Should we be a Colorblind Society?

by Allison V. Thompkins '01

On Tuesday, November 4, 2008, America elected Barack Obama to be the nation’s first black president. It was a day of incredible pride, joy, and exuberant celebration for so many in this country for reasons as numerous as the number of people celebrating throughout the world. I watched the returns with excitement and awe — wanting each second of the e1ection returns to last a lifetime. When we heard that the nation finally had a President-elect Obama, I screamed so vociferously (and for so long) that I’m sure I startled some pedestrians on the sidewalk outside my apartment.

Since Tuesday’s momentous occasion, I’ve heard some proclaim that we have finally achieved the colorblind society Dr. King so wanted for our country. However, did Dr. King truly have colorblindness as his ultimate goal for the United States? His words, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” permanently reside in my memory. However, my interpretation of those words is not colorblindness as a goal, but racial acceptance.

Colorblindness disregards race and how one’s race influences her perceptions of the world. Embracing color blindness invites us to sweep race, and its implications, under the rug, where misunderstandings can fester and never be rectified due to the imposed invisibility of race. All of us are complex beings resulting from the collective experiences of our lives. Race is a part of that experience,just as are one’s socioeconomic status, country of origin, or physical abilities.

When I, as a young adult, arrive at an event, I want to be appreciated for my race as I’m appreciated for my sense of humor, respected for my gender as I’m respected for my inquisitiveness, and valued for my physical disability as I’m valued for my caring nature. For all of these traits, my personality and my physique, inform who I am. When I see my Latino, Native American, European, or Asian sister or brother, I’d rather see the beauty of their racial heritage and ask them about it, in addition to learning about who that individual is.

There is beauty in race and in choosing to acknowledge and celebrate it. We, as a nation, should strive to see a person’s race and ask, “Who is this person?” The two need not be mutually exclusive and artificially relegated to a dichotomous relationship. We can create a goal of racial acceptance and celebration rather than mere colorblindness. Imagine the tremendous possibilities that would exist if our ambition for the nation was a fully inclusive society derived from celebrating everyone’s racial make-up rather than building an “inclusive” society by ignoring our racial history and legacy.

Is the former challenging? Sure. But I believe it to be the goal that will enable this country, and each person within it, to reap the greatest benefit from our diversity. Does racial celebration require a different set of high-order skills? Yes. But how often do we hear our educators say that children rise to whatever expectations we have of them? Why set the expectations of Americans artificially low? We can expect our citizenry to strive for more than ignoring race. A nation of people who gave birth to those who traveled to the moon, who created the cell phone, who integrated people with disabilities into the society, and who penned some of the most insightful work of humankind can surely rise to the challenge of not only accepting race, but celebrating it.

Some may feel this is a utopian view of the world; after all, technological breakthroughs are different from humanitarian progress. Others may say this is not possible. However, I think back to over 20 years ago when my parents received word that their youngest daughter was significantly disabled due to cerebral palsy, that the abilities many take for granted would be hard-won victories for her.

My parents were told that I’d probably never speak or walk “normally,” that I’d need assistance in my daily life, and while my disability was by no means severe, it would alter the arc of my life. At that moment, they had to decide what expectations they had for me. What were their goals for how I’d live my life?

Their answer came quickly. They expected me to become an educated, well-rounded, contributing member of society. Some may have said in the early 1980s that this, too, was a utopian view of the world and a fanciful imagining of my possibilities as a significantly disabled black child. However, at that time, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which guarantees equal rights to the disabled, was not law. Computers and the Internet, which give me so much of my independence, were still in their infancy, and the social programs that empower and embolden disabled youth and young adults were in their incubator stages. I recount this story to say that what may seem unreasonable and utopian at a fixed point in time can eventually become expected, and even routine, in a number of years.

What we need is steady progress toward inclusivity and visionaries emboldened with a steel-like belief in the expansive promise of the human race.