I Don’t See Color. I See People.
The following is a piece that I included in my chapter (CH 3: The Interaction of Cultures, Sexuality, and Social Work Practice.) for the textbook cited below. It has been a helpful way to get students to grasp the idea that people’s identities matter, and erasing them can be hurtful.
I’m curious about your thoughts, and other relatable strategies that you may have used in your own classes.
Ingersoll, T. S., & Satterly, B. A. (2015). Sexuality concepts for social workers and human service professionals. San Diego: Cognella, Inc.
One of the most challenging phrases that I hear from folks when it comes to diversity issues is the classic, “I don’t see color (or gender, or orientation or ability, etc.), I just see people.”
I understand the sentiment. It comes from a very positive and well-meaning place. Usually the speaker is trying to say to someone, “I want to know you as a person, not as a representative of some group or the embodiment of challenging stereotypes.” It is usually a genuine expression of goodwill.
Here’s why it is problematic. The person to whom it is said is actually Black (or Asian, or gendered, or lesbian or disabled). In the vast majority of cases, people who grow up with a specific identity have experienced the world through that particular lens. They have been treated by others in specific ways, they have endured and overcome challenges related to that identity. As a result, that part of their identity holds meaning and value to them. It is actually an important part of their experience of the world.
When you say, “I don’t see (that),” you are essentially telling the person that you are refusing to acknowledge the reality of their experience. You are devaluing (and as a result invalidating) that person’s very real experience of the world.
Consider this example.
Imagine that I am a cisgender, white male and you are a cisgender white female in my class. In the midst of a class discussion on reproductive rights and politics, you say to me, “Dr. Dyson, as a woman, I have a different experience of that issue…” and in the middle of your sentence, I cut you off and say, “No, no, Marie. I don’t see gender. I only see people.” You look at me kind of funny and try again. “No, Dr. Dyson. These men are trying to legislate what I am allowed to do with my body. And as a woman…” And I interrupt you again. “No, Marie. I don’t see you as a woman. I just see you as a person.”
At this point, you begin to get frustrated. You respond, “Dr. Dyson, but I am a woman, and as a result, my experience is different around these issues…” And I interrupt you again, “Marie, I don’t see you as a woman. I just see you as a person.”
It’s at this point that your frustration reaches a tipping point. You are really angry now. You have been dealing with double standards, with being told what you can’t do, with other people assuming that you are weaker or less intelligent than the men around you for years. Being a woman is an important part of the way that you have experienced the world. It has shaped your experience your entire life. And rightfully, you are really angry at me for refusing to see you for who you are. And at this point, you probably think that I am an idiot and you surely don’t respect me.
That’s why it is not a good idea to tell people that you don’t see them. People want and need to be seen. They want and need to be heard. So don’t shut them up or shut them down.
When someone from a different experience than yours talks: listen, no matter how difficult the message may be to hear. Don’t defend yourself. Don’t minimize their experience. Don’t try to relate by telling them about your own challenges with being different. Just listen. And believe them. Their worldview is shaped by who they are and who the world perceives them to be just as yours is.
You should see people. But be sure that you are open to seeing the whole person.
Don Dyson, Ph.D., M.S.S., CSE