“I Don’t See Difference” Doesn’t Help
April 25, 2018
“I don’t see color” doesn’t help anyone. I would like to start a conversation about the danger of pretending that we don’t see difference. Pretending that we don’t notice difference allows us to be insensitive to people’s capacity, need, and experience.It allows us to pretend that we are free of bias, prejudice, and discrimination.
ChildSavers prides itself on being a strengths-based, people-centered organization. We cannot accomplish that without understanding how identity and experience influence people’s strengths and needs.
In order to have a person-centered approach to community building, we have to consider the history of the differences between people. We have to be willing to see, not only that a teenager we want to support is queer, but also how history, legislation, and culture may have impacted their personality, interactions, and relationships because of their queer identity.
“I don’t see color,” means that I don’t see the hurdles that you have jumped over to get here today. “I don’t notice difference,” means I do not consider the impact your childhood might have had on you differently than mine has had on me.
The intention behind these phrases is not to stereotype others. If you don’t see race, then you can’t be accused of treating someone poorly based on their race. However, if you don’t see race, then you also can’t uniquely support someone because of the racialized experiences they have had.
My advice would be to:
One Size Does Not Fit All
I was asked to be a bridesmaid in a wedding several years ago. The wedding was hosted on a plantation. I was the only non-white bridesmaid. The concept of “I don’t see color” meant that the bride could “not see” the way that the location of the wedding would impact me as a Black woman.
In the same wedding, the bridesmaids were asked to wear nude shoes. Due to a centering and normalizing of whiteness, nude has come to mean beige or peach. My nude is brown, however, I was not asked to wear brown shoes. The concept of “I don’t see color” led to the reality of “I don’t see you or who you are. I will assume you are like me and not account for the differences between us.”
This is a real-life example of why it is not helpful to “not see” difference. People are different. This means that we respond differently. We have different needs. We offer different strengths.
Let’s examine a fictional story about a person named Lisa. To “not see” difference would be to not consider how Lisa’s experience of moving through a building is different from yours. In other words, by not seeing, you assume that the way you move through a building also works for Lisa. It might not. For example, maybe Lisa needs to be able to see all windows and doors of a room she’s in in order to feel safe. Or maybe Lisa uses ramps to get to different parts of a building. As you learn about Lisa, you learn about Lisa’s movement through the world. How is it impacted by institutional marginalization? How is it different from yours? How can you support Lisa based on what she has shown you about herself?
At ChildSavers, we support thousands of individuals and families. We cannot assume that what is helpful to Lisa is also helpful to June. That is why cookie cutter support formulas do not work. As an agency and as individuals, we must consider a person and the intersection of the identities they carry.
This is cultural competency.
Relational Cultural Competency
Cultural competency is the difference between:
Jackie is a single mom with two kids who needs food security and nutrition education.
Jackie is a 19-year-old, Baptist, African-American mom who lives in Richmond’s Church Hill with her mother and grandmother in a home her family has owned for decades.
To “not see” difference would be to give Jackie coupons to grocery stores, booklets about nutrition, and phone numbers for Department of Social Services (DSS) and food banks.
To “see” difference allows you to consider the way Jackie and her family are treated as Black folks visiting the food banks you have recommended. Recognizing difference is to consider how the building of the highway through Richmond in the 1950s may have negatively impacted generations of Jackie’s family. Understanding difference would be to consider the transportation options available for Jackie and her family to the office of DSS.
It is not only okay to notice race, sexual orientation, physical capacity, language, etc. but it is important to do so. By doing so, you can truly meet a person where they are and honor their identities and experiences.
Noticing difference should lead to paying more attention rather than to making assumptions. If I notice English is not your first language, I can pay attention to whether how we talk is working for you. I should not assume that it isn’t. If I notice you are being harassed because of other’s ideas of gender and clothes, I can check in about whether you prefer me to step in. I should not assume that you need me. By choosing to see who you are and where you come from, I can form a deeper relationship with you in ways that are helpful to you.
Changing What We Think and Believe
Noticing and respecting difference impacts our internal processes. You may have been telling yourself for years that you don’t see difference. All those years you have still been consuming media where, according to a new report by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding,
“…perceived Muslim perpetrators of violence are subject to more severe legal charges, up to three times the prison sentence, and more than seven times the media coverage compared to non-Muslim perpetrators.”
My point is, while you are trying so hard to treat everyone the same, you are also being flooded with messaging telling you some people’s identities make them dangerous or less than you. It takes intentional work to recognize this kind of messaging and fight against its influence on you. Further, it will take time to push back against oppression-based bias in your thoughts and actions. It is impossible to do while pretending that you don’t see difference.
My challenge to you is to stop pretending. See difference. In the media and how stories are covered and told. In how people are treated in stores, coffee shops, and airports. In your reaction to individuals because of how they look. Don’t be afraid to ask yourself whether this or that is related to race. Many things are. Moreover, we can only work toward treating each other in ways that are just and culturally competent once we are willing to notice the connections between injustice and culture and identity.
CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.
CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.
CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.