To be honest, I didn’t see a lot of race issues growing up. Growing up in a melting pot boarding school led to a safe, but very closed environment. Me being young and naive, I didn’t realize that when my friends went home on the weekend, and I went home on the weekend, we were entering two different worlds.
At school, everyone generally got along. Regardless of our different cultures and beliefs, we all learned to get along because it wasn’t like we could get away from one another anyway. It was an ideal environment that didn’t reflect the cruelty and the hard knock lessons that the real world provides on race and racial identities.
In twelfth grade I started dating a black girl. It was the first “real” relationship I’d ever been in and at the time I didn’t see it as a big deal. We’d been friends for years, and we had a common group of friends that we associated with. In school this was fine. It didn’t matter that I was white and she was black. Hell, to be honest, I wasn’t even aware of it consciously.
When I was younger I was typically unaware of race issues. With the upbringing I had, plus a dash of naivety and a pinch of idealism, I thought everyone was equal. I believed in the constitution. I thought adults always had our best interests in mind. I thought the world was a fair and just place. I thought a lot of things in my childhood and teen years that turned out to be untrue.
My naivety led to color-blindness. I didn’t realize that out in the real world the fact that I was white would be advantageous over being black. I didn’t know that most places today are just as segregated as they were thirty years ago. And I didn’t know that dating a black woman was just asking for trouble. I knew there would be problems and that some people wouldn’t like it. I just didn’t know there would be so many.
At first it was just family. Specifically my step-dad approached me privately about the matter while we were driving to work. It went like this:
HIM: “You know I don’t approve of what you’re doing…”
ME: “You know, I don’t give a fuck what you approve of, and frankly, if I wanted your opinion, I’d have asked for it.”
Yeah, did I mention that felt like the longest car ride ever? Well it was.
My mother did her best to be supportive, I guess. Pretty much everyone else just thought I was nuts, not only because I was with a black girl, but she was also a big girl. What can I say, I guess I’ve alway been attractive to bigger women; I like curves.
In any case, I knew there would be pressures from society in general but I didn’t expect it from my own family and friends. These were the people I loved; how could they judge that way? Little did I know that this was just the beginning. The people around me didn’t have to be racist. Simply being colorblind was enough for them to offend, whether intentionally or not, and wipe their hands clean of any culpability, simply for “not knowing any better.”
And pretty soon it wasn’t just the people close to me. Pretty soon I got a taste of what prejudice was all about…
As I said, the behavior of the people around me was only the beginning. Whenever we went out in public we were glared at, particularly by black men. There were even times when these men would go as far as to try and flirt with my girlfriend right in front of me like I wasn’t there. A few of these occasions got so hostile that we had move seats, and on one occasion even to get off the bus and wait for another to avoid physical conflict!
On the other hand, her mother loved me. I mean, absolutely loved me. For a year after we broke up she’d ask this girl when we were going to get back together and have babies. Actually, she was constantly pressing us to have children when we were together, which I thought was odd since at the time we were only in our late teens.
It was during that time that I came to understand the color lines that separate not only white and black people, but also light-skinned blacks and dark-skinned blacks. More personally, I came to understand that her mother wanted a light-skinned granddaughter. Both of her own daughters were very dark-skinned black women.
I didn’t know there were issues there. Before that point I’d always though white was white, black was black, asian was asian, etc. I learned otherwise. My friend Huy was Vietnamese. Phannaro was Cambodian. They both were offended if you called them Chinese, Oriental, etc. This I knew, because when we were younger I’d been confronted with it. But until I dated a black girl, I didn’t understand the dynamics of black culture.
I found out there were Black Hispanics and White Hispanics, and neither really like to be considered white or black. They have their own cultural history. I learned there was a difference of opinion among all different folks between light-skinned black people, dark-skinned black people, African Vs. Black people, et cetera. I learned that lumping a group of people up as “black” really didn’t cover the bases.
After all the time I’d been at a multicultural school and thought I was open minded, I was still on some level holding onto stereotypes, or if not that bad, I was at least generalizing. It would be like plopping a man from Sicily next to me and calling us both white, when really he’s Italian (and sub-culturally, Sicilian), while my roots are a third of a world away in Ireland and Scotland primarily. On top of that, if you stood me with a Scot or an Irishman from those lands and compared us, they’d be offended as well because they’d view me as “American.”
I guess the point of all this is that by being “color-blind” and saying that you don’t see race or choose to ignore it, you are actually denying the existence of the subgroups that exist within cultures. Not only are you then ignoring the differences between different cultures, you are also ignoring the subtle dynamics within different cultures. You are watering down a group of people to fit into a classifiable mold, and then pretending that the mold has not been cast.
Doing this is not only offensive, but also foolish, because until you can accept that differences exist, you will never be able to accept those differences. Until you can do that, you’ll keep claiming that race doesn’t matter without ever understanding why.