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.