Tuesday, April 12, 2016

On Seeing Color

I guess I spoke too soon about being all set in regard to my ex-company’s health account money—when I went to the new URL last Tuesday, it didn’t work, and I had to call the health company again and get yet another URL, which probably won’t work for long.

I also spoke too soon about resolving differences in my 40-year friendship. In a recent conversation, she was telling me about her new job, which is at a religious organization. The home office is in Atlanta. I asked how many people work at that location and about what diversity dimensions she was able to observe. In retrospect, I think I was trying to find something to disapprove of. She said there are about 20 people in that office and, yes, there is a black person, but then, she doesn’t notice color because we’re all exactly the same. We’re all Americans!

That, of course, pushed my buttons. It is a hallmark of white privilege to not see race. I appreciate and applaud her intention, which obviously is to treat everyone fairly and to not practice racism, but it is in fact racist to refuse to acknowledge that being black or brown in America is different from being white. It began that way, and it’s still that way. I sent her a brief, friendly note and included a link to the first article that came up when I searched online for “colorblind white people.” The article, by a black therapist, was short and did a reasonable job of summarizing the main ideas. Claiming not to see color also makes it pretty hard to acknowledge internalized racism, which we all have.

Very soon, I received a reply in which she said she felt “sickened because this person who wrote [this article] is not coming from my particular point of view” and “in what I did read it felt like I was being discriminated against for thinking the way I do. … I see people as God sees them—as people.”

She said she’s positive she has never offended anyone with her color-blindness, because they would have told her. Therefore, I felt obligated to be offended and sent this:

I guess I should speak more directly: I was offended by your comments, while at the same time understanding that you did not intend any offense. Long ago, I took a class geared toward getting a job in the trades. Our teacher said, “Your co-workers may make racist remarks. It is your responsibility to speak up when you hear racism.” When I hear a white person say that we’re all exactly alike, I hear racism, and, while knowing it might not be well received, I know that I have to speak up.

We are not all alike. Most places I go, there are plenty of other white people. Rarely do I feel, “Whoa—I’m the only person of my color around!” People of color feel that in many, many situations, including where they work and shop. When I go into a department store, the store detective doesn’t follow me around in case I steal something. That happens to people of color all the time, who also are pulled over in their cars for no particular reason, and then often beaten, sometimes killed. (It’s called “Driving While Black.”) If I wanted a mortgage, I wouldn’t have to fear that I would be turned down or given a poor deal because of my skin color. People of color experience that routinely. Etc.

So, again, I absolutely, truly think it is wonderful that you seek to treat all beings with love. I understand that completely, and I’m sorry that the article I sent upset you. But thinking that we’re all just the same is offensive to people of color.
[This is one thing I wish I’d said differently: It’s offensive to everyone, or should be.]

Now if YOU would like to take a break, I totally understand. :-)

With best wishes,

To my friend’s credit, she sent a note the next day saying she did not wish to take a break, and would prefer to continue the conversation by phone rather than email. We haven’t spoken yet.

This is genuinely uncomfortable—and this is just two white people discussing the subject! I will try to proceed with as much goodwill as possible (i.e., more than in my email italicized above) and to remember that the idea is to understand each other and to find some way of relating harmoniously. It may also be that we decide our differences are not reconcilable. Well, certainly they are not. The question is if we will be left with a friendship satisfactory to both parties given the ever-expanding list of things we can’t discuss.

I have to think this super-difficult interpersonal stuff is arising as some sort of preparation for clinical pastoral education, which I understand does a good job of turning students inside out and shining a light into every dim psychological and emotional corner. It’s odd that just as I start to get some inkling of how to get along more peacefully with F., now I’m having this horrible situation with my 40-year friend. Honestly, I’d like to say, “Oh, just forget it,” but I won’t be able to do that as a chaplain, so I need to try to do now what I might do then.

I would like to add that I actually never feel, “Whoa—I’m the only person of my color around!” I fairly often note that that is the case, but it is in a familiar location and I do not feel startled or alarmed. However, I must also add that if I found myself in a completely unfamiliar location that appeared to be a low-income area and every single person in sight was a young black man not dressed like a banker, I would feel very uneasy. Partly because of the all-men part: the more men there are somewhere, the less safe it is for women. Younger men of any color seem more potentially dangerous to me than older men. But partly I would feel anxious because of the difference in skin color and being the only person of my color.
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