“I don’t see race or color.” This is something we’ve probably all heard someone say. In fact, just a couple weeks ago, a Minnesota state legislator said these words to a diverse group of my peers and me during a meeting to discuss (we thought) racial inequities in education. While the intentions behind this statement might be good, I believe these words—and the mindset behind them—do more harm than good. If we’re going to support students of color to reach their fullest potential, and otherwise help communities of color thrive, we have to start by seeing and celebrating, not ignoring, race.
When people say they don’t see race or color, I have found that they genuinely feel that this is the best mindset to have. They say this not intending to offend anyone, to ignore our country’s sordid history nor to deny entire populations the freedom to be proud—not ashamed—of their identities.
Growing up in southwestern Minnesota, I tried not to see color. I was quite accustomed to being the lone person of color in my classrooms and neighborhood, and in many ways, my family started doing what we felt we had to do to fit in. My experiences made me feel as though there were no differences between my neighbors and me. If I did notice differences, I avoided calling them out, as I worried that doing so would define me as a racist or “reverse racist.” I believed my hometown had neither discriminatory nor prejudicial people because all of us made an effort not to see color.
As I grew older, I discovered that attempting to not see color contributes to the misguided standard that people of color must assimilate into White American culture. Attempting not to see color denies us the ability to question that oppressive standard. Under the paradigm of color blindness, white privilege cannot exist because white cannot exist. Race-based injustices cannot exist because race does not exist.
Saying “I don’t see color,” is the equivalent of stating, “I don’t see anything other than the white majority. I don’t acknowledge how our education systems fail to educate our Native American or Southeast Asian kids. I don’t acknowledge the injustices of our judicial system disproportionately incarcerating and killing black and brown people. I refuse to acknowledge injustices, and I refuse to celebrate other cultures and ethnicities.”
I finally started to understand that it was acceptable and essential to see color when my hometown had a dramatic shift in demographics. We went from being a predominantly white small town to a community that came to represent diversity in the southwestern region of Minnesota. Suddenly, over forty percent of our population was composed of families and people of color. I couldn’t help but take notice.
Now, as a college student in the Twin Cities, I am highly aware of and celebrate the fact that I am Black. I also have a better understanding of white privilege and how it works to undermine the people who share my race and all other people of color.
When I advocate for greater student achievement for all kids, I now see the barriers that people of color face as a direct result of not being able to speak English as a first language. I now understand that schooling that came easily to me is highly geared to serve non-immigrant, White American families. I realize not being able to see representation of my culture, history and race in our public schools is a direct result of a system that services one group of kids over another, which contributes to Minnesota’s low high school graduation and college attendance rates for Black, Latino, Native American and Asian American/Pacific Islander students.
I believe that by not seeing color—or pretending not to see color—people are consciously or subconsciously resisting efforts to deliberately include people of color in our classrooms and schools. For example, refusing to acknowledge race can lead to hesitation around holding our education systems accountable for the outcomes of students of color, or resistance around more intentionally recruiting and retaining diverse educators.
In order to make much-needed progress for our students and families of color, we all have to be willing to see and acknowledge race. But that’s just the first step. We also have to be willing to see change in our communities and to change with it. We have to talk openly and comprehensively not only about the racial injustices in our state, but also the assets of all students and people.
Cheniqua Johnson is a proud inaugural member of the Minnesota Capitol Pathways Internship Program, which has brought her to an internship at MinnCAN to explore the world of state-level education advocacy. She is currently pursuing a dual degree in Family Social Science and Sociology of Law, Criminology & Deviance at the University of Minnesota. Upon completion of her undergraduate career, she anticipates continuing on to law school, where she’ll focus on Family Law. She is passionate about government and advocating for student voice, and is the current secretary of the University of Minnesota Black Student Union, public relations chair of the University of Minnesota TRIO Student Board and a member of the university's Undergraduate Student Advisory Board.
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.