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Why White People Don’t Understand Racism

Why is it so offensive to say "I don't see color"?


In a recent conversation with a friend of mine from the midwest, he used the phrase “I don’t see color.” I paused and tried to explain that this term, despite his intentions to be kind and non-racist, actually conveyed the opposite.

“Language doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” I told him. “Nothing we say simply means just that. It always carries connotations and reflects larger iterations of how we see the world.”

He pushed back that it’s not an offensive phrase; he wouldn’t treat a white person any differently than a non-white person. The problem with this understanding, however, is that while it dismisses any negative views of people of other colors, it also dismisses the positive interest in their culture, their heritage, experience, and background. It also inherently assumes that their experience must be the same as his, and he has no further interest in learning more about theirs. It does away with any regard for the history of black slavery and oppression in America, as well as the massive problem of systemic racism.

As we continued in our conversation, it came out that he denies the existence of systemic racism. He is not alone in this assumption; many white Americans don’t give a second thought to the prevalence of racial experiences in Americawe had a black president after all! Only the rare white supremacist groups are the outliers carrying on the spirit of racism here… 

And to be honest, I had these same thoughts for most of my life, really until the past two years. I had in my mind the false idea that not being racist made me not racist…I know it sounds contrarian, but hear me out.

There are many white people—including me—who will consistently overlook the daily experience of non-white Americans. As a thought experiment, just consider this: How many interactions in your day to day life involve ANY mention of your race? As a white dude, I barely ever think about my own race, and having this be a factor in my daily life (I did more when I lived in Guatemala, but as I said before, being a powerful minority is far different than being a less-powerful minority. It has also become more relevant to me because the woman I’m currently dating and my previous girlfriend were not white, giving me new perspective).

Now, imagine you’re a black person (or any minority), and suppose that your race comes up, conservatively, in 5% of your daily interactions. Most of these are innocuous comments or accidental slips of the tongue. Let’s suppose that just 1% of your daily conversations are actually racially aggressive and antagonistic because of your skin color. Even if such a small percentage were racist, that is exponentially more than my 0% of racist conversations, remarks, or insults. You would always be wondering who the 1% is going to be: Will it be your barista making a rude comment? Will it be a customer at your job? In other words, it’s always on your mind, whereas white people tend not to think about our own race, and also tend to think our race doesn’t inform our worldview at all. This is not even considering black people going to rent an apartment or buy a house, or even something as simple as ordering food without wondering if a racist chef spat in it.

Peggy McIntosh lists 50 ways white people’s lives are different from those of minorities. Although I recommend reading all 50, a few I found most interesting are:

I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.

If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.

To put it simply, white people are largely ignorant to the experience of non-white people in America. Because we don’t have to think about it, we don’t, and then we are surprised when people of color accuse us of not considering their experience. Even if we dismiss the conversation of whether or not systemic oppression is in place against non-white people, their daily, personal experience is so vastly different from ours that to say otherwise is ludicrous.

I mean, at what point is a portion of the population’s experience significant enough to constitute a ‘system’? I think this actually matters less than simple sensitivity to the stories of those around us. Rather than claiming to be ‘colorblind,’ wouldn’t it be more loving to ask a black man about his life? His daily experience? Or a Mexican woman about what it has been like for her to come to the States? What are some daily hurdles she has to go through? How can I as a white person learn from her about being more understanding?

I asked two other [white] people what their thoughts on this phrase were, if I was just blowing it out of proportion, or if it really is an ignorant turn of phrase. A friend from college who studied inner-city ministry and lived on the South Side of Chicago said this:

It is hard because there are SO MANY conversations that need to happen, not just one. But I would first focus on recognizing that God celebrates culture and ethnicity (every tribe and tongue, etc.) and that celebrating various ethnicities and skin colors is actually in line with the heart of God, even worshipful.

The sad part is we live in a broken world that uses what God created for good, to instead create division and inequality. If someone is actually willing to look at our nations history it is undeniable that race has been used to divide and has given opportunities to some and not others. I would recommend Divided By Faith and A Different Mirror. Both are really helpful resources. Also A Case For Reparations is  a long article published in the Atlantic a few years back that is really good. Hope this is helpful!

I then asked my uncle, who also does a lot of work with African-Americans and he replied:

Choice of words matters. That phrase seems insensitive to a wide range of ethnic issues and seems to want to abdicate responsibility for caring communication. We should all be willing to see each individual, no matter their culture, color, or context, as image bearers whose lives are unique. I honor my black friends as black, who have a rich heritage and history. I “see” color in that way.

At the same time, I should be careful to be generous and humble toward everyone’s color, culture and context because by doing so I display the love of Jesus.

My hope in writing all this is not to shame white folk who are terrible people and can’t do anything right. I hope to point out, however, that not thinking you are racist isn’t enough. If we are not willing to listen, to learn, and humble ourselves before our brothers and sisters of different skin colors, then we are, in fact, maintaining racist attitudes and reinforcing the idea that whites are always right, and thus, getting nowhere.

May all of us pray together, in all of our beautiful, colorful diversity, Maranatha, come swiftly Lord Jesus; right our wrongs and unify us in Yourself through a bond deeper than what is visible.


3 comments on “Why White People Don’t Understand Racism

  1. Julie Loveless

    I never thought of mysrelf as rsist. I grew up in a diverse community. By HS I was the only white American person on campus. I never learned race jokes but was mistreated on occasion for my lack of melanin. I’m Native American by racial definitions. I know have a Philipino DIL & 2 biracial grandkids. It’s a whole new world.

  2. I’ve had to take systemic racism on faith, growing up in a white community. It’s important for us to push through all the sociopolitical noise and bad-faith actors out there in both sides, and learn to appreciate the experiences and struggles of others.

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