When confronted with the country’s racial issues, many Americans will adopt positions of “color blindness.” The modern concept of color blindness finds its origin in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. The line is, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” White Americans seized this line and used it to promote a new solution to racial issues: refusing to see race at all. Dr. Robin DiAngelo, an academic and writer on critical discourse, expounds on this point:“The words were seen to provide a simple and immediate solution to racial tensions: pretend we don’t see race, and racism will end. Color blindness was now promoted as the remedy for racism, with white people insisting that they didn’t see race or, if they did, that it had no meaning to them.” DiAngelo goes on to share how far proponents of this view have taken the ideology. “A common response in the name of color blindness is to declare that an individual who says that race matters is the one who is racist. In other words, it is racist to acknowledge race.” (White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, p.41)
At the core of this ideology is the belief that if we pretend not to see race, racism doesn’t exist. It’s akin to a child who covers their eyes while playing hide and seek with a parent. As long as their eyes are covered, they believe, they have become invisible. In 1997, color-blind ideology was popularized once again by House Speaker Newt Gingrich in response to President Bill Clinton’s speech on race at the University of California -San Diego. In his speech, the president declared he would lead “the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation on race.” In opposition to the president, Gingrich responded that, “racism will not disappear by focusing on race.” Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, historian and author, comments the public's response, “This reaction to Clinton’s conversation synthesized into a newly popular term; color- blind” (Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, p. 467). In light of this reality, one should ask: “Did Dr. King really suggest that race should become something society pretends no longer exists?”
Dr. King’s Intent in His “I Have a Dream” Speech
Color-blindness is a reductionistic and over-simplification of Dr. King’s heart for social change. Most proponents of color-blind thinking forget that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech also rebuked America for her broken promise - that all men would be treated as equals and have their God-given rights protected.
In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, particularly for her citizens of color. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check -a check that has come back marked "insufficient funds.”
When Dr. King called for individuals to be judged by their character rather than their skin color, he was calling not for color blindness but equality. He wanted people of color to have access to the same privileges and power that white people enjoy.
Color blind ideology has shaped the perspectives of Christians and non-Christians alike. In fact, many white churches have trained their members to think in this way. This worldview, however, causes white people to ignore a part of a person of color’s identity that is precious to them. Because of historical oppression and contemporary discrimination, their racial identity has caused them hurt and suffering, and they often feel this pain on a daily basis. As pastor Daniel Hill writes in his book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White, “Color blindness minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage” (p. 41). To choose color blindness is to ignore the complexity of human experience produced by America’s racialized society. For the Christian, color-blind thinking not only impacts how we relate to and build relationships with brothers and sisters of color but impacts our relationship with God.
Three Ways Color Blind Thinking Tarnishes Our Relationship With God
In addition to the negative ways in which color blind thinking affects relationships among Christians of different cultures and ethnicities, it also has at least three negative impacts on how we understand and know God.
1. Color blindness changes how we read and understand Scripture.
When we approach the Bible with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality, especially when it comes to ethnicity and race, we miss significant theological truths. For example, color-blind readers will fail to see how the exodus of Israel in Exodus 12:37-39 is multi-ethnic in nature.
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd [emphasis added] also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, more had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Exodus 12:37-39 NRSV)
For our purposes, the important phrase is “a mixed crowd” (or “mixed multitude,” depending on the translation) - a clear documentation that non-Israelites took part in the Exodus. In his book From Every People and Nation, J. Daniel Hays writes about the significance of the Exodus and Passover’s diversity for God’s people then and today:
The Exodus is the paradigmatic picture of salvation in the Old Testament, and the Passover is the central ritual memorializing this critical event...Thus the Exodus event and the Passover celebration of Exodus 12 are highly significant theologically. The presence of other ‘peoples’ or ‘nationalities’ at this juncture of the story has strong implications as to the nature of ‘true Israel.’ (p.69)
Once we see ethnicity in the Exodus, we better understand how God’s plan for salvation has always been about bringing people from all tribes, tongues, and nations into the kingdom of God. The Bible discusses race on numerous occasions, each providing greater contextual and theological clarity to the reader. The Old Testament is full of such narratives, including the life of Joseph, a Jewish man who rose to power within a theologically and culturally different Egyptian culture. The story of Daniel is quite similar - with the difference being he rose to power in a Babylonian culture characterized by the same kind of socio-cultural diversity . God continues to raise up leaders in ethnically and culturally diverse contexts through the New Testament as well. In John 4, the Jewish Jesus crosses cultural lines to lovingly interact with the Samaritan woman at the well. The ethnic contexts of Acts 2, 6, and 13 are also great places to observe how ethnic contexts provide us with the theological clarity we need to grow in our understanding of God’s word.
2. Color blindness minimizes the finished work of Christ.
Professor George Yancey, professor of sociology and author, believes that color-blind thinking is insufficient because “it is built on individualistic ideas of sin. The Christian advocates of this model often do not address the structural aspects of racism...By doing so they ignore our society’s programs based on race,” he writes. “Sin is not only individualistic; a society can also suffer from structural sin.” (Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility, p.39)
Having an overly individualistic focus on racism hinders how we view Christ’s work on the cross. In God’s plan of salvation, there is a racial reality that all of us must face. It is because of the Cross that “you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:13 NIV). With the exception of ethnic Jews who have put their faith in Christ, “those who were far off” are the vast majority of us —Anglos, African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Middle Easterners, and every other non-Jewish people group. By seeing Gentiles brought into the family of God, we see God cares about all races. As God’s people, we have to care about what He cares about. It is only because of the cross of Christ that we have been brought into the family of God.
A deeper examination of the differences between individual and structural sin can be found in For the City’s article titled Individual vs. Corporate Sin.
3. Color blindness robs God of glory.
At the heart of color-blind thinking is an attempt to blind ourselves to God’s beautiful creativity. By adopting a color-blind ideology, we fail to properly acknowledge or rejoice in humankind’s diversity. In His providence and majesty, God made every man and woman to bear His image, giving each one their own unique traits and skin color yet equal in dignity to others.
LIVING LIFE IN TECHNICOLOR
As Christians, our identity in Christ supersedes our racial identities but does not eliminate them. Therefore, we are able to see the good in other ethnicities and cultures, recognize “different” doesn’t mean wrong or bad, and build transparent relationships with people of color. By gaining proximity to people and communities different than our own, we can build bridges between our group and others, tear down assumptions and stereotypes, and provide a glimpse of the perfect multi-ethnic kingdom of God to come.
An Introduction to Racial Justice and Reconciliation
The concept of race has played a major role in the shaping and history of the United States. Professor Drew G.I. Hart explains, “Though the concept of race may be arbitrary, but it is not meaningless. Race is strategic; race does ideological and political work.” As a result of this strategic...Learn More