The Irony of Color-Blind

Posted June 10th, 2011 by Albert DeCiccio Ph.D., Provost, Southern Vermont College

Could it be that being “blind,” color-blind, is the new racism?

Professors and teachers rightly dedicate themselves to ensuring that their students learn to speak the language of the disciplines they teach and for which they, as faculty members, have been prepared.  Some of these professors and teachers declare that, when students enter their classrooms, they should leave race at the door.  This declaration may be viewed as a healthy 2011 adaptation of Dr. King’s dream that we judge people by their character, not their skin color.  However, I would like to declare that trying to be color-blind is at best ironic and at worst a prevarication. 

I am not alone in thinking this way.  Here’s what Victor Villanueva, author of the award-winning Bootstraps: From an American Academic of Color, has written about this issue:  "being color-blind is a lie; at best it’s a wish.  . . . Nice dream.  The right dream.  Then there’s the reality we’re in.  Besides, no one wants to be rendered invisible, have a blind eye turned on her or him.  A passage from a novel: 'They were blind, bat blind, moving only by the echoed sounds of their voices. And because they were blind they would destroy themselves.  I laughed.  Here I thought they accepted me because they felt that color made no difference, when in reality it made no difference because they didn't see either color or men' (Invisible Man 383-84). . . .'Color blind' is irony in all senses of that term: as a trope, and as in the common sense of “Isn’t it ironic?”  Isn’t it ironic that people with eyes to see can be proud in choosing not to?" (“The Rhetorics of the New Racism” 6)

Color matters, as we all learned when we read Cornel West (Race Matters) and, before West, W. E. B. DuBois (The Souls of Black Folk), who asserted that the problem of the twentieth century was color.  Not a lot has changed in the twenty-first century, except that some of us choose to be blind even though we can see.  It is laudable that teachers and professors work assiduously to teach their students how to speak the language for which they, as faculty members, have been prepared.  Yet, it is problematic to ask these same students not to see color when it is there.

I want to give you all a gift that Langston Hughes bequeathed in 1951: the poem “Theme for English B.”  I think you will notice in it some of what is mentioned above and much that could be mentioned still.  It is a classic poem about color, possibility, and America.  Enjoy.


The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.

I wonder if it's that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:

It's not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I'm what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you:
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn't make me NOT like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
That's American.
Sometimes perhaps you don't want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that's true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free.

This is my page for English B.


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