Seeing Race Sideways

Seeing Race Sideways

Explode of rainbow wold, by Matthew Fang
I’ve been talking with my friend Hannah again about race. She’s a white student in Africana studies, and talks to me about how race works in our society and what can be done to transform difference to a positive experience for us all.

Some of that comes from facing ourselves. Hannah read about whiteness for the first time as a young college student. She realized she wasn’t colorblind like she thought she was. Instead, she was blind: there was so much she wasn’t able to see. She talks about her professors in Africana studies; about whether a study of whiteness belongs in Africana studies.


A few weeks ago, I asked Robert about whiteness. “What do you think about being white?” I asked.

“I’ve never thought about it,” he answered, a bemused look on his face.

When I told this to Hannah, she exclaimed, “Yes, exactly! That’s how it is for us white people!”

But it isn’t true. Others deal from a young age with what it means to be white. I know I did.

When I was four, my parents moved from a white suburb in the midwest to a rural black area of South Carolina. When I got on the school bus, I was teased about my white skin. As I first learned how to live in society, I learned what it meant to be white – at school, at church, with friends. I realized I was poorer than the black kids: they had brand new clothes and I wore their hand-me-downs, they made fun of me and excluded me.

And being in kindergarten, I didn’t see my larger place in the world – just the present situation. So – maybe this is harsh – but I think that white people who come from nice backgrounds and all of a sudden are made aware of race are oversimplifying when they say that whites never have to think about race, are blind to it and always privileged over blacks.


And yet I am blind to race. As I mentioned in a recent post, it was a huge awakening for me to walk around with a beautiful friend who didn’t realize her own beauty, her own privilege and social capital. I could see it, but she simply couldn’t.

It’s as if I looked at the sky and said, “It’s purple.” And it really is, when I look at it. I search all the clouds, the grey line of trees, the shades of light and evening shadow – and I see purple.

Then Hannah looks at it and says, “It’s green!” and that’s really what she sees, and then thin, beautiful Lianna says, “It’s orange!” and she’s really seeing it, the intense orangeness, the bright and lovely sunset colors, wherever she directs her eyes.

What color is it? When I go out, read books, or watch TV I see the world in a certain way. I’m acutely sensitive to the ways in which some people–fat women, poor whites, Christians, entrepreneurs, nerds–are discriminated against.

But I can’t see the orange or green in the sky. I can’t see what Hannah and Lianna see. I look at the world, and I see a million beautiful and piercing shades of purple.

More accurately, I see a partial palette, and some colors more strongly than others, as the occasion warrants. The light comes at us, and our eyes prism it into an array of colors – red, yellow, orange. We see the colors that guide us across the world, north stars for every person and group, lanterns shimmering in mauve, warning lights in blinding fuschia. The colors we see tell us where we can and can’t go, the places we are welcome and the places we aren’t, the paths our lives are supposed to take.

And this is as true for the white as for the black, for the man as for the woman, for the rich as for the poor. Exclusion and generosity are real and mutual on both sides. We love and fear and hurt each other with inventive prickles, even as the consequences are more severe for some in the end.


Are we all condemned to be colorblind then? Shall I always see from my own position, defend my own group in these endless debates? Are humans meant to be in- and out-group, slurring those with privilege and negating those with less?

Surely not. Living with Lianna, I learned to see from a thin perspective, even as I knew how much of my world she could never see. I saw he slights she felt, the way that beautiful people are also negated and cut down by people like myself, jealous and hurting. I saw that her orange was real–really there. And I would like to think she learned from me to see just a glimpse of purple.

I can’t imagine a society in which everyone is equal – I don’t think it exists. I can’t imagine anyone could see the whole and full spectrum of color. But I am learning to see more colors. And I learn by sharing and listening.

I’ve never seen orange from people who yell, “Don’t you see orange?! It’s always you purples who don’t listen. Why are you negating this?”

Well, I’ve negated it because I can’t see orange, not really. I listened to you, and got my binoculars, and looked–but it wasn’t there. The sky was still purple, stronger and pulsing as you swore it wasn’t really purple.

I don’t see orange. Not the first time you say it, and not the twentieth time. The fiftieth time, maybe. Sometimes I catch it on the edges of my vision, when I stop focusing on my own purple. But the only way I’ve ever learned green or orange was from loving and prickly relationships like these. You can’t force a blind person to see, bella, or an purple-sighted person. We see when we trust each other and work to benefit all of us together, sharing the patches of sight we each already have.


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