Monday, September 21, 2009

Hysterical Color Blindness

If the health care debate was not hot enough, it has now become 'colored' by commentary that opposition to the President's agenda is motivated by racism. Reasonable people can disagree about this as the President himself recently exemplified. However it has got me thinking about something I've observed recently that concerns me. It seems that for some Americans to even mention the possibility of racism as a factor in a situation has become intolerable. For some in fact, the very effort to discuss racism has become a form of racism!

I've been pondering the possible origin of this attitude and I believe that it represents a somewhat extreme form of color-blind ideology. Color-blind ideology is captured in the oft stated phrase, "I don't see color". Now generally the person who makes this statement is not being literal, but actually means, "I don't judge people based on color." Not judging people based on color is something I completely support as a Baha'i:

"Let us now discover more specifically how he is the image and likeness of God and what is the standard or criterion by which he can be measured and estimated. This standard can be no other than the divine virtues which are revealed in him. Therefore, every man imbued with divine qualities, who reflects heavenly moralities and perfections, who is the expression of ideal and praiseworthy attributes, is, verily, in the image and likeness of God. If a man possesses wealth, can we call him an image and likeness of God? Or is human honor and notoriety the criterion of divine nearness? Can we apply the test of racial color and say that man of a certain hue -- white, black, brown, yellow, red -- is the true image of his Creator? We must conclude that color is not the standard and estimate of judgment... (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 69)

The problem with color-blind ideology is not the goal of ending color-based judgments of human beings. Who could disagree with that? The problem is that when we claim not to see color we are not being truthful. How can an effort at social change be healthy or effective if it is based on an untruth?

"Truthfulness is the foundation of all the virtues of the world of humanity. Without truthfulness, progress and success in all of the worlds of God are impossible for a soul. When this holy attribute is established in man, all the divine qualities will also become realized" (Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 384)

I believe that there are Americans for whom long term insistence on the untruth of not seeing color has effected their ability to see racism itself. Not only that, but they insist that others join them in this not seeing. This is why they get so upset when people bring up the possibility of racism. I refer to this state of being as hysterical color-blindness.

Let me repeat that reasonable people can disagree about whether particular incidents or trends in America are based on racism or not. What I am describing is a completely different phenomenon. Hysterical color-blindness is anything but reasonable. It is the insistence that race not be discussed and the denial of the truth of racism even in the face of supporting evidence.

The good news however is that hysterical color-blindness can be cured. The healing process begins with abandoning the rhetoric of not seeing color. The next step is to replace efforts at color-neutrality with becoming a color-lover. What I mean is that we should not only see color but see color variation in human beings as a reflection of the love and creativity of God.

I believe that color has a positive value and offers insight into the nature of God and the God-human relationship. What do I mean? How can anyone who has enjoyed the brilliant reds, oranges, and indigos of a sunset, the lush greens of a pristine forest, the cool blues of Caribbean waters, or the brown, blue, grey or green of a lover's eyes believe that God is anything but a lover of color? God is the Creator of color, the ultimate Artist. Why would this not also apply to skin-color? As 'Abdu'l-Baha has told us, "This variety in forms and colorings which is manifest in all the kingdoms is according to creative wisdom and has a divine purpose." (Abdu'l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 113)

We need to reclaim color so that we can strive to discover its "creative wisdom" and "divine purpose". We need to not only see color but learn to love what we see.


  1. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Yes! We need to see color. To say, "I don't see your color" is like saying "I don't see you." We need to see each other, see clearly, and rejoice. We don't all look the same, feel the same, and people's brains work differently, too. Hooray!

    And we all belong. We belong together.

  2. Great blog entry! I think of behaviour as being on a continuum - diversity can be opposed, ignored, tolerated or celebrated.

  3. Your blog post on "hysterical color-blindness" reminds me of the recent Newsweek article entitled, "Is your child a racist?".

    One of the basic points in the article is that well-meaning people's efforts to foster color-blindness has not produced children who don't see color. Of course we see our differences in skin, hair and eye color as well as our different shapes and sizes.

    What the researchers in the Newsweek report explained was that when parents don't talk about race, the children internalize the idea that it's not okay to talk about the differences in skin color -- it actually confuses them.

    Interesting topic. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on it and provided a Baha'i perspective.

  4. Great entry. I tried to find an email for you but couldn't find one. I am creating a new online magazine geared towards global parent culture and tradition. It will feature regular articles on the subjects of culture, language, tradition, as well as several regular columns and 3 bloggers. One of the columns I am putting together is going to be a panel of rotating writers of different faiths discussing issues of raising their children in their faith. I am looking for a Bahai writer. Any interest? Please email me at incultureparent (at) The site is currently being designed!

  5. Jane Kazeem5:42 PM

    I used to have a very sweet aunt who, when a subject that was upsetting to her was mentioned, would actually put her thin hand in front of her face as if to ward off some unseen danger and say something like, "Oh, come on guys, please let's not talk about that. Let's just enjoy the day. Here, someone want another bagel?" She was so sweet, and she would be almost begging. People who are afraid or unwilling, for whatever reason, to talk about race/color remind me of my dear aunt. I think I kinda know how they might feel; however, keeping that mind-set they are, to me, depriving themselves of one of the most wonderful experiences in life -- really seeing the incredible, beautiful, astonishing colors of skin God created. Colors I see in my family everyday. Thank God!

  6. I just stumbled upon this post again...I totally agree. I wanted to comment that I work with youth and so often I have heard them say, in a moment when they are trying to describe someone and it is actually useful to state race: "not to be racist, but she is Black. (or white, or Mexican, or whatever)" The youth of all races I have worked with do this, as if some weird form of pc'ism has made its way to their generation. I always tell them "It's not racist to acknowledge someone's race! It's racist if you are prejudice against someone because of that race!" It's so strange how distorted this pc mentality is....

    anyway--love your blog!