Unfurling Blindness – Decoding the Politics of “Color-blindness”
Reading Time: 9 minutes
By: Iyabo Onipede – Confluence Daily is your daily news source for women in the know.
Let me state my intention clearly. When you read this article, I want you to be educated and empowered to be your best self. I believe in Truth with a capital “T.” This kind of Truth is healing and redemptive and not used to shame, exclude or denigrate any sacred mortal. Truth sheds light and gives solutions to problems. Truth is about growth.
With that in mind, I invite you to be a voyeur on my Facebook timeline and enter into a recent conversation. Please note, I have taken down this post off my Facebook wall. I want to protect the identities of those involved because it is not about the individual. It is about the communities and voices that each individual in this story represents.
I posted: (read the full article HERE.)
I got responses that reflected what I believed. On the surface, this stinks and did not feel right to me and those that responded. I am an African. I am highly interested in African art and those who curate it.
Then I got this response from a wonderful person that I know.
Please help me to understand this. Is this post an assumption that only black people are capable of being knowledgeable about African art? Wouldn’t that be stereotyping such a position? Perhaps the museum looked more at the qualifications of the people they hired rather than focusing on their superficial outward appearance. If these people do a lousy job, then criticize them for that. But to criticize their choice simply because their skin color doesn’t match what you think it should seems racist.
I love her!!!!! She actually engaged with me. I love that she asked for understanding and took the HUGE RISK to be vulnerable and put her question out there. What I especially enjoy is that I now have the opportunity to share and educate! Yasssss!!!
So, I replied:
Iyabo Onipede Thank you for responding. No, it is not an assumption that only black people are capable of being knowledgeable about African art. But you ask a good question. Let me take the time to explain it to you. You see, I am Nigerian. I was born and raised in Nigeria. My mother was a white American. She lived in Nigeria for umpteen years. But as a white woman in that context, there is no way she could ever know as much about Nigeria as I do and I promise you, she was extremely knowledgeable. Where she understood every third word of the language, I speak the language fluently. Where she could throw together a couple of meals, I cook like a local. There is a problem with white supremacy and white privilege where white people are the ones that are considered experts of everything including black culture when there are qualified black people that know about their culture and are equally, if not more educated and qualified than the white person for that job. You see I actually do not have a problem if they hired one white person, but two? You mean to tell me that there were no qualified people of color for this job? I am curious, yet respectful. How come that you did not see that as an issue? If you were a black curator, how would you feel if applied for this job and you discovered that two white people got the job? Would you feel that they were better candidates than you if your credentials were equal? You know, there are uber qualified black curators right?
I tried to explain what systemic racism looks like and the misinformation behind it by personalizing it to me. I tried to point out what was disruptive to my peace of mind and my sense of belonging. The institution hired two new curators for African Art and both are white Americans.
My new best friend responded:
Thanks for your response. I’m sure there are qualified black curators. But did they apply for this job? Maybe it’s a crappy job they didn’t want. Maybe these were the only people who applied. Maybe these people have devoted many years to studying African art and were the best qualified from among the candidates who did apply; I would hope that is the case here. Without knowing the full story of why these two were hired, it’s impossible to make a decision based solely on their physical appearance. I suppose I did not see this as an issue because I don’t look at people superficially. My choir director is a native of Africa…and she is a blue-eyed, blonde white woman. Do you know anything about where these people grew up? Perhaps they are African natives, as well. To make a judgment on their qualifications for the job based solely on their appearance is to make assumptions about them that may not be valid. And I view that as being just as racist as if someone assumed that a black person was not qualified for a job based solely on that person’s skin color. We will likely never know the full story, as no organization is going to discuss private HR issues with the public. But to me, judging someone by their skin color seems wrong.
This is a thinking woman. I love her arguments and how I have an awesome opportunity to see how she sees the world. This is thrilling. I know that many white people think like this and it is uber smart, isn’t it?
And I agree, judging someone by their skin color seems wrong. But we all do it. All day long.
I especially loved how she proved what she believed by justifying the hire and relating it to a personal experience she has had. That is good thinking, right?
Iyabo Onipede With the upmost respect and profound awareness of how blinding privilege is, I say to you “dear one, that is your privilege speaking.” I am judged every single day I have lived in America by my skin color. I read the bios of those two folks and they are not African. Like I said, one employee would not be an issue but hiring two of them begs further scrutiny.
I think I said what needed to be said without being offensive. I went back and read the article just so I did not miss anything. She had a good point: What if one of them was a white African? (Which may have its own issues, but ok).
One issue for me is this: It is so easy to say, “I don’t see skin color” and think that makes you such a saint, right? But here is the reality. When you say, “I don’t see skin color” you are telling me you do not see me. Can you imagine a man saying, “I don’t see women?” or “It does not matter to me if you are a man or a woman?” Well, it matters. You make me benign when you do not see the things that make me a unique full human.
Well, now a third person comes into the conversation. She is an African American woman. She is a diversity officer for a big-wig. She knows her stuff on this very subject.
I pray that I can be as gracious as you someday. It is so frustrating and demeaning to encounter people who are more willing to explain away the reality that you live than to listen or to even entertain the possibility that you’ve lived in your body long enough to have cause for concern. To not “see” color or to render it superficial is to consciously ignore the very real and dangerous ills of our society and the incredible ancestry of those their “blind” eye would rather not see. It is just exhausting.
I felt so tired and exhausted reading this. I can relate but I am not where she is as our experiences are different. She is an African American woman. I am an immigrant.
“Explain away the reality that you live!” Phew. That is a powerful statement. I wonder where we explain away the reality that others live?
I responded to her:
I know it is. However, I find myself in a liminal space and I am compelled to talk about this like this. I do not believe (theoretically) in shaming people as I have been shamed. I believe in civil discourse. I have come to the realization that I am a privileged immigrant myself and how could I have heard the words of someone telling me I am privileged? You do not have my permission to be as “gracious” as me because you were born into this and abused by it your whole life. I made a choice to come here because I did not understand what it would mean to me over the course of my life. I thought I would somehow be immune but I am not. It is exhausting. But I continue to believe in the power of communication for those of us who can still engage civilly. I am so grateful for you and I love your products so much! https://omgherbalbar.com/
Two more folks chimed in. One is an African man who recently came to this country, well into his adulthood, and was shocked to discover the visceral cellular reaction to racism that he personally experienced. He shares his African wisdom with us:
SMH…”There are things that can be seen only through the eyes that have cried”- African Proverb
Wow. What brilliance.
And this last person made it all worthwhile:
I find this explanation really insightful and helpful. It did seem odd that the only candidates they could find to fill this position would be white. Your explanation really gave me more insight and I appreciate it.
So, what does all this mean to you, Precious Reader?
- I hope if you are a person of color and you experienced any resonance with the divisive nature of the responses to the post, that you feel seen, heard and supported. For me, it felt like someone was complimenting me and stepping on my baby toe really, really hard!
- I hope that if you are not a person of color, that you read closely and carefully and find out where you find resonance in this story.
- If you resonate with my new BFF, are you open to the fact that you are just flat out wrong (LOL) and you are missing something?
- If you resonate with me, are you clear on understanding what the real issue is and are you willing to speak up in the various communities you are in when such things come up?
- If you resonate with no one in this story, do you wonder why?
Here are key takeaways that I want to share with you:
- The issue is not that these two wonderful curators got jobs. I want anyone in the art world to be hired and well paid for investing their careers in beauty and the expression of art. In fact, I think this is one of the most important jobs on the planet. Curators are important.
- The real issue is with the museum that hired these two white curators. This museum has a fundamental systemic problem. The institution is not committed to allowing the art to be curated by those that are qualified and are indigenous people, the original owners of the art, who have instinctive experience that is not translatable into language, degrees or external forms of validation. This translates into a governing belief that says, “I look at your qualifications and on paper, you are the best person to speak for ‘THOSE’ people.” This is what is called “Systemic Racism.” This act by this institution tells me that this is not an inclusive organization that prioritizes and values inclusion and justice.
- Pay attention to who is speaking and for whom. It is 2018. I can speak for myself. I, as an immigrant, do not need a white savior to be my mouthpiece. African Americans do not need a white savior to be their mouthpiece. Gay and transgendered people have the autonomy to speak for themselves and do not need me, or you, to be their mouthpiece. Our children recently showed us in this country that they do not even need adults to be their mouthpiece. Whose voice do you value? Can you only “hear” something if it is coming from someone who looks like you? How do you listen to difference?
- Not being my mouthpiece does not mean that you do not speak up when injustice violates my humanity. You must familiarize yourself with these issues and be willing, ready and able to address issues when they come up.
- Your job is to be an ally and align your beliefs, behaviors and communications with Truth (with a capital “T”) to promote justice and wholeness.
I hope this short lesson has unfurled some blindness for you.
By the way, I want you to think of the word “justice” as Love (with a capital “L”) in community.
Where is your Love showing up today?
Iyabo is a Leadership Development Coach whose work focuses on the soul of the leader. She moves leaders from thriving careers into discovering, crafting and living into their life work. By helping successful people integrate spirituality into their leadership roles, they become more engaged with their work, expand the connection of their work to social justice issues and experience more satisfaction in their life work. Using the power of narrative and reflection, she helps leaders fine tune the sacred “work their souls must have” (Alice Walker).
Iyabo is located in Atlanta, Georgia and graduated from Goucher College (B.A.), Georgetown University Law School (J.D.) and Candler School of Theology at Emory University (M.Div.).
Iyabo’s home on the web is at http://www.coachiyabo.com
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