Over the past two months, I’ve been in a state of heightened concern and vigilance as the United States witnessed another surge of attacks against Asians, first against the elderly and then on Asians of any age. Reports of the elderly being pushed to the ground or beaten in public spaces made me think of my parents and extended family.
I started taking walks wearing sunglasses and a face mask to hide most of my face and tucking my dark hair into a beanie. Yet mainstream media was mostly silent. The uproar remained largely within the Asian American community. We were angry and tired of being invisible.
Then the shooting in Atlanta took place, and eight people were killed — six of whom were Asian women. Overnight, media outlets exploded with debates about whether or not the attacks were racially motivated, about the fetishization of Asian women, a white man who had a “bad day” and stories of the lives taken too soon.
It was too much to take in. I feared for my loved ones, for my own safety, for the future of my young daughters growing up in a society that oversexualized people who looked like them. I wanted to be informed, but my visceral and emotional response forced me to ignore the news.
What I most wanted was to know that people in my social circles — non-Asian allies — were standing up for the AAPI community. I’m grateful for the few white friends who took the initiative to convey their love and support, while also admitting that they didn’t know what to say. But, for the most part, there was an overwhelming silence.
The Sunday following the shootings in Atlanta, a woman I had known for more than five years reached out to me and acknowledged the hurt and pain that the Asian community is experiencing. And then her next line shocked me: “All these years that I’ve known you, I never thought of you as being Asian. I just thought of you as being you.”
I knew that she had the best of intentions, that she meant my racial identity had no bearing on how she interacted with me. I almost let her comment go, but after decades of not speaking up, I could no longer be silent. I thanked her for acknowledging the hate crimes, and explained that the community we’d known each other in had never been one where racial identity was discussed or celebrated. And that was unfortunate. By ignoring or erasing such a significant piece of our identities, we were not celebrating our full selves or acknowledging the oppression and pain of specific racial communities.
Her comment was a prime example of racial color blindness, a perspective that often is used to demonstrate that someone isn’t racist, that they don’t see skin color. Color blindness used to be encouraged; I remember learning that lesson from my parents and believing this was an appropriate viewpoint.
However, I’ve learned that racial color blindness can be harmful, because it overlooks the reality that race not only shapes a person’s whole identity, it also impacts how someone is treated or perceived. A paper by the American Psychological Association explains that ignoring the existence of race harms people of color because it “(a.) falsely perpetuates the myth of equal access and opportunity, (b.) blames people of color for their lot in life, and (c.) allows whites to [live] their lives in ignorance, naivete and innocence.”
Color blindness ignores the fact that an individual is impacted by the experience of a larger community. Anyone not seeing my Chinese identity is ignoring that I am personally aggrieved, angered and frightened by the anti-Asian rhetoric and violence. Someone who is color blind — in the name of anti-racism — is missing out on the opportunity to be an ally to friends whose communities are hurting. And being color blind also means missing out on the gift of seeing people in our communities in their full and true beauty.
Resources about racial color blindness and discussing race and racism with children: