Why we can no longer say we don't see colour
One of the reasons we don't talk more about race at work is that we have this very unhelpful phrase: "I don’t see colour." It’s a phrase we hear, and perhaps even say, often. For so many, it’s been an unquestioned belief.
It’s how many of my white friends feel. I've heard them say it. They want to believe that we are all equal, we are all one human race and that skin colour is irrelevant. It’s such a compelling ideal, one that fits neatly with our ideas of progress and modernisation. As a race, we should have advanced beyond such basic ideas of inequality based on skin colour.
I would say it might even be how some people of colour feel. I know there have been periods in my life when I have denied my own background because it didn’t fit with how I wanted to see myself; not feeling proud of my complicated heritage or feeling confused by being neither white nor black. I definitely know how it can feel easier to say colour doesn’t exist, which for a brown woman, means denying part of you.
Maybe it is better than only seeing colour. This is what we saw in the killing of George Floyd and the confidence of Amy Cooper and it’s shocking to us. Reducing someone down to only their skin colour with a whole bunch of (usually negative) assumptions that go with that. It feels wrong, arrogant and what we would call 'overt racism'.
And we should all check ourselves and notice that our black colleagues are not reeling with the same level of shock. Instead, we are more likely to see responses that remind us that the only new thing to them is that the world is finally paying more attention.
But not seeing colour at all is also wrong and racist.
It says there is one world view and it’s yours. It actually prevents diversity from existing and flourishing. It’s a breeding ground for ignorance, giving explicit permission to build a reality based on assumed similarities. It means we don’t have to ask questions. It may come from a well-intentioned place, but it’s a classic avoidance tactic. And it’s important to say that to have the choice to not see colour, is in itself a privilege.
If we don’t see colour, we don’t have to talk about it
We don’t have to really notice that there’s very little of it in our offices, especially the higher up we climb. And, more than that, we don’t have to feel bad that we don’t see more of it despite living in one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world (35% of Londoners are non-white). It helps to keep our myth of progress alive and unquestioned.
When we are forced to see it, we invent terms like BAME which put every one of colour into one group and become a way of talking about race without talking about race. It stops us from having a conversation about how different the experiences and needs of each of those groups are.
We don’t have to notice that some groups are better at playing the white work culture game than others and can find their way around the system with more ease and finesse. We don’t have to deal with the fact that people of colour may not want to play the white game but it’s the only way to make progress in work.
We don’t have to deal with the tricky dynamics of the intersectionality of race, class and gender, and what that can mean for access, opportunity and experience in our workplaces. We don’t have to acknowledge that racism is more prevalent for some groups over others. I know for sure that my own experience of racism is like a drop in the ocean compared to that of my black female friends.
With our BAME label, we can distance ourselves in our conversation about colour and talk about stats and objectives, which feels more comfortable than getting personal about real people and change. Not that the figures give us anything to feel good about.
Not seeing colour means that we never have conversations about what it means to be white. And right now, this is possibly the most important conversation to be had if we want this momentum for change to last beyond the next big news event.
When I read Mindful of Race last summer, I was blown away by the idea that Ruth King goes into organisations and runs groups on race with only white people, to talk about whiteness. In fact, she encourages them to continue to do it on their own, so they have a regular space to freely share and to get to really know what it means to be white. It’s been something we’ve been invited to do since the days of James Baldwin's inspiring talks, so perhaps we should get on with it.
Not seeing colour means we ignore that we are all a little bit racist
It’s OK. We all have biases. It is impossible to eradicate bias. We all can feel afraid or threatened by what we don’t know or don’t understand. In the words of Jane Elliott, the famous anti-racism teacher, ‘It’s not privilege, it’s ignorance.’
So, forgive me, but I’m not seeing how not seeing colour is helping us make any kind of progress. Because the reality is that we do see colour. And we must.
During this time for reflection, I invite us all to look inward. If you meditate, you’ll be familiar with the practice of witnessing, where you learn to be an observer to your own experience and notice what you see. It’s important at this moment not to rush to try and fix things, to find all the solutions. This is a time for proper understanding, not only of the experiences of others but, critically, of ourselves. In fact, it’s most vital that we don’t distract by looking outside. This journey needs to start with you.
If this is something that connects with you, and I am currently supporting people to find ways to talk about race at work. Irrespective of your skin colour if you feel ready to take an anti-racist stance but can't find the right words or actions, please reach out.
What change is possible when we start to truly see colour?