Whoopi Goldberg has said it. Morgan Freeman has said it.
I’m not African-American. I’m an American.”
To them, and others who promote this racial theory we call “Colorblindness,” my response is always the same:
“That’s cute. I wish I lived in that reality.”
Here’s why I say this:
Both Whoopi and Sir Morgan (I’ve never felt like I could just call Morgan Freeman by his first name) have built careers for themselves that grant them lots of money and lots of fame. Everyone knows who they are, everyone knows not to mess with them. No one is going to question their right to exist in public spaces without suspicion; no one is going to accuse them of anything nefarious without significant cause to do so.
Essentially what I’m saying here is that no one is going to follow Morgan Freeman around a convenience store because they think he’s going to steal something. No one is going to ask Whoopi how many kids she has, or if the father is still in their lives (since, you know, all women of color are single mothers on welfare).
That’s the foundational problem of Colorblindness. It denies the existence of the very real stereotypes and challenges that People of Color face in our world.
Now, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with being called an African-American? Doesn’t calling one American by a different name than another one only serve to perpetuate divisions between us?
If anything perpetuates racial divisions, it’s denying that divisions exist in the first place. Let me break it down another way:
You and I are hanging out one day having a conversation when suddenly I unleash an unholy howl and double over in pain. What do you think is going to help me the most, telling me to shut my mouth because you don’t see anything wrong with me or asking me to describe what’s happening and how you can help?
Rather than getting all bent out of shape about explanations, labels and other stumbling blocks to solutions, let’s talk about the things that divide us. Let’s talk about Race-Based Policing and the School to Prison Pipeline. Let’s talk about how hard it is for a POC with an ethnic-sounding name to get a call back on a job application.
These topics are uncomfortable. These topics are challenging. But they are necessary conversations. They help to build bridges of trust.
Trust is the crucial mortar between groups with generations of hardship between them. Each acknowledgment of the realities of our relationships to each other and the ways in which said realities relate to the history of oppression that many POC continue to battle is a brick — a brick upon which further conversations could be built to help change those realities into brighter future, a future where we won’t need to hyphenate our identities anymore.
But right here, right now, as we’re just getting to know each other and building that trust between us, I need to hyphenate.
I’m a Caribbean-American.
My parents came to this country in the late 1970s/early ’80s and fought tooth and nail for a better education than they would have been able to get in their home country. I was born a first-generation Black American in a community of White Americans, having to defend myself against racism from the age of 5, when it made its first memorable appearance in my life, through this very moment, where even in 2015, I can get called a N***** in a checkout line at Walmart.
I need to have these challenging conversations with people — for my own sake, for the sake of others who look like me and the sake of those who don’t. Without trusted structures to tie us together, no society can ever really grow. No society can ever really succeed. We need those trusty bridges, and trust comes from challenging conversations.
So, I invite you to join me in these challenging conversation corners. I invite you to join me in challenge those corners of conversation in which we find ourselves frequently stuck and refusing to leave. Corners like:
Well I don’t see color,” and “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”
Face the corner, find the seams, and start peeling back the layers of the reality in which we live, folks, because I guarantee you there are points of agreement we can all find and from which we can all learn.
We owe it to ourselves and our society to do so.