out a black person to befriend seems forced and false. Opportunistic, in a way. Something that would make me feel virtuous, but regarding the other person only as a category. I don’t want to make friends just to fill the category of “black friend.” I justify this lack of black friends by thinking that I don’t share values and interests with the black people I see in my neighborhood. I’m not religious, and I have few social activities that bring me into contact with African Americans with whom I might share interests.

To live in a way that  promotes interracial equity and harmony, is it necessary to have black friends?

The African American couple with whom I am friends, Frank and Barbara, are the only African Americans in our book group of a dozen or so people. I admire Frank, who, at 85, is still actively engaged in the political world, interested in the life of this city and this country. He’s been a book group member for 15 years or so. Barbara, whom he met and married after the loss of his previous wife, Laura, to cancer, became the newest member of our book group, stepping into the place previously occupied by Laura. The group has welcomed her, and Barbara has made this transition with grace. I imagine myself in a similar situation and know I would have been intimidated. If Barbara was, she didn’t show it. Over the years, we’ve become friends, based on mutual interests and our wide-ranging conversations around books and politics.

When I review the exchanges of the group, I sometimes wonder if we white members treat Frank and Barbara differently in any way. I think not. But then I wonder how the group feels to them as African Americans. Perhaps my hope and naiveté prevent me from being aware of what would be obvious to them. Do I see them first as individuals or as African Americans first? That’s really the question. Because I’ve been afraid to find out if the answer is “individuals second,” until now I’ve avoided examining the relationship.

When is racial awareness racism? Am I racist if I’m aware of a person’s race? Does being aware of skin color imply discrimination, stereotyping, prejudice? Or can it just be the normal awareness of personal characteristics, like facial structure or hairline?

Some writers on race claim that color blindness allows white people to ignore the privileges that come from being white. In colorblind situations, whiteness remains the normal standard and reinforces the implicit assumption that the white  social, cultural, and economic experiences are the norm, a norm that everyone aspires, or should aspire, to.

Any African American person I meet, other than recent African immigrants, is likely to have deeper American roots than I have. My mother’s grandfather came from Denmark in the 1880s, my father’s father came from Norway in the early 1900s. African Americans on the other hand have been in this country for almost 400 years. The last slave ship arrived in 1858.

Descendants of these African people have contributed in significant ways to the American culture of today—music, food, architecture, science, language. What we think of as typical (meaning white) American culture, what gets exported around the world as American culture, is imbued with the contributions of Americans of African descent, and yet we rarely recognize or acknowledge any of it. The white, northern European culture is considered the correct, the normal, the ideal. It sets the measure, and all other cultures are contrasted with it—African American, Asian American, Hispanic American. No newspaper article ever describes a white person as European American, or even indicates their color; it’s implicit and goes without saying.

I think about our book group and how race and racism is brushed up against in our discussions but never directly raised as a personal topic. Does it need to be? Can it be? What would be the purpose, the outcome?

Since I’ve been working on this piece and really examining my unconscious responses, I’m overly aware of the race of the people I encounter.  I don’t know if this is good or bad. I’d like to be less aware of race, but on the other hand, am I experiencing the reality lived by every brown-skinned person? I have the luxury to not think about race. Raising my awareness removes that luxury.

Heidi Zetzer, a white professor, argues in her paper “White Out: Privilege and Its Problems” that honest multicultural dialogue is the first way to build alliances that can then “transform people and systems and turn intention into action.”

The point of this exercise in self-exploration was to answer the question: What can I do to change my automatic racial awareness?

Now, I think this is the wrong question. The real question is: how can I bring into consciousness my unconscious thought patterns, attitudes, and emotional responses in order to eliminate their effects in my relationships? Zetner says, in the conclusion of her paper, “I was afraid of revealing a hidden bias, a stereotype, or a prejudice. I would use open-ended questions or politically correct terms as a way to minimize the chance that I might say something offensive. I expected people of color to reveal themselves to me while I displayed little of myself. I find walking the talk and displaying key imperfections extremely challenging, but the multicultural dialogue requires just that.”

At this  point I realize that color-blindness cannot be my goal. I will inevitably be aware of color just as I’m aware of gender, age, or emotional state. But I want that awareness to be factual, not laden with automatic assumptions of inadequacy or untrustworthiness. I want the differences that I’m aware of to be differences that make no difference in how I relate to a person.

At the same time, I have to keep in mind that my relationships with African Americans exist in a world in which color does make a difference. I can’t lose sight of the reality that while I am working to erase color-based assumptions in how I personally perceive and relate to them, African American persons are certainly bringing to our interchange experiences with color that I will never have nor fully comprehend.

In Race Matters, Cornell West said, “Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

Citations

Zetzer, Heidi A. (2005). “White Out: Privilege and Its Problems.” In S.K. Anderson & V.A. Middleton (eds.), Explorations in Privilege, Oppression, and Diversity. Belmont, California: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
West, Cornell. (1994). Race Matters, Vintage Books.

One-time reproduction for non-resale purposes permitted with the following credit line: by Judith Yarrow, © 2013