3 reasons people get mad when you say “I don’t see race”

test for colorblindness

If you have used the phrase “I don’t see race!” on the internet, there is a good chance someone has either yelled at you or made fun of you. This might be confusing for you. Isn’t it a good thing? Doesn’t it mean that race doesn’t matter to you, and you treat everyone equally? Here you are, explaining to people how non-racist you are, and people bitch at you. What gives?

With racism being a big topic in the news lately, I’ve seen more people than usual online saying “I don’t see race!” and then getting confused and offended when the reaction is… well, less than congratulatory. It’s time to actually explain why people don’t hear “I don’t see race” as the sparkling attestation of open-mindedness that you intend it to be.

1. It sounds like you don’t see the impact of race on the world

The phrase “I don’t see race”, taken at face value, means more than just “I don’t use race as a factor when I judge people.” It implies you also don’t see the impact of race in the world around you. Saying you don’t “see race” can be interpreted to mean that you don’t see discrimination or racism when it happens. People get offended by that, because there are people in the world who are racist, even if you are not.

Middle eastern men with beards have trouble getting a cab in some cities, and many cab drivers even admit that they use race as a factor in deciding who to stop for. Research shows that people with Hispanic last names on their resume don’t get as many job interviews as equally-qualified people with non-Hispanic European last names. So if you tell your middle eastern friend “I don’t see race”, sounds like you are ignoring or denying a reality that he has to live with every day. If you tell Michael Gomez that you don’t see race, it could sound to him like you don’t acknowledge that his experience job-hunting might be different from yours. These are facts about the world that they live with every day, whether they want to or not, and it sounds like you are saying “I don’t see it!”

You might say: “Well, that’s not what I mean! I just mean that race doesn’t matter to me!”

That might very well be true. But the phrase “I don’t see race” is ambiguous in a way that “race doesn’t matter to me” is not. The phrase “I don’t see race” is a lot grander, and a lot more absolute. It sounds like you are claiming that you walk around in a world where you think race makes no difference.

2. Bad people say the same thing

Many of the people who say “I don’t see race” are actually very racist. In fact, these people often deliberately use the phrase to imply that racism doesn’t exist at all. Often it’s followed by something like, “….so black people need to just stop complaining.”

The most famous example of this is Bill O’Reilly, on Fox News.  He regularly gets on his television program and tells people that he couldn’t possibly be a racist because he doesn’t even see race. He thinks most people in America don’t see race, especially white people, which is why it’s ridiculous that those black people always complain about racism. He denies that race is ever a factor in police brutality, or that race is ever a factor in unequal prison sentences. Then he usually finishes up by saying that racial profiling is OK because black people really do commit more crimes than white people. Basically, Bill O’Reilly and others like him deliberately use the phrase “I don’t see race” in the way that you don’t mean it: to claim that racism just doesn’t exist and we should pretend that non-white people never face any kind of discrimination.

Maybe it’s not fair for people to judge you based on dumb stuff Bill O’Reilly has said. In an ideal world, people should try to understand your intentions and should judge your words based only on you. But in the real world, the phrase was popularized by a racist on Fox News, and is used loudly and often by racists who are trying to undermine honest conversation about racism in this country. Whether it’s fair or not, if you use the phrase “I don’t see race”, a lot of people out there will automatically associate you with those people.

3. Are you sure you’re so perfect?

Finally, let’s just admit it: It sounds a bit grand, doesn’t it? The words “I don’t see race” are lot stronger than “I think race shouldn’t matter” or “I don’t prejudge people.” Saying “I don’t see race” means that race has absolutely no effect at all, conscious or unconscious, on any of your thoughts or actions.

The claim “I don’t see race” is that you are so perfectly non-racist that you are like someone who is (literally) colorblind, except that race is the thing that you can’t distinguish rather than (literal) colors. Stephen Colbert has used the phrases “I don’t see color” and “I don’t see race” interchangeably when making fun of Bill O’Reilly and other conservative news pundits. If you are (literally) colorblind, it doesn’t mean that you simply don’t acknowledge color. It doesn’t mean that you don’t think color is important, or that you try to ignore color. Being colorblind means that the distinction between certain colors (such as red/green) has absolutely no conscious or unconscious impact on you in any way. It’s a physiological condition. It goes to the core of your being.

So when you say “I don’t see race,” you are saying that it is completely impossible for race to have even an unconscious influence on you. Which is a pretty strong statement, and is almost certainly wrong. Research has shown again and again and again that people’s minds can be unconsciously influenced by racial biases, even when they are consciously and specifically trying to be even-handed and ignore race.

This isn’t an accusation, by the way, and it isn’t something you need to “apologize for.” It’s just the way the human mind works. The human mind is rife with flaws and errors in judgment, and these show up in our unconscious reactions no matter how liberal or fair or anti-racist we consciously are. To talk as though it is impossible for you to have the same unconscious biases that every other human being has doesn’t sound open-minded; it only sounds like you have a profound lack of self-awareness.

So if you mean “I don’t judge people based on race,” then say that. If you mean “I think race is unimportant,” then say that. You might even want to admit that you (like every other human being on the planet) might unintentionally have a racially biased reaction to things, by saying “I try not to react to people based on race.” Believe it or not, people respect that. By admitting that even you might be biased without realizing it, despite your best intentions, you will convince people that you are open-minded much more quickly than you will by saying things like, “I don’t see race.”