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I once thought that only well-meaning white people tried to raise their children "colorblind." They want their kids to believe it's possible to not see race in order to treat everyone equally.
This is great in theory but has led to some headaches in race discussions. Someone who is "colorblind" is more likely to think racism is over, and therefore ignore people of color when they speak out about it.
But what would happen if a person of color was raised to be colorblind? Even now, I think the idea is totally silly, until I had a discussion with my mom, who said she raised me colorblind.
If you ask me, that plan backfired.
My mom didn't tell me what race I was growing up. In theory, I was just a girl and my race shouldn't define me — until it did.
In third grade, a boy told me, flat out, "You're black." I was confused and went home crying to my mom. I told her, "I'm not black. I'm brown." Like most kids, colors are closely related to what can be found in a crayon box, not the census. My mom was angry that this happened, but she kept avoiding talking about race.
Things like this never came up in the pop culture I consumed. I loved Lizzie McGuire. I looked up to Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and I wanted to sing like Britney Spears. What did all of these ladies have in common? They were white and blonde. I wanted to be just like them, and because I lived in a colorblind house, it was OK that I consumed white pop culture. I didn't feel pressured to have women of color as idols.
But then, my desire brewed self-hatred. I felt human and able to be desirable — until I looked at my reflection. I had darker skin and my hair was in braids to be kept neat. I learned to hate my hair because it wasn't silky and blonde like my favorite celebrities and characters. I also often heard my mom complain about how I didn't inherit her loose curls that hang down. Nope, I had coils that defied gravity and loved to tangle onto themselves.
I hated that my skin made me stand out. I knew not all kids in school were having this experience, so that must have meant something was wrong with me. I remember scrubbing my knees in the shower, hoping the darkness of my skin would rub off. I never reached my goal, and it left me feeling like a failure.
Being raised colorblind meant not talking about race until it was brought up to me. It also meant not knowing how to talk about it and the shame I felt. It wasn't until I was older, in middle school, that my mom's parenting style completely changed.
Race starting coming up often, and it was hard. I had loved wearing black and wanted to experiment with goth and punk styles. I remember wanting to dye my hair blue.
"Black girls don't do that," my mom would say. I had a relaxer so my hair was breaking off and my hairstyles were limited. I also wanted to match the white ideal of beauty of being thin. So much so that I had an eating disorder that was noticed yet ignored by my mother because, once again, "Black girls don't do that."
My race seeped into the pressure of getting good grades in school. I was told I had to work twice as hard because I was black, and that I could never relax if I wanted to make it in the real world. My lack of black culture was also questioned.
One day, my mom and her boyfriend asked me, point blank, "Nicole, why are all of your friends white?" It stopped me in tracks. How do you answer that? My school was relatively mixed with white students and minorities; there's an obvious choice happening.
"I don't know," I said. "They just seem to be the ones I have a lot in common with." That was enough for them, but even now, I struggle and wonder if that was totally true.
From middle to high school, most of my friends were white. They reflected the people I often watched on television who had full stories and were fully formed characters. I knew their references, and I was a nerd, so I ran in that crowd. But was the fact that all of my beloved television shows and movies showed black people a certain way making me subconsciously avoid them?
It wasn't until college that I started to really immerse myself in black culture. Perhaps it was because that's when my hair was burned off from a relaxer and I went natural. My race was even more unavoidable when I looked in the mirror. Maybe it was just part of growing up and finding my identity. I went to a predominantly white university, but black people had their own close-knit subculture that I actually felt more comfortable in.
I then started being more critical of media I took in and embraced more that reflected myself and other people of color. I continue this today, but I feel like I am making up for lost time. I can't help but wish I was on this path since day one.
My mom tried to raise me colorblind and failed. The goal was well-meaning and worked to a point. I do believe every person, no matter their color, should be treated equally. But to never acknowledge my color growing up in a racist society — it hurt me. I hated my skin and hair because white supremacy told me to do so. I surrounded myself with certain groups of people because I was ignorant of my own culture and perhaps didn't want to be defined by it.
I believe my mother did an amazing job raising me. But one thing she inadvertently taught me is that raising someone to be colorblind is only raising them to be blind — blind to the beauty of all of the different cultures in this world. Blind to the ugliness of racism that still makes that world an uneven playing field.