On January 21st, 2012, my adopted brothers, Donsley Pierre and Veniel Norelien, boarded an airplane from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to Chicago, Illinois. At two and four years old, they had never seen snow before, so the very next morning my family and I took them sledding for the first time. As we trekked up the side of the sledding hill, a little boy about their age stopped us. Looking my family up and down, he said to my brothers, “I know that’s not your real mom. You have to be the same color to be a family.” His own mother, dumbstruck and mortified, looked at our family and hurriedly blurted out, “No, don’t say that! Remember, we don’t see color!”
We don’t see color. I’ve heard this phrase and renditions of it countless times since my brothers came home six years ago, and this is what I’ve learned: Americans today are so afraid of being labeled racist that they have adopted a colorblind approach to discussing race and racial issues. The phrase, “I don’t see color,” has been popularized by white Americans as a means of labeling oneself as neutral, as uninvolved in the racial tensions that plague America, as innocent of the systematic oppression and legalized racism that have for generations branded our culture. This phrase works to disregard racial issues by pretending they do not exist in the first place, limiting what can and should be said about race.
I don’t believe that the mother on that sledding hill was a racist. Rather, she was a white person living in a white family in one of the whitest ZIP codes in America. How could she have known that not seeing color means that she doesn’t really see the person, for color represents history, heritage, and culture? How could she have known that that her words and the words of others like her would leave my mother in tears more times than she could count, worried that my brothers would grow up believing that they would not be seen, that they were somehow invisible, somehow “less than”?
In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me, he tells his fifteen-year-old black son, “Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body — it is heritage.” The colorblind approach to racism that the phrase “I don’t see color” creates essentially destroys the black body by suggesting that there should not be a color to see in the first place, that black skin and therefore black culture and black history should be swept under the rug and forgotten. This creates a sense of shame and even guilt for being anything other than white, perpetuating the ideologies that govern race relations in the United States.
Having a colorblind approach to racism means that you are privileged enough to not be affected by racism. Think about it: It’s likely that everyone you’ve ever heard use this phrase was white, because these are the people who aren’t constantly reminded of their race by a society plagued by racial injustice. While adopting a colorblind attitude is an easier, largely guilt-free way to understand race, it is not an option for my brothers and for all Americans of color.
I never want my brothers to think that I don’t see their color. I never want them to think they won’t be seen for who they are. So I wrote them a letter, which I placed in an envelope, and which I want them to read someday when they are older.
Here’s what I wrote:
Dear Donsley and Veniel,
In your lifetime you will experience stereotypes, prejudice, and even acts of overt racism directed at you. I am not oblivious to this reality and the reality that even well-meaning people can be ignorant. And in your lifetime people will continue to say to you, “I don’t see color.”
I want you to know that I see your color. I see your tight black curls that you won’t let Mom brush. I see the beautiful brown eyes that parents different than the ones we share gave to you. But I see so much more of you than that. In you I see kindness and humor and hope. I see perseverance, strength, and happiness. I hope you see this too. I hope you see that you are smart, that you are powerful, that you are loved.
Most importantly, I hope you two see that you are not the same as white people, and that you shouldn’t have to be to earn love and respect. The phrase “I don’t see color” might make you feel that you should hide your blackness, that you should dress “white,” talk “white,” and act “white.” You are not white. You are not the same as white people, but you are equal. Never let any person — or their words — convince you that you should feel ashamed of the color of your skin or of the fact that you are black.
On January 21st, 2012, Mom, Dad, Gwen, and I took you sledding for the first time. This was the first time you two saw snow, the first time you spoke a word of English. This was the first time we were together as a family. It breaks my heart to remember that on that day you experienced racial prejudice in America for the first time. But I am hopeful that years from now, whenever we come together as a family, we will remember it as one of the last times.
Eleanor Lyman is a sophomore from Kenilworth, Illinois, majoring in psychology and minoring in Education, Schooling, and Society.