"When your skin colour is the default, any acknowledgement of ‘otherness’ implicitly becomes a threat or a nuisance."flickr: Asela Abhayapala

I’m sure we’ve all heard it before: “There’s only one race – the human race.” Whether in an argument about identity politics or as a way to defuse heated confrontations, the reminder that fundamentally, ‘we are more similar than different’ appears far too often.

It is interesting to examine how this idea is used to police and silence people of colour. No matter the good intentions behind it; the insistence on focusing on a ‘shared humanness’ exists as nothing more than an avoidance tactic. From a young age, we are taught that acknowledging race is taboo, so ignorance is suppressed instead of deconstructed and reveals itself in daily reminders of “otherness” for people of colour.

People of colour always have the same stories of interacting with their white peers. When race enters the conversation there are a number of stock responses; either white people argue that they are ‘colourblind’ and profusely reassure you that they’re not racist, or they view simple descriptors like ‘black’ ‘Indian’ ‘Chinese’ as offensive words. There is something extremely uncomfortable about being made to feel like the fact of your being, your blackness or your Asianess is too offensive to acknowledge. It destroys the possibility of any legitimate conversations that could be had about race.
It is often the case that white people have never considered themselves to be part of a specific race or thought that it mattered much, because it hasn’t had an effect on their lives. It has never been a source of negativity, and so appears to be completely neutral and arbitrary. But when you are constantly reminded when reading the news, walking through the plodge, interacting with people on a daily basis that their perceptions of you are based on race, it becomes of critical importance. Your survival sometimes depends on being able to articulate the inevitable frustration that comes with this.

When your skin colour is the default, any acknowledgement of ‘otherness’ implicitly becomes a threat or a nuisance. This is the thinking that leads some white people to think that black power equals white hate, or that any recognition or expression of love for non-white cultures is an affront to whiteness.

Perhaps this is what causes white people to roll their eyes at arguments about identity, or deem them futile. Engaging with privilege is a chore; it might make you really interrogate your intentions and change your behaviour. It upsets the order of things, bursting the naïve bubble that so many people exist in. Which is another reason why the notion of colourblindness irks me – anyone non-white who wishes to explore how race affects their time on earth is regulated back into silence by a concept that dictates that recognizing difference is of little value.

When someone tells me they don’t see ‘colour’ or that race does not affect the way they view people, what I hear is “I cannot fathom a society in which we might have specific experiences informed by race and so must erase the differences between us.” There is a tendency toward a post-modernist world view that thinks beyond ‘arbitrary systems of categorization’, as if they don’t have a material effect on people’s lives.

Aside from that, the colorblindness argument is harmful because it absolves white people of their responsibility for the historical violence perpetrated against people of colour. If race is irrelevant, so are all the events that have happened because of it. This provides the perfect justification to ignore the power dynamics that exist in our society.

Even if I as a black woman, were to fully commit to the principle that ‘race doesn’t matter’, how the world perceives me would contradict this. Perpetuating this myth is the equivalent of sticking your head in the sand or screaming ‘lalalalala’ when an argument becomes too intense. It is harder, and also more rewarding, to critically engage with race and recognize openly that if you’re white, then your race enables you a structural advantage.

There is nothing radical about declaring that we all bleed red. Instead try to actively engage with the idea that race determines a lot more than it should in people’s lives. This is one of the key ways that we take away its determinative value; by interrogating how it is used for the maintenance of power.

We do not have to be the same to be equal; by erasing the differences between us we lose the joy of different cultures and what they can offer us. Homogeneity is not only uninteresting and reductive but impractical if we are actually committed to eradicating racial oppression.

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