It was one of those freezing-cold days where the air felt solid, like something you could swallow. My 4-year-old daughter and I were bundled up like technicolor marshmallows in our snowsuits, trudging down the snow-lined sidewalks near our home. We’d dragged ourselves out for a walk, even though Doc McStuffins and warm blankets called to us from the couch. While walking, we spied a little girl of South Asian descent in her front yard, knee-deep in the fluff, playing with her mother. They waved.
My daughter called, “You have beautiful brown skin!”
I stopped, humiliated. I wanted to apologize for her, even though that wouldn’t be my normal impulse in any other situation. As a Vietnamese woman with a mixed-race child, I’m not unfamiliar with conversations around skin color. But somehow, hearing my daughter’s gleeful holler felt different from the celebration of beauty she intended it to be. I worried that it would single the other girl out and make her uncomfortable. I was afraid we were committing a kind of microaggression.
I smiled awkwardly and ushered my daughter along. I don’t think the girl or her mother heard us.
Why was I so embarrassed? Obviously, I don’t want my daughter’s first commentary on anyone to be about their appearance, but why did it feel like such a particular kind of breach of our social contract?
But when they say, ‘We just don’t see color,’ what I hear is, ‘We just don’t see you.’
Perhaps it was because we lived in a white-dominant neighborhood and city, and our particular circle of PTA parents were markedly, stubbornly guarded about race. They would not have identified themselves as racist; in fact, they likely prided themselves on their annual NAACP donations and “Hate Has No Home Here” signs, those dependable signifiers of progressive acceptance. But mentioning actual racial difference made them squirm in their seats. Indeed, some of my friends and white family members dislike talking about race, preferring instead to adopt a “colorblind” view of the world. But when they say, “We just don’t see color,” what I hear is, “We just don’t see you.”
I’m not sure they understand that colorblindness is another form of whiteness. It’s white supremacy in action.
I’ve been privy to varied forms of colorblind microaggression:
- You don’t even have an accent!
- Well, you’re Asian, which is basically white.
- I don’t even see you as another race.
- I forget that you’re not from here.
The thing to know is that a well-meaning microaggression is still just that.
There’s this feeling that by not seeing me, and framing my almost-whiteness as a kind of compliment, you’re implying that my race is something to be ashamed of. As if whiteness is the default I’m #blessed to have nearly attained.
Colorblindness is not a gift you have given me, tied in a silk ribbon, an offering from a benevolent majority. It’s a shackle. It’s another form of erasure.
I’m bone-deep proud of my Vietnamese culture, though it took many years to get there. Living in a predominantly white town on the Gulf Coast, I used to be the kid who held her eyes as wide as possible, thinking I could “pass” if I tried hard enough. I’d read Jane Austen and Charles Dickens as if British lit could offer some kind of entry into a placid world of genteel white society.
I haven’t shaken off the generational shame and inherited racism by any means, but I’m now better able to model self-love for my daughter. Colorblindness takes that hard-won self-love away from me.
After some time and many hard moments of internal reflection, I saw how special and layered my heritage was. I haven’t shaken off the generational shame and inherited racism by any means, but I’m now better able to model self-love for my daughter. Colorblindness takes that hard-won self-love away from me. It makes me second-guess what my ideal sense of self means.
As a non-passing Woman of Color, I don’t get to ignore race. It is literally imprinted on my skin. It’s not my entire identity, but it is the spool around which the threads of my personhood wind.
Colorblindness does not protect the oppressed. It coddles the complicit majority.
More than that erasure, colorblindness perpetuates the myth that we are somehow “done” with the fight for equality, as if a switch had somehow flipped, rendering our society instantly more evolved than those slack-jawed enslavers from the history books. Colorblindness does not protect the oppressed. It coddles the complicit majority, by allowing them to ignore the everyday racism that is present. It lets that majority feel good about themselves, like an undeserved badge of honor. Colorblindness is a free pass to stop doing the work.
And if the horrific, unjust deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have taught us anything, it’s that we have a hell of a lot of work left to do.
Difference isn’t the problem. The toxic insistence on sameness is. Back on that snowy walk, I made a mistake in steering my daughter away from the other little girl without examining what she said or my own reaction to it. My daughter genuinely believed she was giving a compliment. She does see color, and she celebrates it. In contrast, I was uncomfortable in the acknowledgment of racial difference and allowed myself the free pass of silence. I was complicit and failed to question my own motives in the moment.
Difference isn’t the problem. The toxic insistence on sameness is.
What will I do differently next time? I’ll have a conversation with my daughter about how she can express her admiration without potentially singling someone out against their will. I’ll try to elucidate the difference between pretending we don’t see color and engaging someone about the color of their skin without some sort of consent. I’ll tell her that I agree that the little girl’s brown skin tone is indeed beautiful, and it’s very much OK to notice and feel that way.
I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m still reading and learning. But I know that what I don’t want is a world where that little girl’s skin color feels like something to determinedly ignore, as if she is worthy despite her skin color.
We are wildly gorgeous, dynamic humans because of our difference, because of every intersectional facet of identity. This is a lesson I have to re-teach myself every day and one I want to leave for my own child. What’s the opposite of color blindness? We need more color consciousness. Color celebration. Color love.
I want for my daughter the richness of experience. I look forward to witnessing her voice soaring alongside those of her peers, as distinct and confident as anyone. She does not need to fade, an echo of whiteness, of what has come before. She can be loudly, proudly full of color. We all can.