Friday, April 22, 2016

I Grew Up Color Blind

I grew up color blind.

I didn't see race. My parents never really taught me about race. Of course, I wasn't blind. I could see some people had dark skin, some people had light skin. But I wasn't aware of any difference past that, nor did I see how skin color made any sort of difference.

Alaska is a unique state. Because it is a very expensive and difficult state to travel to, it doesn't represent the typical range of "poor" ethnicities. Generally, people who travel there have means to do so. This isn't to say that Alaska doesn't experience racial discrimination in terms of wealth, it certainly does, but on a much different scale.

I also grew up Mormon, so my church friends were predominately caucasian. But outside of church, much of my friends were Filipino, Alaska Native, Hispanic, Black or from the Pacific Islands. None of my friends were first generation immigrants, most of them were born and raised in Alaska, or another part of the US. The school I attended was very diverse.  My white friends and I sometimes would joke we were the "minority". Statistically, of course we weren't. But I am grateful that I didn't grow up in a "white" community.

Am I grateful I grew up color blind? I thought I was. Like I said, I didn't see color. I didn't see race. I didn't feel anyone was beneath me, I didn't feel I was beneath anyone. I looked at people as people. But that is also because I was ignorant.

While I wasn't outwardly "racist", I lived in a world that was.

When I was 12, I laughed at a joke my friend was telling, and was mistaken for making fun of another girl close by. She thought I was mocking her, and took it upon herself to bully me the rest of the year. She was black. I didn't understand then why I had made her so angry, but I think now I can. I don't excuse her bullying, and I am also grateful I was so naive I didn't understand it. But now, seeing the world in a different light, I can understand her anger.

Race is a social construct. It was created to separate people though prejudice and animosity. And it is also very effective. While I didn't see it growing up, it was happening. People of color are born with a disadvantage. And while, as a woman, I am also born with a disadvantage, it is no where near as severe as some of my friends.

People of color face difficulties in schooling, careers, housing. They face bullying, bigotry, hate, and intolerance. They are misrepresented. They are categorized. All as part of a rigged system to keep rich, straight, white men on top.

Speaking to one of my friends about it, she told me how upset she was finally seeing how Hispanics are portrayed in TV and film. As the maid, housekeeper, thickly accented, trashy. I had never actually seen Hispanic people, who ignorant people call "Mexican's" or "illegal aliens". People from Latin America who were first and second generation immigrants living modestly or downright poorly in order to survive and make a living. My mom's best friend was Guatemalan. She was an executive at the bank. My friend's mom was a counselor at the university in town. So due to my limited experience, those things were just stories on the TV.

In middle school there was a boy who sat behind me in Spanish class, who used to kick my chair and pull my braids. We're friends on Facebook now, all the silly adolescence behind us, but I find myself shocked. He is a person of color, black, and very much proactive in speaking about racism. I amazed at how ignorant his friends are. How they dismiss what he says, how they justify it, or say he is just bitter and angry. How they question his right to talk about it when he didn't grow up in the ghetto, he grew up with white boys.

It makes me so sad to read those things. Moving to the lower 48, I experienced racism for the first time. My very first college roommate was Black. not African American, and she reminded us anytime we needed it. She was from Bulgaria, and hated being called African American. I learned a lot from her, about how American's see race.

My husband took a course in racism, and tried to explain to me how I was inherently racist. I told him he was crazy, so he directed me to a Harvard test to see just how racist I was. I said I'd take it. And as it turned out, I scored neutral, with no obvious preference to white or black individuals. That was my Alaska upbringing.

I was still disturbed by the questions. I remember one being about a black person's work ethic. It asked if I thought they were inherently lazy. Or overall not motivated to work hard. I said of course not. There was a question about seating, would I sit next to a black person on a bus. I said of course I would. Would I look a black person in the eye. Of course!

The questions were so bizarre to me. Black people aren't lazy. And why wouldn't I look them in the eye? They are people! Just like me! They are just people!

I had no idea there are white's out there who think this way of people of color. That they are lazy, or that they can't sit next to them, or that they avoid eye contact.

And because I didn't know about it, I couldn't do anything to stop it. Being color blind is part of the problem, because it ignores the fact that racial inequalities exist. You can't just turn a blind eye to race, because that ignores racism. And if you ignore it, you can't change it. So while I am grateful  that I grew up viewing everyone equal, I'm now glad I understand they actually aren't. Because I don't view my friends differently, but I understand that as a white person, I have more opportunities than they do, and that is wrong. There aren't the horrible stigmas and stereotypes against me.

This came very easily to me, understanding racism, and I think it's because I'm a woman. So I also have disadvantages. And I gave birth to two boys who started life at the front of the race. I just hope that their generation will be smarter than mine, and will work towards a future where color blind is a term that no longer exists.

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