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Bernard: Color Blind

02/08/11 7:55AM By Emily Bernard
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(HOST) Commentator Emily Bernard teaches English and Ethnic Studies at UVM.  She's been wondering why - if we value diversity so highly - we're so reluctant to discuss racial differences.

(BERNARD) Years ago, my friend Michael and his six-year old daughter Caitlin came by for a visit.  As Michael and my husband talked, Caitlin began to admire my ring, and she turned my hand over to inspect it more carefully.  Her eyes fixed on my palm.  She began to trace its lines, so much more pronounced than her own.  

Then she turned her own hand over and put it next to mine, and I saw, through her eyes, something that I had honestly never noticed before, even though my husband is white, and I have always had many white friends.  Caitlin and I were witnessing the evidence of difference, and I could feel a similar current of wonder and amusement connecting us.  And I was grateful for this chance to discover a bit of the world anew, a gift that only children can give us.

Suddenly, Michael looked over and, very gently, took Caitlin's hand away, and looked up to me with an apology in his eyes.  Caitlin looked from me to her father, and I could see her look of curiosity transform into confusion.  Then she put her hand behind her back, as delight disintegrated into shame.
I knew that Michael was only trying to protect both of us.  He didn't want to offend me.  He was afraid his daughter's curiosity might be seen as an act of racism. And I think he simply didn't want his daughter to see racial difference.  The problem was, she did.
I teach African American literature at the University of Vermont.  Very often these days, I hear students announce that we now live in a post-racial society, a concept that became popular after the 2008 election.
The term "post race," I believe, is a 21st century incarnation of the 1960s concept of color-blindness, which was, of course, a central aspiration during the Civil Rights Era.  

But this noble dream of Dr. Martin Luther King has become something of a cliché - a catch phrase like "diversity" - and a way out of real conversations about race.  At best, the Civil Rights Movement appears to have produced a generation that's keen to look beyond race, but finds on the other side not liberation but confusion.  So now, I see a dangerous unspoken trend developing, a fear that to talk about race at all - to confess even to seeing racial difference - is to be a racist.

In medical terms, "color blindness" is a disability, with symptoms and medication.  And I have come to believe that "color blindness" is a symptom of both a willed blindness and a muteness.  

So why not take off our color blinders and open our mouths and simply admit that we see racial difference every day?  Why not make public and private conversations about race a source of pleasure and humor, and not fear and shame?  Why not entertain the possibility that there is no answer to the riddle of race, so maybe the solution is to enjoy the riddle itself?

(TAG) You can find both the text and the audio of this commentary by Emily Bernard at VPR-dot-net.
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