Colorblindness and Appropriation

We were sitting in a high-ceilinged all-purpose room at church, a group of young girls just hanging out after service.  I still remember the cold metal of the folding chairs, how the piano in the corner was probably the most terrible piano in existence.  A couple of us were on the piano bench, a couple of us on the folding chairs.  I don’t recall what we were discussing, but I do recall this:

The oldest of our group declaring confidently, “I don’t see race! I’m colorblind!”

“Wow,” I thought, gazing at her with all the adoration a pre-teen has for a high schooler.  “That’s so wise! Why, if only everybody thought that way, there would be no more racism!”

And in that moment, I determined that I, too, would be “colorblind.”  I would see people as people, not as any specific race.  So I barged through life for about ten years thinking that “colorblindness” was the right way to combat racism.

It wasn’t as though I was unaware of black American history.  I was in love with history and biography, and my parents made sure that I studied slavery, abolition, emancipation, the post-war South, the Great Migration, the Civil Rights era.  As long as I can remember, black American history has been a huge part of my historical consciousness.  But I came away with the belief that now, things had been “fixed.”  Jim Crow laws were no longer on the books, so institutional racism was gone, right? Now the only place to fight racism was within individual people, right? So the best way to do that was to get everyone to act as though race doesn’t exist, right?

I was blinded by white privilege and sheltered enough that I never had to do anything about it.  My at times willful ignorance and my privilege made me stupid.  The Christian culture I spent most of my life in didn’t really acknowledge racism or even talk about race (even though the church I attended was more racially diverse than any church I’ve seen since).  They liked to say, “We are all one in Christ Jesus!” which, when coming from a white person, is code for, “If you mention race, we’re going to say you’re being divisive.” Some of the progressives at my college would talk about racial justice, slowly growing an unease within me, but for awhile, I ignored it.

It really hasn’t been until recently, especially as I have learned more about feminism and social justice activism, that I have begun to understand just how harmful “colorblindness” is.  How the fact that I was able to “ignore race” is actually entirely because I am white.

Yesterday, when I was taking a bus back home from Alabama, thinking about how white people were going to spend today appropriating Martin Luther King, Jr., it hit me like a ton of bricks: that’s exactly what I did just last year.

One year ago, I “colorblindly” wrote some call to social justice activism based on my experience fighting a (in the long run not terribly important) battle against the Southern Baptist takeover of my alma mater.  No exaggeration, I actually just opened the MLK page in wikiquote and plundered freely.  I made sure to use broader context, to draw from a lot of his writings and speeches rather than just the few sound bites most people use.  I thought that made what I was writing okay.  But the fact remains, I was ripping King’s work out of it’s racial and historical context and using it to make myself feel good about my pathetically small role in a narrowly-focused situation that had nothing at all to do with race.

I am sorry that I’ve been such a terrible person.  I may have been well intentioned but I was ignorant and I was perpetuating colonization of black leaders and black history. I was shoring up racist attitudes and institutions by my insistence on ignoring race. I was joining the ranks of white people turning MLK into a bumper sticker for their own pet causes.  I’ve learned just why that is harmful, why it reinforces racism rather than tearing it down, and I will not do that again.  I don’t need forgiveness or absolution, I just need you to know I that I’m actively leaving behind my past awfulness and learning to do better.

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