You are not like ‘them’

This week Bruce Reyes-Chow is doing a series of posts on race for the San Francisco Chronicle. Today he writes the Three myths of the “I don’t see race” world and I had to chuckle at all of them because of how true they ring. Surprisingly, even though he writes from a very American perspective, all of his points can be reproduced, word by word here in The Netherlands. Even though the discussion on race over here is never framed in racial terms (it’s supposedly always about foreignness and not about skin), the similarities are quite striking. He writes about the “color blind” attitudes he encounters, from generally well intentioned individuals who claim they do not see or notice race or racial matters:

Myth #1: It is possible to see anyone simply as a “person” devoid of color, race, ethnicity, etc.

Again, I do get WHY folks want to be able to do this, but US culture and our humanness being what it is, I am just not convinced that the “true person” who we are trying to get to has moved beyond some homogeneous form of some ambiguous White US culture.  I simply do not buy that we can – or should – get beyond our particular lenses to reach some place of perceived “objectivity.”  This getting to the “true” meaning of anything, including the humanness of someone feels like some kind of hangover from the enlightenment when we began to believe that intellect and reason should and can see through all things. No thank you. Folks will disagree, but I just to not think it is possible, and would go as far as saying that by NOT realizing that we cannot see beyond our own lenses of race, gender, etc. we perpetuate unintentional and institutional injustice.

Myth #2: People of color do not want to be seen as people of color.

On more than one occasion someone has said with the best of intentions, “Bruce, I do not see you as Asian, I see you as a human being.” Umm … first, I never asked you to NOT see my Asianness.  In fact when you say that to me you are in fact say that everything about who I am, my family’s immigrant history, the nuances of my Filipino/Chinese culture, my experience of being a person of color in the US, the complexities of being an Asian American male, etc. do not exist in your eyes.  So what is left?  Again, going to Myth #1, I am left as some vague version of something. Don’t want to be seen in that way and am not asking you to do so, in fact quite the opposite, please see my Asianness and take the time to explore the nuances of that existence both through my eyes as well as the eyes of the deep Asian American history in the US.  Most people of color in the US, I dare say do this work every day as we navigate the institutions and communities of our life where in number or culture, the norm is not us.

Myth #3: Seeing color must lead to negative stereotypes and assumptions.

I think this may be THE most important thing that we must understand about race and how we see people.  There is a HUGE difference between judging or making power decisions based on race and understanding that race and ethnicity are important and real aspects of the human condition that must be and can be used to grow and thrive as a community of people.  Sometimes having an insight into the POSSIBLE experiences of a person will not only help others to be more aware of those things that may create negative situations, but understanding the possibilities of what different people may bring to the table could broaden our understanding and experience of community.

To these three myths, I would add a fourth one I encounter regularly: When I talk to you, I do not see race because you are not like “them”. “Them” being, of course, the foreign other whose apparent stereotype I do not fit. The first time I heard this, I was speechless. What was I supposed to say? In their mind, they were giving me a compliment, they were being nice! In reality, I wanted to shake up the person who said it (I won’t get into too many details, suffice to say it was one of my in-law family members). If I recall correctly, I just nodded and walked away after making some excuse because I was baffled. After that first instance many years ago, I’ve heard this many more times (also variants such as “all foreigners are this or that, but not you, of course”). Post racial world? I want to move to such town!

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