Like many, I’ve struggled to find a way to come to terms with the grand jury’s decision to not indict Darren Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown. The known facts of the case paint a wildly inconsistent picture. Despite indignant claims to the contrary on both sides, none of us know what truly happened that August day in Ferguson, Missouri. Due to the grand jury’s decision for the case not to go to trial, we probably never will.
When an acquaintance indicated to me a desire to have an open, sincere discussion about the situation in Ferguson and its aftermath, I welcomed the opportunity for dialogue and reflection. I made the deliberate decision to speak honestly and emotionally in an attempt to break through the barriers so many of us have built — barriers that help us shield ourselves from alternate viewpoints about the case and its implications.
I shared my pain at the thought of having to one day sit my beautiful baby boy down to explain to him that he won’t be allowed to make the same mistakes his white friends will — because of the color of his skin. In tears, I spoke about the fact that some people already hate my son, despite his incredible, loving spirit, simply because he is biracial. My baring of painful, personal emotions exposed in the wake of the grand jury’s decision was met with this response: “I don’t see race in this case.”
Face, meet palm. Proclaiming that you don’t see race in Ferguson case ends the conversation before it’s begun. It bars the possibility for self-reflection and with it, any chance of finding a core of commonality and compassion. Even if there is an honest belief that Wilson did not gun down Mike Brown in part because of the color of his skin, the nationwide reaction to the incident has everything to do with the officer and the victim’s race, as well as our own.
The claim of colorblindness was, I think, geared to shut me up, shut me down, and avoid discomfort. That statement — “I don’t see race in this case” — showed that this individual, supposedly an ally and friend, completely disregarded the truth of the hurt that I felt about what happened in Ferguson, and what it said about the state of race relations in America. To assert that one doesn’t see race in a discussion of the turmoil that envelopes Ferguson, now Cleveland, and the nation at large sends the message that the pain of black people doesn’t matter. This single interaction indicated to me that our feelings don’t matter, our thoughts don’t matter and, ultimately, we must not matter in the eyes of many.
Stephen Colbert frequently jokes about the notion of a post-racial America because it is so absurd. “I don’t see race,” he says to guests and his audience. Some seem to have missed the fact that it’s a joke.
To pronounce that you do not see race indicates a refusal to play a part in the dialogue this country so desperately needs in order to lessen the extent to which racial discrimination and bias pervades the United States. For that conversation to take place, there must be introspection and humility. A pronouncement of not seeing race seems intended to absolve responsibility for past, present or future problems of race in the United States. It assumes a certain perfection; it allows no possibility of improvement. Lessons that need to be learned on a national scale have a tendency to appear over and over again until they are understood. Any action that removes individuals from the potential for meaningful conversation about race contributes to the ongoing problem.
Purporting to not see race is not the same as being aware of biases and actively working to overcome them in one’s relationships. Acknowledgement of bias does not make someone racist. It makes them honest. It’s recognition that we are human.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, “Differences are not intended to separate, to alienate. We are different precisely in order to realize our need of one another.” Open and honest discourse about the past and present realities of race in America is the only way this nation will ever make strides to rise above it. To have critical voices in the conversation remove themselves from the table is not a productive way to proceed. To proclaim as invisible one of the very qualities that makes this country beautiful and unique — and, yes, often fraught — is misguided.
If you say you don’t see race in Ferguson, I say your eyes are closed. And that’s not helping anyone progress.
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