For most of my life, I was opposed to the concept of “diversity.” Half-Japanese, half-Syrian, I was the definition of racially diverse, but I also loathed being labeled.
I thought diversity was difficult to define. I thought race alone was never a good indication of someone’s personal experiences.
I was afraid of what my race meant. And of all the superpowers that I could wish for, invisibility was always my choice — not just for me, but for the world. Colorblindness seemed like the opposite of racism to me: Ignore race and move beyond seeing race as essential. To be completely free from judging eyes is something I would have wished on everyone growing up. To be both colorblind and color-free.
Sophomore year of high school, my father made my lunch in a small bento box. It was the standard meal for me: white rice with some kind of meat and, in the other compartment, scrambled eggs topped with soy sauce.
At school my lunch was met with, “That is so cute,” and, “I’ve never seen a box like that. Where’d you get it?”
I mostly bought my lunches at school after that, and when I did bring my lunch, I would sometimes eat it in the multimedia classroom where I could altogether avoid the discomfort I felt when others noticed my bento box.
It didn’t matter that my friends meant well. It didn’t matter that they really did find my lunchbox adorable, and that maybe in some other context, it would have been flattering. I was embarrassed, simply because in a small, rural high school, all I wanted was to blend in.
It took me years to realize why that incident affected me much more than it should have, years of denying that race in the United States is important to acknowledge. No one should have to feel out of place for their skin color or culture, but when they do, they can only get past it when they understand why.
In a psychology study by researchers from the University of Georgia, 17 departments in a health care organization were compared based on whether they embraced a colorblind philosophy or a multicultural one in the workplace. In departments that used the colorblind approach, minorities reported being more uncomfortable and feeling more bias against them in the work setting. Because when minority cultures are ignored, the default is white culture. Those who can’t follow that norm end up feeling undeservedly uncomfortable for what they are.
We don’t live in a post-racial world. Luckily, we live in a world after Martin Luther King Jr. We live in a country in which “diversity” is no longer used as slander and is actually seen as a positive attribute. But even in Brazil — arguably the most diverse country in the world — where there are up to 500 racial categorizations, there is still discrimination. There is still historical oppression.
“It’s so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn’t exist,” said Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration who teaches about behavioral psychology at the Harvard Business School. “But research shows that it simply doesn’t work. We do notice race, and there’s no way of getting around this fact.”
The reality is, if you grow up in a mostly white community — learn from white teachers, socialize with white friends, make pies with white neighbors, watch TV with white anchors — the first time a person of color appears in your life, there will be some implicit racial bias. You will see them as different. You will sometimes say the wrong things. You can learn not to, but only after you’re aware that you’re doing something wrong in the first place.
In the act of being so wrapped up in what I am or where I’m from, I hated that some saw me as just another tool to put in the potpourri of the diversified student body. I have an aversion to being exploited. And to me, exploiting my race also meant forgetting the most important part of my identity: I am a human being first.
But a fundamental part of my human experience, like it or not, is race. It affected me in elementary school, in high school, and now in college. Initially, I pushed that potential for awareness away because I just didn’t think diversity mattered. But even memories of my high-school experience just make more sense with a racial perspective in mind.
We do not, and never will, live in a world where colorblindness can be a positive way to look at race.
We live in a world where racism and bias will always exist. We live in a world where closing your eyes to someone’s race also closes your eyes to their sensitivities. In this world, compassion means admitting there are races, a spectrum of colors and cultures — and only after opening your eyes to those colors can you see beyond them.
Reach Development Editor Hayat Norimine at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @HayatNorimine
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