If I had a penny for every time a white person told me they ‘just don’t see colour’, I’d have about 50p, and that’s quite a lot of money these days -almost enough to buy me a packet of Thai Sweet Chilli crisps. There are two things that are wrong with this statement. The first, is that it’s a lie. The second is that it assumes that the solution to racism is to not notice that people are non-white.
I had someone tell me that they didn’t notice that their friend’s girlfriend was black until about 3 months into the relationship, because “It’s just not something I notice about people.” Lies you tell. Sorry bro, I know you meant well, but no one vaguely sensible is going to believe that you didn’t notice that the chick was brown.
He was a bit extreme in how literally he meant that statement, but when most people say they don’t see colour, they’re trying to emphasise that race is not important to them in how they perceive people. This statement is often conveniently made after they’ve said something that could be interpreted as racist and you’ve called them out on it, or used to ‘comfort’ a non-white friend after another white person has said something racist or insensitive.
I’ll be frank…anyone who says they don’t see colour is a liar, unless they’re a legally blind or partially sighted. For the rest of us, we see colour.
There may be a tiny, minute minority of individuals who for some strange reason haven’t been exposed to the racial stratifications of society like the rest of us, but the majority of us notice racial differences. For example, I’m used to being the only chocolate drop most of the time – my primary school was 95% white, most medical schools are largely white, and the majority of doctors in this country are white , with some Asian, but very few black people. So if another black doctor walks into the room, I register that straight away. Does it make a difference? Yup. It’s one person I can 90% count on to not grope my hair without asking. I can’t necessarily make any other assumptions beyond that.
For a lot of white people, if they walk into a room full of black people, and they are the only white person, unless this is a frequent occurrence for them, they will instantly feel slightly uncomfortable. There’s a reason why the phrase ‘big black man’ exists. It’s not just because big black men exist, it’s because they’re associated with fear – it’s not just the fact that they’re big and male, it’s the combination of big and black and male that people notice. To deny that is simply disingenuous, and does absolutely nothing to confront racism or racial stereotypes.
“I don’t see colour” is a complete cop put, and an easy way for white people to avoid having candid and uncomfortable conversations about racism and the inequalities that exist in society because of it. Not only that, but it is part and parcel of the ‘new racism’, which is pretending that racism doesn’t really exist that much, that black folks are paranoid, lazy, whiners who haven’t caught up with everyone else and we should all just learn to get along.
Society sees colour. This is obvious. Society is made up of individuals. If so many white people are claiming that they don’t see colour, then why do 40% of white landlords in London state that they don’t want to rent to black people? And why are the majority of deaths in police custody black men when black men don’t make up the majority of the prison population? And why does research show that if you send the same CV to employers with a noticeably ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ name to employers, you are significantly less likely to get a call back for interview than when the CV has a ‘white’ name? And why Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride? And why do Hollywood rom-coms only have the black woman as the side-chick cheerleader friend and never the main love interest, when there are black women who win Oscars and so are clearly capable of acting the role? And why does practically every hospital consultant who spends more than 5 minutes with me ask me where I’m ‘really’ from? And why does the media call black people ‘British’ when they run, hop or jump for England, but mention their country of origin when they commit a crime? And why does Rasta Mouse exist?
It must be all in our heads, especially when so many white folk just don’t see colour. Someone’s lying, and it’s not me.
Secondly, I don’t want you to not notice that I’m black. “OH MY DAYS, YOU MEAN YOU ACTUALLY HAVE NOT NOTICED THAT I HAVE BROWN SKIN! Thank you. Thank you so much. That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me. I’m so touched.”.
I’m black. I’m not just black. I’m black with chocolate sprinkles and hundreds and thousands on top. I’m that James Brown black and proud black. I’m that reads Malcolm X for fun black (not that you’re less black for not having read him). I’m that Nigerian name having gets excited when Africans think I might be from their country black. I also like folk music. I’m also vegetarian. I’m also a Christian. I also love Jane Austen. I’m also a human jukebox, much to the annoyance of some people. I also have a soft spot for cream tea and scones. I’m very multi dimensional, but I’m very much black, and I don’t ever want someone to ignore or not notice that. I mean, there’s a Jamaican flag hanging from my bookshelf,and I’m going there next week to happily immerse myself in all things Jamaican (not all Jamaicans are black by the way, although most are). Why wouldn’t I want someone to notice that I’m from the best island in the world? (That’s one Jamaican stereotype I do fulfil – arrogantly patriotic).
The solution to all of us getting along, that white people as a collective group don’t seem to have got the hang of yet, is treating people equally and getting rid of structures that reinforce racial inequalities. Notice that I’m black and don’t treat me with less respect for my humanity than you would someone who is white. It’s quite simple really. Our different races and cultures make life a lot more interesting, and not only is it a shame when we ignore our differences, it’s simply a useless tactic in the fight against racism. Don’t make assumptions about what my ‘blackness’ means. But don’t assume that I don’t want you to notice that I’m black and don’t tell porky pies about not noticing. I know you do. You groped my Afro without asking last week. You groper, you.
How many of you really believe you don’t see colour? And how many of you had someone say this to you?