“I Don’t See Color”. That’s Nice, Do You See Me?

By Jillian Lankford

It is a kind thing to say. There are typically no ill feelings coming from the speaker of these words. It means you do not define people by the color of their skin. Thank you, but please see me for who I am.

Who I am can be conveyed in many ways. My character, my perseverance, my personality. My flaws, my ambition, my empathy, my work ethic. I’m a mother, a sister, a daughter, a cousin, a believer. Yet my race is the first thing most people see because it is the simplest way to lay identity. I am defined by the color of my skin whether or not you choose to see it.

Defining what race I am has always been an amusing challenge. Read Resolving My Childhood Identity Issues 25 Years Later: Welcome Halfie. My entire life I’ve received confusing looks and double takes. My dark brown curly hair, round face, dark brown eyes, and caramel skin are physical traits of many ethnicities. But my “black nose” and “white mannerisms” help people come to a conclusion quicker. For those who can’t figure out “what I am” and are bold enough to ask “what are you?”, my answer is always ‘black and white’. I am not part of a singular group. Some would argue, as I’ve been debated by my adolescent classmates, just one drop of black blood classifies me as black. And it hasn’t been since the last decade the “other” box has been listed as an option to check on forms and reviews. So threatening the accuracy of statistics has become a strong suit. I am not just white and I am not just black, I am mixed. I am an ‘other’. I am bi-racial. Please see me for that. See it from my perspective.

I am defined by the color of my skin. Not by choice. Because if I had a choice, if the world were more accepting, if America was like Shonda Rimes’ Bridgerton, I wouldn’t see color either. It’s merely by my own existence, nurtured by the paths my mother and my father have taken, the circumstances and criticisms that have paved those paths for my brothers and sisters, and the value of the experiences, good and ugly, we have gained along the way. This is how I welcome the world to view me. To see my perspective.

Prior to becoming a mother I had a fair idea of what it would entail. I am the second oldest of 5, how much harder could it be? When my first child came I felt ready for whatever motherhood was going to hand me and I did not to let my expectations drift too far from reality.

One of my biggest reality checks came from an assault on my own perspective of the stay at home mom. Much of what has influenced this blog has come from all that I have encountered since coming to terms with my current position – unemployed care taker of mini-mes. My past perception of mothers who choose to stay home to raise their children was unkind. I thought they had it so easy, living luxuriously in lounge wear, meeting for play dates, grocery shopping off of peak hours, and enjoying wine and hobbies. Boy was I wrong. Read: Why I Hate Being A Stay at Home Mom. My perspective was influenced by my inherited values but it tainted the way I understood the worth of being a stay at home mom. In turn my morals became indifferent and my beliefs changed. I have now chosen to see it clearly from another perspective.

Being disciplined in perception means that at first exposure to any situation, we’re immediately responsible for and in immediate control of the thoughts we form thereafter. It’s a level of self-accountability beyond anything we’ve been taught, and one that will avail us to experiences richer than any we’ve had.

https://www.thephilosophyofeverything.com/blog/2017/1/11/the-philosophy-of-perspective

Our perspectives are shaped by our environment, experiences, and values. Why are these key factors swiftly overlooked when we seek to identify people? Maybe the questions are too hard to ask. Maybe we are just too arrogant to consider anything different than what we know.

A friend shared with me a story difficult for him to repeat. After traveling across the state in a blizzard, tired and irritated, he stopped at a gas station for a quick pick me up. As he walked to the door he was caught off guard by a black man approaching. Before listening to what the man had to say, my, white, friend threw the door open and immediately said “I don’t have anything man.” The black man grabbed the door and said, “I’m just looking for directions”. My friend was mortified, he tells me this with tears in his eyes. He was so embarrassed by his actions he helped that man and his family find their way in the blizzard. He even asked the man for his address and wrote him for three years straight on the anniversary of the day he offended an entire race.

Maybe it is the fear of an awkward moment. Sounding under educated, indifferent, uncertain, un-woke. We undermine these types of experience that influence perspective by not seeking to understand it better. Maybe we have just been inadvertently molded to perceive people of a certain race or creed a different way?

In my career days, every year around Christmas my boss hosted a party for her immediate staff. The gathering consisted of executive staff members, a handful of mixed races in a predominately white group. This specific year she hosted the gathering in her home. At the time she had shared custody of her eldest daughter who was 9 years old. The party carried on per usual. Some of us partook in board games while others talked business and sampled everything on the buffet. A few coworkers and I played Taboo. A game where players get teammates to guess a word by providing other clues but are prohibited from using a list of the most obvious clues. My team consisted of my boss’ daughter and a male, Chaldean, co-worker. My word was ‘robber’. I provided as many clues as I could until time ran out. Neither of them guessed the word correctly. After the buzzer rang I said ‘robber’. My boss’ daughter exclaimed “black people”. Raising her hands up and dropping them quickly against the table, as if I should have known. Caught off guard my co-worker and I locked eyes with faces of shock. We both chuckled in disbelief waiting for each other to say something next. “What do you mean?”, I said. She responded, “black people are robbers.” My coworker said, “where did you learn that?” She said, “the news.”

Apparently, she is in the room when the morning and evening news runs. Whether or not race and racism has been a conversation in my boss’ home or at her daughter’s school, the impression was set at 9 years of age, in the suburbs of Detroit that ‘black people are robbers’. Is it the fault of the media or the parents? Or even us, as the onlookers and purveyors of these stereotypes? Is it fault or intolerance we must combat?

Influences on perception include past experiences, education, values, culture, preconceived notions, and present circumstances. In the end, the perception you construct becomes your reality.

https://thepeakperformancecenter.com/educational-learning/learning/process/processing-information/perception/influences-on-perception/

That wasn’t the first time I encountered racism during my years in corporate business. My brown skinned female coworkers and I were regularly considered ‘angry women’ every time we became passionate. The leadership skills I learned from observing my white boss did not transition equally. Complimenting her tone of voice and attitude wearing my skin was not always useful. I have been asked to pull my naturally curly hair back because my white, male boss said it looked messy. Since then I realized the value of toning down my looks in certain groups. I worked for many years as a manager and supervisor to small and large groups of people from all different walks of life. I have found that I am better received with subordinates of color when my hair is curly and I speak with a bit of slang. The only way I have gotten that respect, or even eye contact, in meetings with the white bosses or white property owners is when my hair is pin-straight, I’m dressed in J. CREW prep ware, and my pronunciation is on point. These cosmetic changes became a part of who I am because I wanted to be heard. I wanted to be seen. I know I have something to offer so I’ve molded myself to fit in where I thought it mattered. When you say you don’t see color, you are denying these personal battles existed.

If being a mixed career woman sounds tough try dating in your twenties as an ‘other’. I made it harder on myself being overweight and corky; this was before body inclusion was projected on every magazine. When health and fitness became a priority and I shed the pounds, I quickly realized it didn’t matter how I manipulated statistics or the scale, being an ‘other’ has its challenges in the dating world too. Online match making was ideal in my career driven late 20’s. Again, boxes had to be checked so my identity could be categorized for browsers. Not just categories on ethnicity but income, education and religious views too. It was painstakingly obvious my first few dates were with men interested in spicying up their sex life with an ‘other’. Those were quickly abandoned. Once I reached matches with a common educational background and religious beliefs, second and third dates were well enjoyed until the race question came up. (The question itself IS NOT THE PROBLEM.) When I answered with my usual I was met with, “oh good, I thought you were Mexican”, “you don’t look black”, or “oh wow, that’s interesting, where does your family come from”. I’ve even had a man follow up with the question “why do black women have so many babies?”. WTF. It didn’t matter their level of education, somewhere in their walks of life these perceptions were created and I as an ‘other’ am targeted to receive them without prejudice.

Maybe it is easier to make racist comments to someone of a mixed race? Maybe it’s easier to hide racism as a person of mixed race?

At the work Christmas party the following year, my Chaldean coworker brought up the profound occasion from the previous year. We recited, still in faces of disbelief, the story to peers we shared a table with, two white women and one black woman. I laughed reminiscing, closing with “black people are robbers”. My black co-worker excused herself, a few minutes later she left the party. My ignorance still suffocates me to this day. I used the same astonishing words thinking the affect would be different coming out of my mouth. I chose to put my mix race above those despicable four words. What hypocrisy! If we choose not to read the room, not to see people of color, ignore their complexion by assuming it’s OK to say what we want, who are we to deserve that in return?

If race was seen more like a title of achievement we’ve earned, would there be so much discrimination? You cannot take the label of a M.D. away from a doctor. A Christian is a Christian and deserves to be seen as one. I am a mother, and God forbid anyone tell me that isn’t important because He only knows what would happen next. These titles are the preferred, indisputable way of understanding someone’s identity. They receive far more acknowledgement than race. Why do we diminish race, our own natural born uniqueness? Who we have been designed to be? Why does seeing me for the color of my skin not matter to you? Can you see the beauty of who I’ve become from it?

The labels, the fears, the stereotypes, are all embedded in American culture. They are part of the issue. If you don’t see me for who I am, or who they are, you are ignoring humanity’s struggle as a whole. And it’s not just history’s struggle but today’s struggle and the racism that still exists in this country, unwillingly, disguised or right in front of our faces.

Once I knew I was going to marry my husband, I knew a great deal of social stress was coming my way. Not from our inner circle of dear friends and family members but from the ever so devious public. A common, mostly silent, belief about marriage amongst the older generation is to marry within your race. I’ve been told by a black friend of my mother’s I needed “to get in touch with my roots” when I introduced him to my white fiancé. Other times, these racist remarks have been less dispiriting, or so I wish to believe.

Walking together through downtown Detroit where there are always a sea of colorful faces, my fiancé and I passed a large group of brown skinned men innocently gathering. I captured the attention of one of them long enough for him to stop what he was saying and provoke the others to follow what was in his eyesight. “what is that, oh she must be one of them”. My fiancé didn’t hear him. I did. The man’s eyes met mine as I rolled them to the high heavens. I said to my fiancé “you don’t even see it do you?” He turned, looked toward the group, stopped in his steps and said “what did you say?” They all laughed. I pulled my fiancé along.

I can’t imagine what my mother and father went through. I know it wasn’t easy after making the decision to be with each other. They were plagued. Demoralized. Harassed. My husband and I have it easier but it is still a battle. We have to battle against my mixed race, so please see me for it. See all brown skinned people for the color of their skin.

Life’s circumstances have illuminated my interest in representing both sides of who I am because it starts with the color of my skin and shines light on so much more. It is because my children do not share my skin tone I have been questioned if I am their mother. It is the fact that I am a mixed black woman with family that openly proclaims “defund the police”, even though I am married to a white cop. It is the fact that I must work diligently to ensure my children are not given the white privilege I always wanted nor assume any privilege they have should be taken granted for, or berated because of the color of their skin. A future for any of of us lays in the awareness we take today.

I use this essay as an open declaration to those who are willing to ask questions, be uncomfortable, and feel awkward to defeat indifference.  Be encouraged! Ask the questions. Research. Read. Listen. Open your mind. Use your heart. Let’s teach that awareness and kindness is the greatest threat to ignorance and hate.

Ignorance is on every side, in every race, in every walk of life. Using phrases like I don’t see color devalues us as humans.

Immersing yourself in someone else’s story or experiences while talking one-on-one is another great way to experience a different point of view. When you talk with other people, listen closely. Make sure to listen even if you don’t share their perspective and disagree with what they have to say.

https://www.wikihow.com/See-Things-from-Different-Points-of-View

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Learn More on this Topic:

Privilege Explained https://youtu.be/4K5fbQ1-zps

What I Hear When Someone Says ” I Don’t See Color” by Kiara Godwin https://theeverygirl.com/i-dont-see-color/

Being Antiracist https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/being-antiracist

How White People Can Hold Each Other Accountable to Stop Institutional Racism by Elly Belle https://www.teenvogue.com/story/white-people-can-hold-each-other-accountable-to-stop-institutional-racism

How To Talk to Your Family about Racism on Thanksgiving by Rachel Elizabeth Cargle https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a25221603/thanksgiving-dinner-conversation-how-to-talk-to-family-about-politics/

Racism is Real Systematic Racism Explained https://youtu.be/fTcSVQJ2h8g

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