Seeing Color

Recently I read these words from African-American theologian, Cornell West. “Martin Luther King, Jr., called us to be love-struck with each other, not colorblind toward each other.”

When I look at the back of my hand, I see skin that is a light brownish pink, with darker brown spots (because I’m getting old), and fairly thickly covered with black hair. On my face, there is a scar on my chin and a small one at the corner of my lower lip. A couple of teeth are chipped. My skin is starting to wrinkle and is beginning to sag under my chin. There are white hairs in my eyebrows.

All these details tell bits of a story that you could not begin to read if you were blind to the colors and contours of my face and hand. And the hidden face of my spirit is marked with signs of my experience that you would not know unless you spent time with me and began to learn my story.

So when I read or hear people claim that they “don’t see color” or that they are “colorblind” I wonder what they mean. Are they trying to avoid seeing the particularities of real people around them? Do they really mean that everyone looks the same to them?

We’re not the same. We’re each unique. And I cannot truly relate to you, deal with you, honor your existence if I can’t really¬†see you.

I wonder if the claim to be colorblind is an attempt to deny reality, to avoid seeing the often painful truth of the experience of others and the history we share. And I wonder if the defensiveness I hear in the use of that phrase, “colorblind,” comes from a fear of making mistakes. We’re all so afraid of making mistakes these days, afraid of asking questions and appearing ignorant; we’re so quick to judge. But we are, all of us, human, limited. We need to let down our guard and learn to accept ourselves and each other in all our imperfection.

I have to confess that my reaction to the terminology “people of color” is not positive. It seems like a term made up by “white” people and seems patronizing. We are all some color – many shades and hues. I’m a color – that light brownish pink I see when I look at my hand. In some ways, my skin color defines me – but not completely, just as your identity is partly defined by your color. We are all much more than color, but we are also each a particular color.

We need to truly see each other, and to understand that the history of the divisions, prejudices, and privileges that are part of our appearance and identity are complex. They are on our skin and they are in our spirits. We will never know or understand unless we can see each other truly.

The Only Thing That Matters

Long ago, in a class or workshop on spirituality somewhere that I’ve forgotten, I heard words I still remember, that ring true across the years. Someone quoted a saying from Saint Seraphim of Sarov, a Russian monk from the 18th Century. He is remembered as saying, “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”

From time to time, and especially in these contentious times, those words come back to me. I think of them in relation to the wisdom that the only person I can change is myself, and the odds of that are around 51-49.

And then there’s Jesus: “Take the log out of your own eye before you go looking for the speck in your neighbor’s eye.”

And then there’s Murray Bowen and Rabbi Edwin Friedman, who taught us about our place in the emotional system, where the only way one can have an effect on the system we are embedded in is to work on our own self-differentiation and emotional health.

So when I hear news of partisan bickering or Tweets from the President and I am tempted to criticize, correct, explain or weigh in on the issue, I stop and remember that it is just possible that I will only add to the noise and anxiety. Maybe if I respond with a peaceful spirit, listen, and approach others with compassion – maybe my own peace will be healing and bring a blessing. Maybe if I don’t react, I won’t add fuel to the fire.

I do not mean that I would hold myself aloof, but that I would engage with others with peace and compassion. It might be the only thing that matters, the only thing that helps.