The fallacy of being ‘colorblind’

Barbara Finch. Photo: Bill Motchan

By Barbara L. Finch

Marty Rochester’s March 24 opinion piece, “Oy vey: The excesses of identity politics,” cries out for rebuttal on a number of fronts. Since I’m having trouble deciding whether I am, in Rochester’s words, a “garden-variety liberal” or a “left-wing extremist,” I’ll let other more astute readers tackle the complicated issues surrounding identity politics.  I would like to address Rochester’s statement that  he “tries, as much as possible, to be colorblind.”

Oy vey indeed. Blindness is a handicap that certainly hampers one’s ability to see things clearly.

The fallacy that being “colorblind” will lead us to a post-racial society was brought home to me by Sylvester Brown, a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  In the fall of 2005, Brown addressed a meeting of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.  He stood before a room of about 50 white women and asked, “Tell me who you see standing here before you.  Do you see a columnist for the Post-Dispatch, or do you see a Black columnist for the Post-Dispatch?”

Most of the audience, believing colorblindness to be an asset when looking at Black people, raised their hands for “columnist.”  Only a few of us (who were undoubtedly left-wing extremists), opted for “Black columnist.”

Black columnist was the answer Sylvester Brown wanted to hear.  He explained that it is not racist to acknowledge another person’s identity.  His blackness is integral to his existence.  It informed his writing as much as it framed his life.  By refusing to acknowledge his blackness, we were refusing to see HIM.  He wanted to be recognized as a Black man who wrote a newspaper column. 

I have carried Sylvester Brown’s teaching with me for almost 16 years.  I am profoundly grateful to him for opening my eyes to the importance, beauty and complexity of color in our society.  We need to see, accept and celebrate people as they are in all their difference and richness and beauty. All of us would be losers if we were colorblind.  The lenses that we need are not those that would erase our diversity and make us all the same.

Rochester’s concluding statement, “the bottom line is all lives matter, all matter equally…” is, sadly, almost laughable in the context of America in 2021.  It is not easy for those of us who are over-privileged to accept the fact that we have played a part in creating systems where some lives matter more than others.  This is why we need the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is no point in pretending to be colorblind or in looking at America today through rose-colored glasses.  There is so much work  to be done.  No matter where we fall along the spectrum of identity politics, we should all use our privilege and position to look beyond our own circumstances and see others as they are, where they are.  May we then find enough empathy and compassion to spur us to righteous action to a rainbow-filled world.

Barbara L. Finch is a member of Central Reform Congregation and a co-founder of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justice.  She was a St. Louis Jewish Light “Unsung Hero” in 2019.