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How saying ‘I don’t see color’ went from woke to whitewashing

“The terminology we learned to use to rebut what the previous generation had taught us is not working."

Howard Schultz. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Michael Nagle
Howard Schultz. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Michael NagleRead moreMichael Nagle

White people have told Kisha McKinney for years that she’s not like other black people — the way she talked or dressed or acted didn’t fit their stereotype.

It’s why she, like many other people of color, was particularly put off by statements this week by Howard Schultz, the former Starbucks CEO and a potential independent presidential candidate. Schultz was widely and swiftly criticized after he said during a CNN town hall event Tuesday that he doesn’t “see color."

Though the expression has been panned for years, McKinney said she doesn’t think some white people realize that it can be hurtful and even offensive.

“They think the statement is leveling the playing field, but to me it’s upholding these ideas of superiority," said McKinney, 45, of University City. “It’s really saying, ‘I don’t really see what makes you you.’”

Schultz used the expression in the context of a conversation about an incident that took place in a Philadelphia Starbucks last April, when two black men who didn’t purchase anything while waiting for a meeting were arrested after the white manager called police. The incident sparked national outrage after a video went viral.

“As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background, as a young boy in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy," Schultz, a Brooklyn, N.Y., native, said during the town hall, “and I honestly don’t see color now.”

Shortly after the televised event, CNN commentators wondered whether Schultz’s answer — in response to a question about racial profiling — was out of touch.

“We want you to see our color,” said CNN political commentator Bakari Sellers, who is black. “We want you to see the benefit of the diversity we bring to the table, all of our talents and richness of the culture that we represent. We don’t want you to whitewash that or eliminate the fact we do bring that to the table.”

The “color-blind” ideology and related expressions aren’t new, and neither is criticism of them. Locally, as early as 1998, former Philadelphia City Councilwoman Augusta Clark was vocal about the issue when she spoke to teachers in Camden.

“If you’re color-blind, and you don’t see color and you don’t see race,” she told them, “you’ll miss the problems that may arise, and your teaching won’t be as effective as it can be.”

The expression has been so widely mocked as denying the experiences of people of color that it was a running joke in pop culture. Comedian Stephen Colbert has long poked at the expression, saying once: “I’m not racist, I don’t even see race, not even my own.” On The Office, boss Michael Scott, portrayed by Steve Carell, once said he was “collar-blind” in the context of a conversation about blue- and white-collar workers.

>> READ MORE: Howard Schultz confronted by woman who shared viral Philadelphia Starbucks arrest video at Free Library event

Other public figures have taken heat more recently for using the phrase. Conservative political commentator Tomi Lahren, no stranger to controversy herself, insisted she doesn’t “see color” during a 2016 interview on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show With Trevor Noah during a conversation about how she’s repeatedly slammed movements such as Black Lives Matter.

“I don’t believe in that at all when people say that,” responded Noah, a South African of biracial ancestry. “There is nothing wrong with seeing color. It is how you treat color that is more important.”

Schultz’s assertion that he doesn’t “see color” also appears to not align with values espoused during anti-bias training that took place at Starbucks locations across the country after the Philadelphia incident last year. As reporters at CNN pointed out, being “color-blind” to race was rejected in training materials.

Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson also spoke against it in a video, saying, “Growing up, this term called color-blind described a learning behavior of pretending not to notice race. That doesn’t even make sense."

McKinney said she’s noticed an evolution over the years in terms of how other white people see the expression.

“There was a point in time, especially for whites, where they would see that as being a positive thing to say, or coming from a good place,” she said. “There’s definitely been more conversation around these topics over the years, and the last couple of years, people are having more of a reckoning.”

John Romano, 40, of Fairmount, is white and said he’s certain he used some version of the expression “I don’t see color” over the years, thinking it was the right thing to say. That was until he met his wife, who is black, in 2005, and then spent 13 years teaching at Girard College, where the vast majority of his students were black.

They told him of their experiences and now, he said, saying “I don’t see color” is akin to saying “I don’t see your identity.”

“My biggest thing that I’ve learned is that I need to sit back a bit, and try to listen and to be an ally the best way I know how,” he said. “This isn’t a white person saying, ‘This is how you should feel.’ This is a white guy saying, ‘I said the same thing 15 years ago, until I had to have a real eye-opening experience.’”

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School and author of the book The Condemnation of Blackness, said, "If we’re going to do something differently in the 21st century than what was done in the 20th century, it’s going to take a whole lot more white people in everyday experiences to be anti-racist and to stand up for racial justice.”

He pointed to Melissa DePino, a white woman who was present during the Starbucks incident and on Wednesday confronted Schultz during an event in Philadelphia, which led to him saying the manager who called police in April 2018 told Schultz she “probably” wouldn’t have done so if the men had been white.

“That’s what makes the critique of systemic racism so important," Muhammad said. “It’s not just what happens to black people, but what doesn’t happen to white people.”

In an interview Thursday, DePino, who shot the video of the April incident, said that “I don’t see color” is a common expression used by people “who don’t believe they hold racist views.”

"They don’t understand how embedded those views are,” she said. "If you can’t see color, you can’t be part of the solution, because you don’t understand what the problem is.”

>> READ MORE: An unlikely outcome of Starbucks: Kindred spirits and a social media campaign

Michelle Saahene, the black woman whose voice is heard on the viral video defending the two men, and who has formed with DePino an organization to oppose racism, said: “You can’t be an effective ally if you don’t see color.”

Muhammad added it’s critical to teach children from a young age to “make sense of skin color differences.”

Ellen Youssefian, a piano teacher living in South Jersey, is white and grew up in Southwest Philadelphia hearing her father’s mother, who was born in 1899, sometimes say derogatory things about black people. But her mother challenged what she and her siblings heard.

When they heard the negative language, Youssefian, who grew up Irish Catholic, said, her mother always said, “Love everyone. We’re all God’s children.”

When her two children, now in their 20s, were growing up, Youssefian, 60, said she and her husband taught them not to see race. Today, she’s rethinking that.

“The terminology we learned to use to rebut what the previous generation had taught us is not working," she said.

Her son and his wife now live in Point Breeze.

“They love Philadelphia," she said. “They love the different races, the different colors.”