There’s a viral video by Prince Ea which has the tagline “I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White. These Labels were Made Up to Divide Us.” It’s a sentiment I’ve heard pretty often. While that often comes from benevolent intentions, it misses a necessary point.
Scientifically, there may not be much of a delineation between races, if any. And it’s absolutely true that none is innately more intelligent, capable, or worthy of being treated with dignity and afforded rights than another. But it sets us back to ignore the fact that our society continues to uphold a very Eurocentric, white supremacist standard, and that arguing that “whiteness” and “blackness” are just constructs doesn’t erase that from existence. The problem isn’t that we recognize aesthetic and cultural differences. The problem is that we place white culture and white aesthetics on a pedestal and set that as the standard by which all others are measured. When we decide not to see race, we also decide not to see racism. We decide not to see patterns of discrimination. After all, there’s no basis on which to call Jim Crow racist if we cannot acknowledge that it was white Americans oppressing black ones; if we just call it “people oppressing people.” Which it was, but to ignore the specific hierarchy is to dismiss the experiences of so many. Ignoring and denying a problem by saying its very definition is invalid doesn’t stop it from existing.
I have seen this manifest in several damaging, dismissive ways. When the Charleston church shooting occurred, there was a viral post featuring a newspaper headline with a hand blocking out the words “white” and “black,” so that it read “Man Shoots Up Church” instead of “White Man Shoots Up Black Church.” The meme said underneath, “The media is trying to divide us.” But to ignore the fact that this was a racially motivated hate crime is extremely harmful, and to say it has nothing to do with race is a lie. The shooter himself said it was racially motivated. Accepting that as truth isn’t “dividing” people; it’s being honest. He was the one trying to divide people by shooting up a black church.
This rhetoric is also damaging when used to reject “Black Lives Matter.” The blogger Onision recently tweeted, “Black Lives Matter--What the fuck is a ‘black life’??? Last time I checked, we’re all just people.” Obviously we’re all people, and the Black Lives Matter campaign has never denied this. What it highlights is the fact that people who are socially designated as black are all too often treated as though their lives don’t matter, and so taking pride in your black identity and proclaiming that your life matters is an act of empowerment. Essentially saying “Well, racism is your fault because you identify as black” is incredibly ignorant and callous.
Additionally, I’ve noticed that most of the people spreading the “We’re all one race, so stop labeling yourself white or black” message are white. This doesn’t seem coincidental. Us white people can afford to see ourselves as raceless and to disassociate ourselves from our ethnicity; others don’t have that luxury because of how others treat them. This includes some people of minority races who have internalized those attitudes, but that ultimately doesn’t benefit them. Also, a lot of white people will say “there are no races” and then go on to spread propaganda about white people being persecuted by minorities, with seemingly no awareness of the contradiction.
I’ve observed in my own life that whenever I’ve been “colorblind,” I’ve ended up inadvertently erasing people of color. This happens when I draw. This happens when I reblog photos on Tumblr. Unless I make a conscious effort to include people of color in the media I create and repost, they end up unrepresented. This is because I am not immune from subconscious racism, either. I’m not exempt from seeing white people as raceless default humans. This is why it’s necessary to be aware of this bias rather than deny and ignore it. We shouldn’t only be able to acknowledge that someone’s life matters when their non-white ethnicity is taken out of the equation.
The black feminist writer Audre Lorde once said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” This is a situation to which this definitely applies.