Writer’s Note: Before we can go about the business of social change in our country, we need to know and accept fully that our American society is based on racism. Racist attitudes and actions by white people against Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous people continue to be systemic in every social structure, and every organization, governmental or private. Racism is present in the full light of day in the actions of many white citizens of our country. And, as much as we hate to admit it, racist thoughts lurk in the minds of the majority of every other white person in America, including myself. Although we know how difficult it will be to actively combat this racism, especially in our own minds, we must be diligent and vigilant. Our efforts will not be perfect. I/we will make mistakes. But, we must learn from those mistakes and then move forward again in faith that our efforts are just.
Race Relations and the Color Divide
About a decade ago, I began thinking of race from the point of view of an artist. Here’s why. Artists often compose with color in their work. They understand that white is a color just like every other color including every version of black, red, brown and yellow. As artists apply it, white isn’t invisible, it’s not a lack of color, it’s not a section in a composition that is unnoticed or forgotten. If we extend this thought, we also notice that, although white is not the same as the other colors, it is not any more or less valued in a composition. It shares in the development of the artwork, sometimes moving to the fore, sometimes into the background, sometimes absent altogether. “White” is not one color, it has many shades: ecru, off white, eggshell, bright white, etc.
Let’s agree that using white is a choice that an artist makes when, in their mind, the composition requires it. White, like any other color, can be symbolic in the hands of an artist. Like any other color, it can be used to convey meaning. But, using white in a composition can also be devoid of symbolism; political or religious opinions, or emotion. Because I’m an artist, I know that sometimes, the choice of using a color in a composition is completely devoid of any extraneous thought altogether. It may simply be a reaction to what I see in front of me or in my mind as being appropriate.
From those thoughts, I arrived at the phrase to describe a human as being, “a color other than white” instead of a “person of color.”
Thoughts of “the Other”
The reason that I have an issue with the phrase, “a person of color,” is that the phrase still reeks of division and the comparisons that have led us to the untenable situation we find ourselves in now. The phrase still perpetuates the concept of the “other.” Looking at and thinking of someone as the “other” is the slippery slope that allows us to add additional attributes to that “other.” Attributes such as, “they aren’t as smart as me, they aren’t as honest as me, they aren’t as successful as me, they don’t deserve to have what I have, I don’t need to respect them as much (or at all!) as people who look like me, they don’t share my values”, and on and on…. All of these false attributes that we stick on the “other” inevitably lead to, “I’m afraid of them.” Thinking of someone as the “other” also allows us to think of our fellow humans as beneath us. It allows us to devalue them. It allows us to not bother learning about them. Worst of all, it gives us an excuse to disrespect them.
A Chance for Change
The point of this phrase, “a color other than white” is to understand that although we may seem different in many ways from someone else, deep down we are all the same. I don’t mean just in our bodily structure and functions. I mean that we all need and want the same things. We want ourselves and our families to be safe which includes living in a safe place and the freedom to move about without fear. We want to feel happy most of the time. This includes being well-fed and in good health. We want the best for those around us including the best education possible and engaging, well-paid work that leaves us feeling good about our contributions.
Swapping out the phrase “a color other than white” for “a person of color” (You could also swap out the word “white” and use the word “brown,” or “black” for example.) does not mean everyone has to be the same. It means that we MUST respect each other and agree that everyone on the planet should have what they believe is the life they and their families deserve. We must see each other as more alike than different and respect the differences as being valuable and worth learning about. We must accept that our diversity adds wonder, completeness and depth to our human family.
But, since we are obviously not equal, and our society is not respectful, or offering the same opportunities to everyone, or truthfully coming to terms with itself, those of us who are privileged to have the freedom to pursue what others are denied, must actively work to lift up folks who are a color other than white. We need to bend thoughtfully, ardently and energetically to the work of making sure that EVERYONE shares equally in what WE have, to learn about their lives and above all, to extend the respect to them that every human deserves. Realizing that we humans are fundamentally the same, and therefore should be respected as equally valued, must be the foundation of our efforts.
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Mary Ruth, Owner of United Sewing and Design has over 30 years experience in the manufacturing of products by sewing and is author of “Industry Sewing Construction Methods” http://amzn.to/2yMxMmk. Her focus is on design, entrepreneurship; social enterprise; the connections between the environment, the apparel industry, and manufacturing; and how owners can leverage artistic methods to benefit their business.