Monday, January 19, 2009

Counting and Colorblindness

People of Color often engage in an activity known as "Counting." When we are in large groups of people, whether it's attending a Broadway play at the civic auditorium or as I found myself this past weekend, in a group of over 400 church people listening to author Richard Rohr, we "count" the number of obviously non-White faces in the crowd. For the record, I did not see another obviously non-White person at Rohr's presentation.

One’s identity is acquired and continues to be experienced, reinterpreted and lived out within a context – the context of our early childhoods and family lives where we learn who “our people” are, the context of our education and larger society in which we meet the world around us, and the context of the places where we live, work, shop, play and worship where we experience how the world views and treats us. Part of my identity within The Episcopal Church is being one of a very few non-White and even fewer Asian faces here in Colorado. I don’t attribute any judgment or value to this phenomenon; it is simply fact.

The fact of being one of a few or the only of your kind in a group can be received and experienced very differently from person to person. The treatment of the few or the only by the larger group of people who consider themselves to be “the same” in ways such as skin color, ethnicity or cultural heritage ranges from indifference to kindness to discrimination to scapegoating. How one of the few or the only reacts to her or his treatment also varies, depending on personal character, ego strength, love of family, community support, mental and physical health, and faith in God. Different people respond differently in what appear to be similar situations. Sometimes it’s as simple a variant as what day it is. People of Color are individuals and not monolithic within their cultural groups. I can no more speak for all Asian people than a White person can speak for all White people.

A fellow parishioner who also attended the conference this weekend told me on Sunday that she didn’t see colors, that she saw and treated everyone “the same.” This is known as being colorblind, which at first might seem to reflect a benign attitude, but is actually a denial of the gift of our differences that make us individuals, each created in God’s image. God is so immense and beyond our comprehension that only small measures of who God is can be contained in any single human being. If we do not see and acknowledge the differences, the individual characteristics of God manifested in each person, then we have failed to see and appreciate the person as he or she is.

Only part of my identity is being a Person of Color. There are many other parts of who I am that also define me, such as mother, wife, daughter, sister, writer, teacher, trainer, volunteer, friend, colleague, neighbor, poet, administrator, banker, marketer. Actually, I think of myself in terms of mother, wife, writer, teacher, much more often than in terms of “Person of Color.” Why, then, you ask, do I and other People of Color engage in “Counting”? “Counting” is a form of seeking the face of God that is your own face in the faces of others. When we deconstruct the attendance demographics of something like this weekend’s Richard Rohr conference, we note that registration and attendance were by self-selection, since the conference was fairly widely advertised. Yet, in many cases, people attended because they were invited by a friend from church, and the vast majority of our churches are mostly White in membership. “Counting” is about acknowledging the reality in which we live that marginalizes People of Color and being intentional in how we live into our Christian commitment to “Love our neighbor as ourself” – to be inclusive in actuality as well as in principle.


Everyday Mysteries said...

I count also, although it's harder to do this as a lesbian. My partner will look at me when we're out at a large gathering and say, "she has potential." Our kids are scandalized by this, thinking we are engaged in some type of judging or wishful thinking activity. In fact, it is much as you say, LeLanda. It's a way of seeking the face of God that is our own face.

Seeking the face of God that is your own face is particularly problematic for women. Taught to literally view God as a man, we don't have images that reflect us. Elizabeth Johnson, in her book "She", makes a case for this being a root of our body image problems as women -- a kind of built in hatred of ourselves because we don't "look like" God. There is nothing in our images of the divine that resonate, that include.

C said...

You can only be 'colorblind' when you're privileged enough to not be reminded of your otherness every day in every situation... or willfully ignorant.

I recently had a conversation with another half Asian, and he told me I am too obsessed with race. He said people have always done this, all people, and they treat each other poorly and there's no point in thinking about it.

It was a really depressing conversation, although I suppose I can't expect him to feel as deeply about identity issues as I do. I do not believe there is no point in thinking about it. I think introspection and analysis lead us to understanding, and can lead to awareness and thereby change. If we don't understand why discrimination is happening, how it is happening, then how can we ever hope to grow up or be better?

I remember a quote I read a long time ago, from Gallileo I believe, that said (approximately) "I refuse to believe in a god that gives me reason, and expects me not to use it."

I think there is a lot of ignorance and refusal to use logic within the context of religion as well as in dealing with racism. Colorblindness is illogical, irrational, and an easy way out of really grappling with complicated issues.

How can we acknowledge differences, discern them, without discriminating based on them?


C, your comment "you can only be 'colorblind' when you're privileged enough to not be reminded of your otherness every day in every situation" is right on. The privileged classes get to define what is normative for society, and being a member of those classes means not having to look at or deal with reality as it is.

I, too, as a woman of color, get told periodically that I am too obsessed with race, that I see everything through only the lens of race. The reality is that the privileged get to see everything through the lens of Whiteness, but that lens is the norm and anything seen through that lens is ordinary and not noticeable. I want to point out that even People of Color can choose sometimes to see things through the lens of Whiteness, because there may be other privileges (such as affluence or an Ivy-League education) or a need to identify with the sources of power that cause them to make that choice. I have a lot of other lenses. Yet it is true that the lens of race is one that I am reminded of constantly through the smallest little daily events.

Noticing difference is about noticing the individual - the person in front of you and not lumping her or him into some generic mass of people. Refusing to notice difference by being colorblind is a way of diminishing the person of color before you. The underlying rationale is that you "make them the same as you" in your mind, because being like you is better than being like them. Only the unconscious, unawake, person refuses to be self-reflective.

The reason I am an Episcopalian and no longer a Missouri Synod Lutheran, in which church I was raised, is because Episcopalians believe that God gave us reason and we're supposed to use it.

Laurie Gudim and Rosean Amaral said...

I love your description of this dynamic: 'Refusing to notice difference by being colorblind is a way of diminishing the person of color before you. The underlying rationale is that you "make them the same as you" in your mind, because being like you is better than being like them.'

It's true -- there's a sort of "I'll give you a hand up" aspect to this way of thinking. And it DOES mean that I, when I do it, miss a whole world of richness in the lives of the people to whom I am blind in this way.

I THINK I'm pretty good at being welcoming to the person of color, though I'm sure there's lots more room for growth in that area. But where I really notice it in myself today is in talking to, for instance, the homeless. I tend to try to ignore their homelessness rather than to be open to how the experience is for them. Rosean, who works in the kitchen at Catholic Charities Northern, says there are as many experiences of living on the streets as there are people doing it. It's pretty scary to me, which is why I tend to gloss it.