My fifth grade teacher used to invite the girls to stay in the classroom during lunch and talk about personal experiences and struggles we’ve faced. Our problems were simpler back then, but my classmates and I still brought up experiences of marginalization on a fairly consistent basis. One person felt alienated from Christian friends discussing the Bible because she was a Muslim. Another felt awkward because she didn’t speak English as well as her friends did. Another felt alone because the Black character in the book she was reading didn’t talk at all like she and her family did. We all sat there and listened carefully (as well as fifth graders could). There was no way we could have experienced everybody’s struggles in the same way, but somehow, we all understood each other. It was this wonderful little setting where we all saw each other’s differences and still treated each other with the respect we deserved.
I’m not sure when the shift happened. Middle school? High school? At some point, I seemed to have bought into the idea that not seeing our differences was some kind of societal ideal. And that seeing differences — race specifically — somehow made you racist.
A few weeks ago, I was walking with a friend, and we happened to talk about race as a “social construct” (that phrase likes to get thrown into all sorts of contexts). “Look,” my friend said, “if the color of your skin has nothing to do with athletic ability or intelligence or really anything that we value in our society, then why do we still make such a big deal out of it? We might as well just stop ‘seeing it’ altogether.”
Certainly, I think most of us (should) agree that race has nothing to do with our talents and potential. All races are created equal. But a fact that my friend ignored was that all races are not socially created equal; all races are not socially treated as equal. We continue to marginalize people of color, not just in the outside world but also here on campus (think of the experiences brought forth by #BBUM and the audacity of the Hood Ratchet Thursday Party). From micro-aggression to the systematic exclusion of minorities, race continues to be salient today.
But on the flip side is our identity. Even though outsiders continue to call out and notice our race, many of us still seem to embrace this racial identity. Perhaps it’s difficult to understand why, given all the stigma attached to one’s race, we still strongly embrace being called Black, Asian-American, Latin@, etc.
Skin color is one of those things that stays with me wherever I go, whether I want it to or not. Maybe I can hide my sexuality, my class or even my gender, but race is here to stay with me. It is permanently attached to how others see me and treat me. So like all groups that have felt stigmatized, our options are either to embrace ourselves or hate ourselves. This may sound like an extreme, but there are so many cases of this: think nerds or gamers, who’ve also faced stigma but now have formed social communities to reclaim their identity as something positive and uplifting. Our desire to rise up and give ourselves agency amidst overwhelming feelings of shame is a way to give meaning to our lives.
OK. So yes. Racial groups continue to face discrimination and stigma. And racial groups, in response, work to reclaim their identities. But that doesn’t change anything, right? A colorblind society is still an ideal, just maybe not now?
Given how frustratingly persistent stereotypes are, I don’t see us devaluing race anytime in the near future. Nor do I see minorities letting go of the culture they’ve created and shaped. The counter-culture formed by marginalized groups has deep roots in our American identity and history; they are here to stay. And that, I think, is not a bad thing at all.
Somehow we’ve been taught to think that by seeing one’s color, we can’t treat them with respect and dignity. We’ve reduced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech to a platitude that supposedly calls for a colorblind society. But I believe, in order to make real progress, we need to rethink what we consider ideal. We need to learn not only to tolerate one’s racial and cultural differences, but also to embrace this difference as a marker of who we are as individuals.
Jenny Wang can be reached at email@example.com.