Recent Independent News intern write a personal essay on Race and colorblindness
A Personal Essay: What a colorful world.
B y Samantha Sonderen
My best friend Alexis has never let me down. She’s just like me. We save the same country music stations in our presets. We share boy trouble, family trouble, ups and downs of all sorts. She wears her hair straight; so do I. We fit together like puzzle pieces, but one thing we will never share is skin color. She goes home to a black family, and I go home to a white one. I have friends that pretend to be colorblind in public, yet make black jokes privately, and I’ve been taught “everyone is your equal.”
So that’s what I attempted throughout my life. I never thought I paid attention to Alexis’ color. In fact, I thought she was a white girl just like me but in a black girl’s body. Until recently, I truly thought I was colorblind. One simple event blew my cover. As hard as I tried to ignore color, it’s there. I can’t wish it away.
I’m now 23 and experienced this mind-altering moment this year. Alexis and I were having a typical night on the town in St. Louis. Texas Roadhouse started the evening. We ate the same meal and planned to have a blast dancing later. We laughed like crazy, but that’s how it is for the Samantha/Alexis duo. We headed to the dance club where she introduced Angela—a new friend to me. I handed the doorman both of our driver’s licenses. Alexis claimed she was the white girl, and I was the black one. Everyone laughed, and that wasn’t the only time we joked about race. We danced away the night together—all three of us picking our next dance partners. Every guy we talked to was white.
Before the night ended, we stretched it with a trip to Denny’s. As we waited for dessert, we talked about men. Alexis mentioned that she wanted to find a good-looking white man to date. Then Angela said, “Normally when I see a black girl with a white guy, I get mad, like you’re taking all our men. But when I see Alexis with one, it just works.”
Her comment enraged me, but I held it in. I tried to ignore it but couldn’t stop thinking about it. Offended, I worried she’d hurt Alexis, too. How would she feel being labeled the exception to her race? Alexis laughed it off and told me later it hadn’t bothered her. A seemingly simple observation about race deeply affected me.
I thought, “Who’s Angela to say this?” I heard the comment as basically racist, making an exception for Alexis who wasn’t like other black girls. Her skin is still black. Her family is still black. She grew up learning about black culture. What makes her different? The more I thought about it, the more I recognized I could be racist, too. Angela’s comment was offensive, but I also had been thinking Alexis was an “exception.”
Growing up, I was surrounded by colors. I had a lot of black friends and saw myself as very accepting of people’s differences, but it didn’t occur to me until recently that I had been labeling based on color. In high school, most black girls were louder and more aggressive than white girls who sat quietly and gossiped at their lunch tables. Attitudes with teachers usually led to punishment that most white girls never saw. There clearly was a difference in behaviors, but why? As a middle-class white woman, I can only speculate but have no definite answers. Do my black peers still feel hurt by slavery? Are they angry at racism they encounter regularly? Could it be because their ancestors were forced to be submissive years ago? No amount of black history classes, books or stories have yet delivered the understanding that comes through experience. Never will I see the world through black eyes.
While I tried to think I was colorblind, I was associating actions with color. All the while, I’m thinking of Alexis as my white but black friend. I’m disappointed in myself for labeling based on actions, but the truth is that everyone has done it. Being colorblind is appealing, but it’s not an option. It’s never easy confronting a personal failure. Attempting to ignore color only made me realize that I was lying to myself. Labels are a part of life. Even Alexis labels. She has mentioned a dislike for some black men because they are angry, and maybe she knows why.
Alexis embraces her color but rejects the actions typically associated with it. Labeling is the one thing I didn’t know we shared. And though we have much in common, I will never be able to come up with a good answer when she asks me a race question. I will always fear sounding like a racist. We’re best friends, but there will always be a gap in how we see the world. I can talk to her like she’s white, but there are bound to be situations that make our black/white dynamic surface. We applied for an apartment, and the first question she asked was, “Do they like black people?” I’ll never know how to answer a question like that, but recognizing that it makes me uncomfortable is better than ignoring it or making something up to satisfy her.
Trying to be oblivious to color is not the answer. Acknowledging a difference might actually help people understand one another. Nothing can be answered if it’s not questioned. A colorblind approach won’t make racism disappear. Question the differences. Try to understand where people are coming from. Learning is what humans were designed to do. Compassion and empathy cannot be achieved without understanding someone’s situation. Everyone is his or her own person. No two act completely the same. Alexis and I are very similar, but she’s black, and I can’t ignore that. Yes, she acts like what some call “white,” but she’s not. She’s black and she’s my best friend, but she will never be my white best friend in a black girl’s body again.
(Samantha Sonderen is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. She’s a Florissant native and recently served an internship with the
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