A little light, fluffy, no big deal topic to kick off your Monday morning….
Ok, maybe not, but it’s been floating around my mind lately, so I’m putting it here to flicker through a few other minds.
I grew up in the “colorblind” generation. We talked about race once a year, when we celebrated Martin Luther King for ending racism. We were taught that everyone is equal, the same, period, the end. They taught us not to see race, so we didn’t.
If asked to describe the demographics of my schools k-12, I’d say “White and Asian.” There were other groups represented of course, but hardly enough to register on the pie charts. Still, “few” is more than “zero,” and I can remember the names and faces of a handful of Black students too. (And others, but I’m focusing here.)
The weird thing is, I mostly remember them from my classes in elementary and middle school. They all kind of disappeared in high school, as far as I could tell, if I’d ever thought about it. (I didn’t.)
My high school had at least as many African American students as my previous schools, of course. I saw them in the halls, or sometimes in an elective class. But high school is a segregation machine, and I was one of those kids taking all the honors and AP classes…. It took these last two days of stretching my memory, before I finally came up with one person in one class who had dark skin–I think she was African American, but I couldn’t swear it. That’s it. Just one, and she’s a “maybe.” That doesn’t mean no other Black students ever took an advanced class in my school, and I’m sure my classmates will tell me who I’m forgetting… But the fact that I can’t remember any in my own classes seems significant. I never noticed at the time though. It didn’t occur to me until years later, as an adult going into education, when I learned about underrepresentation in some places and overrepresentation in others.
I was taught not to see color, so I didn’t. I didn’t notice when one color disappeared from our happy little rainbow.
Those students that I wasn’t seeing, did speak up during my junior year, requesting that the school start a Black Student Union. Now, I realize that many schools have had a BSU for a long time, but for some reason, this was a subject of great debate and controversy at our school.
The good news is that I wasn’t one of those people arguing that “BSU’s are racist! What if we tried to have a White Student Union? What would people say then?” Thank goodness, even in my most naive days, I was never that ignorant… No, I was one of the kids who felt very enlightened and egalitarian when arguing, “Why don’t we start a Multicultural Club instead? It would be a club for everyone!” The way I remember it, there was an absurd number of discussions before a decision was ever made. And I wasn’t involved in student council or anything; it just seemed to come up in every class. (Also of note: since I can’t remember any Black faces in those classes, that also means I don’t remember hearing any Black voices in those debates.)
Eventually, a decision was made, and the Multicultural Club was born. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with a Multicultural Club; I’m sure it’s a good club that does good things. (It still exists; I looked it up.) But looking back, I’m so ashamed of that entire debate and my own stance in it. We were wrong. A very small minority of our student body banded together and expressed a need, and the oppressive majority shut them down. I don’t know who the Black students were that originally made the proposal, but I can’t imagine the feeling when they were told, “No, the White kids voted, and they decided this other thing would be better for you.”
I wish I could tell those students that I’m sorry.
We were taught not to see color, so we didn’t. And when color demanded to be seen and heard, we shut it up.
Two of my best friends from high school–the kind of best friends that last no matter how much time has gone by–are Vietnamese-American. I knew that I couldn’t pronounce their middle names no matter how much I tried, and I knew that [insert Asian stereotype here] was stupid and offensive…. And that’s about all I knew. Race didn’t matter. We were all the same. We went to the same school, ate the same french fries from the cafeteria, complained about the same homework, watched the same movies… I guess I did end up owning more Sanrio paraphernalia than the average White girl, but other than that, race wasn’t really a factor.
Let me insert a #WheelchairProblems bit here…. Nobody’s house is ever wheelchair accessible. Like, ever. I almost never get to hang out in other people’s homes. My high school friends were no exception. We hung out at school, at my house, or “out” somewhere. If we went anywhere together, my parents drove, because accessible van. That meant that my friends knew my family and the vibe in our house, but I never really knew theirs.
That’s bothered me my entire life, but it really came into focus when my friend got married several years ago. The wedding was beautiful. She was radiant. I had so much fun, and the biggest meal I’ve eaten to date. I don’t want it to sound like a bad thing when I say that I felt out of place, surrounded by so much Vietnamese culture and tradition and language and people. That’s actually a situation I quite enjoy, being immersed in something new.
But it shouldn’t have felt so different and new, and that’s the part that bothered me. Two of my best friends were Vietnamese, and I felt like I was finally noticing it for the first time. I knew so little about their culture. I didn’t know what it meant for them and their families. (I couldn’t pick their parents out of a crowd.) I don’t think I even knew that either of them spoke as much Vietnamese as I heard that day. What kind of friend was I? How could I miss an entire dimension of some of my closest friends?
My other friend (not the one who got married that day) and I talked about this later, after we’d both grown into adults with a passion for social justice. We talked about race, and what it meant for us, and about why we hadn’t talked about it before. All those years, I hadn’t even known that wall was there, but it felt so good to knock it down.
I was taught not to see color, so I didn’t. I was taught that we are all the same, so I believed it. And I missed so much.
I don’t know if “colorblindness” is a goal we should have for a future generation, but if so, it’s a distant future. For right now, I don’t want it. I tried it, and it kept me from seeing too many things, as blindness* tends to do.
*I say that in the literary sense, not the disability sense, but hesitate as I’m writing it. So I want to clarify that when I say “blind,” I’m referring to people choosing to walk around with their eyes shut. That’s very different from an actual blind person who’s alert and aware of their environment.