A Case for Color

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  --MLK When the Berrys get together, we often regale one another with tales of our best, and in special cases, legendary, family adventures. This past holiday season was no different. Some stories are just plain funny, a few involve trips to the ER, and others reflect the amusing experiences we had as a multiracial family living in Goshen during the 70s and 80s.

It was after my sister’s recounting of an incident in middle school that ended with her nearly decking a fellow classmate with her purse, however, that my mother shared a story I’d never heard before. It’s not the kind of anecdote that tops my sister’s but it’s still, to me, heartbreakingly sweet and sad: After coming home from nursery school one day, my 4-year-old self asked my mom, “Why am I the only brown one?” She couldn’t recall her response to me at the time but did mention to the school in question that in the future, they might want to consider ways to diversify.

My adult self fully appreciates the irony of this exchange. I can’t state with certainty what was going on in my mind at the time, but as a brown child speaking to my white mother, I must have known—or at the very least expected—that she would comprehend my question and why it was important. She was the logical person to reach out to for comfort. Regardless of the obvious differences between us, she, like my father, represented safety and security.

As a loose follow-up to my previous post, I’ve been thinking about the language we use to talk about color, whether in relationship to people, objects or environments. The term “colorblind” is problematic when used in reference to people, for example, because not seeing color is the equivalent of not seeing period. When I show my design students images and ask them to write about their observations, I fully expect them to comment on forms, type and color. How else will they learn to understand what they are looking at, or to recognize details and unique qualities of a given composition?

Most of us are decent human beings, offended by the suggestion that we would judge others based on appearance. In quickly brushing aside the notion that even the most progressive of us have prejudices to contend with, however, we sometimes deny the reality of color…as though it’s the kind of thing we can (and should) intellectually transcend. There are legitimate reasons why discussing “race” is awkward, especially for Americans. But in ignoring the obvious, we make it harder to speak to each other honestly; we end up discounting others’ experiences or downplaying the cultural significance that skin color carries with it.

Building relationships with other people of color is important to me as a way to establish a sense of normalcy. Still, as I previously argued, looking for validation in communities of people based solely on the things we have in common limits our ability to appreciate the diversity of human connections. At first glance, my mother and I couldn’t be more different. Yet, I am close to her in a way that I will never be with anyone else because she is truly able to see me, and vice versa.

I’ve shifted my thinking about the statement MLK made in reference to his children. He was not, as the general consensus seems to be, throwing color out of the window as though it didn't matter. He was advocating for a change in the way we assign meaning and value to what we see on the surface. Two things I know to be true: Color is everywhere, and it is beautiful. Happy MLK Day.