The Brown Elephant in the Room

My three year old cousin loves nothing more than her dolls. So when she  decided to name one of them after me, it was a pretty big deal. The kind of big deal that is comparable to her naming a child after me. When I asked her why she chose to give this particular doll my name, I was expecting an answer like “because I love you most” or “because I like you more than Dora (the Explorer).” But instead of the heartfelt answer I was hoping for, she gave me the totally logical explanation that this doll would be named Jazzy because she looked like me. It was at this point that her older brother left his game of Minecraft to interject, “Yeah, because you have the same hair and eye color.” This baffled me. The doll may have had brown hair, but where mine is curly hers was straight. And yes, our eyes may have been the same color, but lots of her dolls have both curly hair and brown eyes. This doll and I looked alike because we’re both brown. I know this to be true, but I don’t understand why her brother wouldn’t say it. What makes the color of my skin different from noticing the color of my hair or eyes?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a byproduct of society. We live in a society of people so afraid of being identified as biased that they hesitate to acknowledge any differences at all. And many, like my cousin, are taught at a young age that seeing and identifying color is wrong.

These are the unspoken rules that society abides by: no one is racist if no one is speaking about race.

We have unconsciously made our differences, specifically race, the (brown) elephant in the middle of our room. Its presence is undeniable, yet we continue to disillusion ourselves to its existence. But as we repeatedly choose to ignore these dissimilarities between us, we lose the connections and insight that we can potentially gain from them.

It’s Okay to See Color

Many people say, “I don’t see color” as a way to explain how they don’t let race determine their attitude towards people. But Vernā Myers, a diversity advocate, describes it best in her Ted Talk: “We’ve gone about as far as we can go trying to make a difference trying to not see color. The problem wasn’t that we saw color. It was what we did when we saw the color. It’s a false ideal.” In an attempt to be culturally sensitive, people have taken to saying they don’t see color. I understand it is said with the best intentions, but the declaration is often polarizing. Not only because it’s contradicting when you tell it to a person of color, but when you announce that you’re color blind you imply that the recipient’s histories, cultures and futures aren’t important to you. This Huffington Post article details how “[you] must see the color” because if you don’t, you “will never, ever understand the walk of anyone who doesn’t share the same skin tone or culture, nor will they understand” yours. We become disconnected from eachother when we let our fears eclipse our natural curiosity. And as we grow more concerned with avoiding the topic of color than we are with getting to know one another, we lose invaluable understanding and awareness.

Watch as these men and women share their understandings of the term “color blind.”

Shaping Identities

A study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science describes how “race is central to [people’s] identities, a source of psychological well-being, and a lens through which others perceive them.” And they decided to prove it.

NY Magazine shares the details: 108 children between the ages of 9 and 12 were asked to do an activity, similar to the popular game Guess Who?  The game rules are simple: one player tries to defeat their opponent by guessing through a series of yes or no questions which character their opponent had chosen from an identical set of faces prior to the game’s start. In this particular experiment, 40 photos were laid out in front of the players and the conductor, Kristin Pauker from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, set it up so asking whether someone was black or white would narrow down half of the choices. Pauker and her partner watched and recorded the game and post to determine “whether they noticed that White and Black people were displayed in the photos … [and] why they did or did not use race as a question.” What they found was unexpected: “[A]lmost all the kids, regardless of race, reported having noticed the racial differences among the photos, but only 40% of them used those differences to help them perform well in the game — and that number didn’t vary much by race.” When asked later, 23% said that mentioning race would be blatantly prejudiced, while 58 said that it would be rude or offensive.

In an effort to prevent discrimination in youth, we have taught children not to pay attention to color. However, this method insinuates that everything regarding race is racist. This implication follows children throughout their childhood and is one they are unlikely to forget as they continue to grow and evolve. But why? My skin color is a fact, not an insult. The only insulting aspect is that people believe it is.

Using and Understanding for Equality

We know that the world is brimming with inequality. It makes headlines and is broadcasted throughout the world as we watch Black Lives Matters’ protesters rally against the wrongful deaths of young, black men like Trayvon Martin, as we hear about shootings like the one in an Orlando gay nightclub, and we feel the heartbreak that occurs after an act of hate targets a specific group of marginalized people. We know this exists, but we live in Elk River, home of the urban dictionary term elking, which is a suburb of Minneapolis, which is a city that lies in MinneSNOWta, which is a state known for our over pronunciation, “niceness” and agriculture. The injustice and heartbreak of the world seems so distant to our lives.

Equality is meant to ensure everyone equal rights, despite our differences. But by refusing to see color, we make people a standard, “pretend white.”  We set everyone to a default, essentially stripping them of their identity and ignoring the things that make them who they are.

Conclusion

Don’t get crazy. I’m not suggesting you walk around pointing out that people are different, and asking how they came to America or any other potentially offensive questions. But that being said, I urge you to notice these differences. Recognize that people may have had different cultural upbringings, histories, and lived experiences. Our differences are qualities worth celebrating. They make us who we are and they shape our lives.

I am not the color of my skin, or my gender, sexuality, religion or social class. Nor is anyone else theirs. We are all human beings, and are consequently deserving of equality, despite any inconsistencies between us.

When we go out of our way to ignore our dissimilarities, we empower them. We allow them to separate us and dictate our lifestyles.

If we learn to acknowledge our differences, not only will we grow to understand one another better, but we will discredit anyone who ever thought another person deserved less because of a quality they had no power over (like their skin color). These characteristics are a part of me, just as much as my curly hair or my brown eyes.

I don’t believe in the brown elephant, because I believe I am a unique aspect of a wonderfully diverse community, and everyone is deserving of respect and appreciation. I also believe everyday we are given the opportunity to put our faith in something and the resulting belief equates to power. I choose not to empower a mechanism for marginalization. I believe it’s nothing more than a brown elephant, just as race is nothing more than a biological construct and I am nothing more than a brown girl with a strong belief in humanity. I don’t believe in the brown elephant, and you don’t have to either.

Also, here’s a nice song with a cool video about racism.

Featured Image by DryHundredFear/ taken from Flickr

2 thoughts on “The Brown Elephant in the Room

  1. I loved this article so much Jazzy! It’s so true, I’m always scared to point out people’s skin color for fear that others will think it’s rude, and I hate thinking that way. We should all admire our differences. Thankyou for putting it all into words.

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