In the United States people of various races have always co-existed, even intermingled. Some eras and areas have handled it better than others. History reveals some shameful errors, and I’m not just talking about African-American slavery. The “internment” of Japanese-American families during World War II and some current attitudes toward Mexican-Americans show that a lack of understanding can lead to unjust treatment.

What perpetuates our lack of understanding? The causes are too many and too interwoven to form a tidy list, but I wonder if at least one attempt to fix the problem is making it worse. Leaders and educators, aspiring to achieve an accord that’s been often discussed but never fully realized, tend to use “color-blindness” as a guide. I don’t think color-blindness does us much good.

The principle denies any difference between One and The Other. It assumes that if each can ignore the other’s lighter/darker pigmentation, they will get along. Ironically, it focuses us on the very thing it’s meant to help us ignore. Awareness that you’re not supposed to acknowledge an obvious difference–and, in fact, something must be wrong with you if you even notice the difference–can lead to interactions where One is so focused on his dissimilarity to The Other that the dissimilarity causes him to feel anxious. What if he slips up and reveals that he noticed? Will he be accused of intolerance?

Possessing observational skills needn’t be a liability. No one thinks it’s inappropriate to notice striking physical features other than skin. (At least not that I know of. And please understand that I’m only talking about noticing, not ridiculing.)

Would it be better to acknowledge our differences than to ignore them? I think it would be better as long as we keep in mind what lies behind the concept of color-blindness, which isn’t that there are no differences, but that there is no difference in value. What unites people of every color is that we are on a human journey together.

That said, it’s a difficult journey. Humans tend to form groups with those they find familiar, which is where shared heritage, manners, expectations, etc. enter in. These shared characteristics often occur among people with matching skins, but not always. Not all Chinese families hold academic achievement as the highest ideal. Not all tanned blonds are looking for the closest party. It’s easier to discover errors in our assumptions if we’re allowed to confess our assumptions in the first place instead of anxiously trying to hide them.

What if we exchanged the misleading ideal of color-blindness for a more practical approach: color-kindness? We could acknowledge the obvious–we look a little different from each other. Proximity to the unfamiliar creates a little stress because we’re afraid to misstep. Stereotypes are a sloppy shortcut, but we’re prone to rely on them anyway. With all this openly acknowledged, one of us might still do or say something that offends the other. But if we begin by nodding hello to the elephant in the room, maybe we’ll find our common ground faster than we do when we pretend that the elephant isn’t there, even though it’s stepping on our toes.

What do you think? Has color-blindness been useful to you? Do you think color-kindness would help us get along, or would it make things even more complicated?


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