Color Blind

Ishihara Color Vision Test

Part of the things that I am thinking about is racism — especially how the concepts of race and justice go together.

I’m thinking about this because at this time in the history of our country, racism is a subject that we are struggling to deal with.

This struggle is brought to light by current social events that seem always to be reported with some hint of racism. Phrases like “white policeman” and “black criminal” as well as “Indian immigrant” and “white privilege” are phrases that you hear as part of just about every news story on television and radio. I hear phrases like “my Indian friend” or “black friends”. This makes me uncomfortable. I think that phrases and reporting like this sometimes makes a bad situation worse.

To me, racism is tied closely to differences between people, and one difference that seems to be at the forefront is skin color. I think that this is because the outward appearance of someone can (sadly) have a huge effect on our interaction with that person.

I thought about this recently when, as part of a seminar on race and justice, I was handed a chart. Across the top of this chart, the columns were labeled “white”, “black”, “Hispanic”, “Asian” and so on. Down the left side of the chart were a series of actions like “I have had dinner at their house”, “I have friends of this race”, “I work with people who are ….”.

You get the idea. As part of an evaluation of how “racially integrated” your life was, you were supposed to place a checkmark at the intersection of the columns and rows where the intersections applied to you. (If you had friends who were black, you put a checkmark in the appropriate square).

I bristled at the thought of even putting one checkmark on this chart. Why? Because I see solving my racism challenge (yes, this is a challenge for me) is much bigger than trying to get as many checkmarks on this chart as possible. Does the fact that I could only place a few checkmarks on this chart make me a racist?

I don’t think I need a chart to give me the right answer to that question.

The other thing that bothered about this exercise was what was not across the top columns on the chart. I saw nothing about people in wheelchairs, or people who have Asperger syndrome. What about people who are Italian or Muslim?  What about people who are blind or deaf? None of these were mentioned. It was all focused on race.

Clearly, this chart needed a lot more columns across the top than it had…

The key take-away of this exercise, at least in my eyes, was how do I react when confronted with people who are different than me and who may be from a different culture than you are? Racism (a shortcut term for “unjust actions against people because of their skin color”) is one way you determine how you are going to treat a person.

There are two concepts that jumped out at me here — justice and skin color.

There is no doubt that skin color has a huge influence how people are treated. Instinctively, I know that using only outward appearance as a determination of my interaction with a person is wrong.

Some propose that as part of eliminating racism we should strive be “color blind” when it comes to dealing with people — in other words, we should not notice the color of someone’s skin.

I have concluded that I will never have success making this happen. Never. That’s because, no matter how I look out across a crowd, physical features are one of the first things I notice about someone.

Instead, I am choosing to focus on what happens immediately after I notice the physical characteristics of a person. Here’s how that may work.

I am walking down the street and turn a corner. In front of me, standing in my path, is a person with different color skin than me. What do I think next? Do I make a conclusion that he or she is dangerous, intelligent, stupid, going to ask me for money or some other action that is probably not true. Or do I stop myself from making a conclusion such as these and treat the person … well… like a person?

Here’s another example. I always like to see what a person who I only hear on the radio looks like. Very often, after I hear a reporter (mostly on NPR), I will go to the web and Google their name. My first reaction is a key to what conclusions I have already made about the person. Sometimes (I am sad to admit), I am surprised that their race does not “match” their voice, accent or intonation. That’s because I have already made a conclusion about who they are as soon as I interacted with them.

In working through this, I have become hyperaware of that moment that comes immediately after I look at someone. I am working inserting a “pause” before I make any untrue conclusions so I have time to collect my thoughts and decide what next. If I mess up and forget this “pause”, at least I have a point where I can go back later and ask myself “what was the first thing I thought when I saw that person”.

After doing this for a bit, I am discovering that I am not very good at this “pause”. It’s something I have to work on and be vigilant with. I am learning that this practice applies to every column on a very wide chart because I tend to set aside true justice for a bit when I run into everyone. It’s much bigger than skin color.

At it’s core, this is about justice and treating every human being with dignity and love and caring. Full stop. I don’t need to add the phrase “if they are different than me” because that doesn’t matter. What matters is that they, as I am are a human being made just like I am — in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) — with the same faults, experience and capabilities that I have.

But do the differences matter? Absolutely– but only if I don’t let myself experience and value those differences or if I let those difference be the leading driver that determines how I treat people. How I treat people who are not the same as me is where justice starts to intertwine itself into this challenge.

Mastering the “pause” is not going to solve the challenge I have of applying justice. It will, however, better prepare me for taking the next step in the process. That next step is valuing and sharing a person’s culture, experiences and thoughts that are part of their life and have made them who they are. Mastering the “pause” will, at least, open a gate for me to be a more just and caring person.

Believe me when I say that I wish I could have checked every one of those boxes on the chart. Not because I would have had a better “score” but because that means that I will have had a richer life, full of experiences that are different than mine are. It means I would have learned from people and laughed and cried over many things that were not part of where I grew up and part of the culture that I live in.

It’s a long process but in the end, it’s well worth it. It’s part of Shalom — putting  the earth back together so that it is as God intended it to be.



* Feature image is the Ishihara Color Vision Test



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