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I've seen a fair number of posts, before and during International Blog Against Racism Week, about the problem of colorblindness from privilege. It looks to me now like most of the problem is with the idea that colorblindness is a good thing that should be defended and encouraged, rather than with colorblindness, lack of perception, itself.

This has been a challenging issue for me, because I grew up colorblind among racists. When I was a teenager, my mother always asked me about the racial and religious distribution of the people I was spending time with. She didn't care if they were alcoholics or international weapons smugglers, or if they'd been accused of rape. She wanted me to be safe, and her standards for safety were all demographic. If I was in a group of kids that was more than 10% black, she thought that was too dangerous. When a bunch of girls would go out for pizza after soccer practice, I'd go home, and my mother would ask how many girls? How many of them were Jewish? How many were Black? How many Arabs? It was infuriating for both of us, because I honestly did not know. I could have told her their *names*, but I didn't know their demographic status. (There were a few kids I knew were Jewish, because they went to my synagogue, or I knew they used to go to the Jewish grammar school. But other than that, I was at a loss.) She thought I was just lying to her to be defiant. Some angry teenagers would lie to their parents about whether it was raining, just because they wanted to lie to their parents. I can relate to that, but I was not doing it then.

I did eventually start lying to my mother about the demographics of parties I was going to. Just because it was so much easier to lie to her than to tell her the truth and not be believed.

I'm not defending the practice of lying to her, or my inability to distinguish races. It took me decades to learn, and I still can't do it from photographs in the newspaper. (Not even color photographs.) I still remember the frustration I felt growing up in the Detroit area, learning to read newspapers and follow local politics when Coleman Young was mayor of Detroit. I could tell color was terribly important for determining political alliances, but I couldn't SEE it. At first, I only knew who was what color when someone mentioned it. Later, I learned to track secondary clues, like how others (who presumably could see color) responded.

A few days ago, I was on my way to a pharmaceutical trade show. There were crowds of people getting off the T at the convention center stop, some of them wearing convention name badges, so I followed the crowd over the bridge. There were signs in front of the convention center (the one next to the new Boskone hotel), but they were only pointing cars to parking lots. I realized on the bridge that I was walking in a crowd with different demographics than a technical conference--more women, more Blacks, fewer Asians. (An extrovert at the convention center entrance invited me to an Obama rally, and gave me directions to the right place, on the other side of the T stop.) So I have learned some ability to perceive races visually, just doing automatic pattern-matching, rather than struggling with individual clues. It's only 25 years late. And it is kind of useful, though not in the way my mother thought it would be.


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March 2016



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