July 21, 2019 | 83° F

SHAH: ‘Not seeing color’ is not helping society

Opinions Column: Wait, Was that Racist?

In 11th grade English, my teacher — an incredibly intelligent white woman, who seems like she has seen the entire world and then some — told us a story about the first time she had ever seen a black boy. She was 6 years old, walking hand-in-hand with her mother to the playground. Loudly and unashamed, she turned to her mom and questioned, “Mom, who made that boy chocolate?”

My teacher was raised in an almost entirely white suburb and rarely saw diversity, and even though she now lives in this world of political correctness, she still tells this story with joviality. As kids, we are allowed to observe the difference between black and white because it is obvious. Yet, when we grow up, we attach stigma to race simply by refusing to acknowledge it even exists, thinking that somehow by enacting colorblindness, we are all equal. Yet, in a world where all of us are so culturally and racially different, we need to redefine our basic expectations for fairness — and ultimately, success — as contingent upon our very differences. 

Colorblindness itself was not always a bad thing. In 1896, John Marshall Harlan used the term in his dissent in the controversial Plessy v. Ferguson case. In the 60s, Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis used it as a progressive mantra. But in the 70s and 80s, suddenly, the term “colorblindness” was misunderstood to push back against seemingly progressive stances like school integration and racial quotas. Now, it is used as a way to draw back regulations against the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and validate concepts behind the All Lives Matter movement. 

Colorblindness targets equality, when what we really need is equity.

In an article about her newly refocused teaching style in the modern classroom, teacher Amy Sun remarks, "Equality aims to promote fairness, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same help. Equity appears unfair, but it actively moves everyone closer to success by leveling the playing field.” Not everyone starts at the same place, and not everyone has the same needs: Some students may need different help to reach the same level of success as their peers. Essentially, equity is the first step on the road towards true equality.

This first step is achieved alongside acknowledging privilege. The tricky thing about privilege is that it is often hard to identify. None of us are Bill Gates or President Donald J. Trump, but even though we are not explicitly part of the top one percent, many of us still have privileges that others do not.

Over the summer, I tutored in Paterson. It was the first time I experienced a low-income neighborhood up close, and I was taken completely out of my comfort zone. Lily was 13 but read at a third-grade level. She could hold conversation about politics with me, but she could barely spell the word. It’s these privileges that we often take advantage of — privileges like a quality education and a safe home environment. If given simple privileges like a stable household and teachers who supported her, Lily could have unlimited potential. But she doesn’t.

We must start to support programs that inspire equity over just basic equality.

This comes in the form of policies like Affirmative Action, financial aid and other means-tested entitlements that give people of color and underprivileged communities access to resources that will help them overcome their circumstances to succeed. 

When it comes to race, ignoring our differences is easy. But it costs less to adopt a black baby. This past year, a Florida prosecutor charged 77 kids as adults: 65 of them black, and almost half under the age of 16. These are not coincidences, but if we pretend so, these statistics will become the norm. When we choose to ignore our differences by refusing to see race, we simply neglect the needs of historically disenfranchised groups. It’s time to start giving everyone the same opportunities to succeed, despite our differences. Only then will we truly become the land of the free, given the unalienable right to pursue happiness.

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School first-year, double majoring in finance and political science. Her column, “Wait, was that Racist?”, runs on alternate Fridays.

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Anjali Shah

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