ESSAY #7 – 10.7.21, POSTED 2.7.21

"When I See People, I Don't See Color"

Sometimes, people replace old myths with new myths, hoping it will improve our society. But often it has the opposite impact, creating more pain and separation. If the underlying belief structure of a new myth is the same as an old myth, can we really call that progress?

“When I See People, I Don’t See Color”“When I see people, I don’t see color.”

Sure, you don’t. In the words of my saintly mother, “In a pig’s snoot!”

Now, if you are not familiar with that phrase, it will help you to know that, in common vernacular, it could mean, “when pigs can fly.” (It might also interest you to know that my mother’s maiden name meant “pig keeper,” so the phrase may have been passed down through generations of swine specialists.)

We all see color, hair styles, clothing, body shapes, and many other distinguishing features of human beings. We are designed to unconsciously collect visual, auditory, and kinesthetic information—it is a natural process of the human perceiving system. And there is nothing wrong with seeing color—it may simply mean you are not dead.

“Oh,” you say, “that’s not what they mean by that. What they’re saying is that they don’t judge other people by the color of their skin.”

Well, that is a laudable intention, but it’s not true that they don’t judge people by the color of their skin. And their belief that they don’t sets up a whole new level of discrimination and judgment about other people and classes of people.

Creating a new level of bigotry

Let’s say I am telling a friend a story about my day, and I say, “I met with this Asian-American guy today and we were talking about—” And my friend interrupts me, saying, “Don’t say that! That’s racist. Why do you have to say anything about a person’s physical appearance?”

No, it is not racist to notice someone’s physical appearance and mention it in a conversation. It is human to collect information—some of it completely useless—and store it in our memory banks. It is also totally natural to remember that information at a later time, however inaccurate, and share it with another human being. I appreciate that those who think noticing physical traits is prejudicial are trying to create a world sans prejudice and bigotry. But it is entirely possible that what they are actually doing is creating a new, more sophisticated level of bigotry that they are unaware of. They are setting a standard of behavior, often promulgated by many, based on their idea of what is socially insensitive. And they equate their idea of social insensitivity with racism. Let’s take a look at some of the dynamics involved. When you hear either “Black” or “White,” for instance, as a descriptor for another person, your mind will automatically begin to retrieve some of the meanings you have associated with that descriptor. Some people think that ignoring what they have perceived (like a person’s skin color) will remove their tendency to respond according to their personal embedded (and often unconscious) meanings. But those automatic responses can’t be eliminated without the person first becoming aware of what those embedded meanings are, coming face-to-face with them, and disputing them in real time.

Embedded meanings

Now, think of when you first began to have meanings about people of other colors. If you really have the ability to recall those first learnings, you may find that they happened before you ever met someone of another color. They may have been embedded unintentionally by parents, family members, or a show on the embedding box that we call a TV. Yet they are there, and they impact your experiencing in life. When I was in grade school, every year I would pick a girl to have a crush on (don’t ask me why—that’s just how it happened). She, the object of my attraction, never knew about my crush, and I never told anyone, but I thought of that girl as my girlfriend for most of that school year. It was an annual event, and 60 years later, I might even be able to name each one for every grade. However, as all of this only took place in my head, I can’t recall any particular events associated with the selections. The only event I can remember is the one where the crush didn’t happen, couldn’t happen. It was first or second grade, and we were gathering in the school’s gym for an assembly. I was working my way down a row of seats, and a black girl was coming from the other direction. She would have been one of the two black girls in my grade. Our eyes met, she smiled, and I was smitten. She was the most beautiful being on the planet in that moment, and nearly became my “girlfriend” that year. We each continued to wherever we were going, and before I sat down, I was overtaken by sadness and the realization that it could never be.

Imagine that! It was sadly clear to me that my imaginary relationship couldn’t happen, and there was nothing I could do about it—it just wasn’t done. There was a meaning that was already embedded. I should mention that this was in the middle of the last century, and a lot has changed since then, both for me and the American society as a whole. It took me 25 years to work through that one, but I eventually did. The point is that we get ideas about people and life in very subtle ways, and we don’t get to choose where they come from. Those ideas are embedded, and they are recalled automatically when triggered by seeing some physically distinguishing feature of another person, like their color. If there is anything to do when one is triggered, it is only to notice what that embedded meaning is, especially if there is any fear connected to it. Then there is an opportunity to see it and dispute it.

The foundations for racism

Many of us see this as a time when we can create a truly just society where one’s appearance, color, race, and other visible characteristics have no impact on one’s opportunities or freedoms. Given that, it seems to me that creating a new standard for judging people as good or bad is a move in the wrong direction. The suggestion to stop seeing color is absurd, but the suggestion to see color with a different set of embedded meanings is reasonable. However, for any person to assume that their embedded meanings are more correct than those of others is arrogant and elitist, especially if they are looking down on those with different meanings.

It is not that those people who think they don’t see color don’t have healthy attitudes toward other races—it appears they do. The issue is that they are now engaging in the same process that Whites have used through the centuries to maintain their dominance over Blacks they are suggesting (and I think, believing) that they are right, and that people who don’t think like them are wrong. This attitude is dismissive and divisive, and it judges people using generalizations and characterizations that are not accurate.

That is the mental foundation for any good racist.


I want to tell you about my grandson, but I need to tell you about my daughter first, as she is a big part of the story.

When my former wife and I—a middle-class, mid-western, Catholic, white couple—were in our early twenties, we adopted five-year-old Myra from an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia. Myra was and still is an energetic ball of fire who listens only to her own counsel. She is four feet, eleven inches tall, weighs 90 pounds with wet hair and a towel, and is pure grit.

When she was 19, after 24 hours of labor, Myra gave birth to Milt. He arrived with beautiful brown skin, which suggested that the father (who was unknown to me) was either black or bi-racial. I was with Myra through the whole pregnancy and the birth, and after the somewhat insensitive attending nurse weighed Milt, I protectively snatched him away and handed him back to his mother. (Milt, by the way, has never understood why I did that, and thinks I should have just let the professionals do their job.)

Myra was the kind of mother who insisted that her child toe the line, and if he didn’t, she would “snatch him bald-headed” (scalp him). When Milt was in high school, Myra, then in her mid-thirties, joined the National Guard (another decision, like her pregnancy, presented to me after the fact). She was at Fort Lee in Virginia for extended training when she called me one day, telling me to pick up Milt because he was having some sort of crisis. I found him, and before I heard from his mother again, we had a little time to talk. He was having a teenage identity crisis, and he couldn’t understand why I even cared, as at that moment, he thought that a blood connection was all that mattered. He was crying because he felt lost, maybe like any teenager struggling with identity, or maybe because his biological origins were confusing to him. I was crying because he was in such pain and I couldn’t do anything about it.

As per my daughter’s instructions, I drove him the three-plus hours to the fort, near Petersburg. Myra was able to find 15 minutes to talk to him, and then we—he and I—got a motel room for the night. The next morning, we were able to see Myra just long enough to say goodbye, and Milt and I headed back home. The crisis was over. I don’t know what was said between them or that it made any difference. But that is what happened.

Milt was an excellent student, taking advanced high school courses and heading for college. But after he graduated, he told me he was going into the Marines. It wasn’t something he was just considering—it was a done deal. He ended up being the “iron man” in his 500-man training unit, and would have been top all around had he been able to shoot straight. He was assigned to Intelligence, and except when deployed on a ship, was stationed in Oahu for the rest of his five years. During his stint, he earned a few sergeant stripes, enrolled in a university, and gained a little worldly knowledge. After leaving the Marines, Milt graduated from college, earned a law degree, and then got an advanced degree in film.

Now when I see my grandson, I see a black man—a very fit, good-looking, wiry, black man. When we are together, there are just two guys—a grandpa and his grandson—and the love and mutual respect is palpable. I’ve loved that boy fiercely since I handed him to his mother in the delivery room 31 years ago.

So, why have I spent the long part of a short essay to tell you about Milt? Probably just to brag on him a little—you know, grandpa prerogative. But there is something else. Once, while driving from Connecticut (where he was going to law school) to Florida, with three other guys, he was pulled over. One of the guys was white, and Milt and the other two were bi-racial—otherwise known as black. While the three black guys were told to stand with legs spread, hands on top of the car, the white guy was just taken aside for a chat with one of the police officers. Usually, I would say that you shouldn’t make assumptions when you don’t know all sides of the story, but I am okay with any assumptions you might make about this particular situation.

Milt and I had lunch together recently, and we talked about things that were troubling him. He is still having identity problems—he’s not conservative enough for his lawyer friends and not liberal enough for his film friends, he doesn’t know whether he wants to be involved in law or film, and then there’s the racial thing. “It’s not that I have difficulty with anyone, and I don’t seem to get any negativity from white people, but more than once I have been told I am ‘not black enough.’” His skin color is about the same as Barak Obama, and evidently, that is not black enough (although it was black enough for the police).

Words that separate

Now, I know they weren’t talking about Milt’s skin color, but in the intellectual righteousness of a single mind or collection of minds, someone had developed a litmus test for “black enough” that was based on criteria only they could know. If we create criteria for what people should say or think, believe or value, how they look or walk, how they talk or express themselves, who they love or hang out with, what they see or how they see it—eventually we will be able to eliminate everyone from our personal affinity group but ourselves.

In the primary racial conflict that has existed in this country for the past 400 years, this process of elimination has been based on one simple factor—skin color. Doing it according to philosophy, education, or intellect doesn’t make it any better or less onerous. Any time you have separated yourself from anyone else based on a thought, belief, or idea that you think makes you superior, you are doing the same thing white people have done to people of many colors, for centuries. They just did it with a little less pretense. Looking down on others, for whatever reason, is just another form of that which provides the foundation for racism. If we are to achieve the promise of America, we can’t afford that.

Now, there are times when I want to take a branch off of an oak tree and use it to knock some sense into Milt’s head. He’s mighty bright and talks a mile a minute, but there are moments when I want him to just shut his meef and listen for thirty seconds. That day at lunch, though, I felt the pain of separation—not just his pain, but the pain—the pain we all feel, whether we are aware or not, when we separate and are separated from our own hearts and from other people.

I don’t know whether I provided consolation, but I gave Milt these words: “You don’t have to meet anyone else’s criteria for who you are supposed to be—not your friends’, not mine, and not even your mother’s. You will find it struggle enough in life to meet your own.” I said a little more, but that is for another day. The work we have to do together, the healing of this nation, isn’t served by new, “high-minded” ways to separate us. We first need to see how our new ways of judging each other are really reflections of previous models of bigotry.

Just give it some thought.