What is wrong with saying, “We are all one race, the human race.”
and “I don’t see race”
As conversations about white supremacy are again coming up on a national level I think it is important to look at one of the ways we white people often try and bridge communication with people of color that does not work. Here is an example of how this “We are all one.” or “I don’t see race.” plays out. It is a just one example based on an actual experience and I think it gets to the heart of the matter.
A meeting is being held to plan resistance against the impending invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It is an excellent turnout of maybe 40 woman and men eager to work together locally to protest this war. The gathering is about 85% white. People are going around the room introducing themselves and sharing both their despair and anger over this looming war and also ideas for protesting it locally. The 5th woman to speak is an African American woman in her early 50‘s; she shares that she is glad to be here and her interest is on focusing efforts in the Black community especially around recruitment of African American youth into the armed services and also tying the war abroad to the racism and inequality at home.
The next person to speak is a white woman in her late 40’s. She states that it is important that we not separate ourselves by race. That we are all one race, we are all one family, the human family. That the powers that be want us to focus on our differences not how we are similar and especially as women and mothers we should come together in solidarity to stop this war. She further states that she does not even see a persons race when she looks at them, she sees only sees a human being.
The woman who had spoken just before her interjects at this point that she does not agree that we are all the same and she will not work with white people if that is their attitude towards race. The room erupts in emotion and tension as the white woman tries to defend her position and the black woman continues to argue that she is not comfortable with the assertion that we are all the same or that it is possible or necessary “to not see race.”
Various other people intervene some other white people trying to explain to the black woman what the white woman meant. The few Black people, Asian Americans and the one Native man present, heartily agree with the black woman as do a small number of white people. The black woman says directly to the white woman, “You know nothing about me and what I have been through and I don’t know you at all. For you to sit there and say we are all one is just total nonsense.”
The white woman begins to cry and says maybe she should leave. Some white people comfort her and insist they want her to stay. The rest of the meeting continues but the energy in the room is noticeably tense and the next meeting that takes place is half the size and easily 95% white and only one of the people of color present at the first meeting shows up.
Of course race is a politically constructed category. So truthfully we are all one race. So why was such a comment at this meeting so disruptive? I can think of several reasons.
1. The declaration “We are all one race.” is often used by white people to deny racism and the complexity of experience rather than to bring people together. Regardless of the intention of this white woman. Just because we are all one race does not mean we all share the same experiences with race, war, meetings to plan protests, living in the USA and so on.
2. When a white person says to a person of color that they do not see race it is an empty statement. Perhaps what we as white people are trying to express in that statement is that we do not see negative things about someone else based on race or that we are working hard to see passed the socialization of white supremacy which is positive. But as a comment it undercuts that effort by bringing up the history that white people never see our own race which is a big part of our problem when we want to deal with racism. Or ends up sounding more like, “I see you just as I would see a white person.” Which puts being white right back at the center as the norm. You can see or know someone’s “race” without it being racist. And to claim you don’t see race is to attempt to erase the reality of racism in our society.
3. There is often an assumption on our part that we are a blank slate to people of color. That a white woman would state “We are all one.” right after a black woman talked about racism does actually have a history for many, many people of color. That history includes dealing with racist people at meetings. Dealing with white people that are very happy to have a person of color at a given event but want to be reassured that the person of color is either “like them” or “likes them.” I am not being flippant about that what I am trying to get at is that most people of color have dealt with a lot of white people before you or I came along and some, maybe a lot, maybe most of those white people have been oblivious to the realities and complexities of racism, or oblivious to their own racism or flat our hostile and racist. Because of that history it can be tricky to walk into a room as a person of color to discuss protesting war or anything else with a bunch of white people you don’t know.
I have admittedly made some educated guesses as to why this comment was upsetting for the black woman and other folks in the room but I think it is important to make some educated guesses as to what prompted this white woman to say what she said. After the black woman had just laid out her interest in working around the issue of recruitment of black youth into the armed services and focusing on the connections of this racist war with racism at home to have a white person basically assert that race doesn’t matter, that we shouldn’t focus on race was a complete shut down of what this black woman was sharing. Why did this white woman feel the need to express that particular assertion at that time?
My guess? She felt left out of the black woman’s comments about focusing on the recruitment in her own community and bringing the issues of race home. Often white people want so desperately to be connected to people of color and yet we have no real vision for what that connection would look like. It feels good to have a meeting with people of color present that is focused on a seemingly clear cut issue of a imperialist, racist war our government is going to wage in a far away place. But when a person of color complicates that for us by bringing up the reality of racism at home which brings up the specter of racism in that room we panic, fearing we will be separated by this from people we desire to be in connection with. And so we fall back on the pathological behaviors of whiteness and try and negate that separation. Sadly we do this in ways that usually result in separating us from other people more. The black woman in her first comments did not say, I don’t want to work with white people, she said she was glad to be in this room. And yet the white woman after her I believe heard something else in the black woman's’ comments. Her desire to focus on the Black community made the white woman feel left out.
I know I can’t be a hundred percent certain about the twisted layers of experience that led one woman to say one thing but I am guessing from my own experience I am pretty close to the mark. Truly hell hath no fury like a white person when we are not at the center of something! And I am speaking from experience here as well.
What do you do as a white person when you are in a room and something like this happens? Provided you are not the white person making the comment. Hopefully having a more grounded idea around the problematic “We are all one.” or “I don’t see race.” can help you be clear and useful. You could assert that solidarity must come from an understanding how different people experience race. It is another opportunity to practice the act of challenging an assumption of another white person without playing good white, bad white. But sadly regardless of what you say these situations can ruin any potential coalitions that are just forming. When something like war or the recent events around the George Zimmerman trial comes up and there is a lot of energy to organize the fault lines in our own understanding of white supremacy really show. This is part of the vital ongoing work white people need to engage in.