The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial has moved visitors to tears. It has also sparked more talk about the need to be a "colorblind" society. Racists and bigots push that agenda, sure, but many well-intentioned liberals suggest the same thing, like those who say they forget sometimes that President Obama is black — and mean it as a compliment!
Unfortunately, both groups have misconstrued King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech, which is usually revisited on his birthday each year but is back in the spotlight with the now-postponed plans for the dedication of his memorial.
King never said a word about anyone's eyesight. So why do people insist that we must lose our vision to achieve his dream?
I'm talking about the poor, misguided souls who believe that "colorblind" is the ultimate proof that our nation has finally overcome its contentious racial history. I'm talking about the folks who sniff, "I don't see color," as if that's a sign of moral superiority.
Actually, it's a sign of total denial. King's message has been co-opted and contorted by those who won't acknowledge that white privilege exists or won't acknowledge the role it played — and continues to play — in current and distressing conditions for many people of color. If they can ignore the visual differences between light and dark skin, it's easier to ignore the socioeconomic differences (and political consequences).
Why You Can't Ignore Color
Some folks honestly and naively believe they're subscribing to King's principles, pointing to a part of the speech where King dreamed 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."
I absolutely, positively agree: Skin color should never be a basis for judgment. So let justice be blind.
The rest of us have no good reason to forsake the blessing of sight. Being "colorblind" is absurd, as fanciful as suggesting that we can be "height-blind" or "weight-blind." It's as realistic as noticing no distinctions between blondes and brunettes, or perms and dreadlocks.
There's a huge difference between acknowledging that people (gasp!) come in different colors and determining the treatment of people based on color.
Noting the obvious doesn't constitute a character flaw — or moral inferiority. When you're trying to describe a person or help a friend recognize whom you're talking about, it's fine to say, "Well, she's kind of tall," or "He's kind of chubby." No one has a problem with those characteristics in a description. But to the colorblind camp, if a description includes "He's dark-skinned" or "She's white," it's as if you're passing judgment.
Revel, but Don't Rank
And that's the genesis of the problem, the historical assignment of values to skin color. As the old saying goes, "Light is all right; brown can stick around; black can get back." A preponderance of research shows that pigmentation variations lead to dissimilar treatment — often subconsciously — both from outside and within ethnic groups. It might be your initial response to flashing pictures of light and dark faces. Or little black girls favoring white dolls. Or black candidates and white candidates, with identical credentials, receiving opposite results at the bank, the rental office or the job interview.
Ignoring differences in melanin isn't the solution. We can revel in our colors without ranking them. If we couldn't enjoy the splendor of rainbows or the spectrum of roses, life wouldn't be as sweet. Likewise, if we can't enjoy the beautiful variety of our skin colors, shades and hues, our picture is distorted. Imagine being unable to appreciate the range of complexions from Halle Berry and Serena Williams to Vanessa Williams and Cicely Tyson; from Soledad O'Brien and Oprah Winfrey to Michelle Obama and Gwen Ifill. (Women, substitute the men of your choice.)
No one needs to be colorblind. We can enjoy people for who they are and see them for who they are — without letting color affect our perceptions or limit their possibilities. I'm positive that's what King meant. I'm certain he would agree with his lieutenant, Jesse Jackson, who said at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, "Our nation is a rainbow — red, yellow, brown, black and white — and we're all precious in God's sight."
You don't deny the existence of something precious, something that's a gift from God. You celebrate it. That's what Carter G. Woodson did when he instituted Negro History Week in 1926, to compensate for glaring omissions — kind of like "black holes" — in textbooks and social consciousness. The relevancy and importance is no less today, two generations removed from the Civil Rights Act.
So to all the well-meaning, "colorblind" folks out there: Take off the blinders! It's not like they actually work.
And we should be glad they don't.
Deron Snyder, an award-winning journalist who covers sports, politics and pop culture, lives in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.