If you enjoy the gift of sight, do you notice skin color? What does it mean to notice a feature? If you can see me and do not notice the scar on my lip or my the color of eyes, are you really looking at me? If you are sighted and yet do not see skin color, are you really seeing the full person? I notice skin color. I also realize that skin color does not tell me someone’s story.
Like eye color, baldness or hair color, height, and weight, and so many other physical features humans have, skin color tells us very little about a person. It does not tell me what brings someone joy or pain, where someone grew up or has traveled, the people, books, or films that have influenced someone’s life, or their beliefs and values. I cannot know much about a person by just looking. Yet, sometimes people make decisions about people simply based upon skin color.
Living with a lighter or darker skin color in the United States of America impacts life experiences, and sometimes people feel uncomfortable talking about it. My very light skin color impacts how people treat me, and usually I do not even realize it. It really did not become apparent in my life until my twenties. I see friends, colleagues, classmates, and clients treated differently based upon their skin color. No one ever told me that the only reason I got into law school was because of the color of my skin. Black students, with better test scores, heard that. No one ever assumed I was the client, rather than the attorney, because of my skin color. Black attorneys are some times questioned. No one ever said “I don’t rent to people like you” because of my skin color. I have talked to landlords refusing to rent to a black people. I have not been called racial slurs by neighbors. My black friends have faced harassment from their neighbors. When I go to a restaurant, staff look me in the eye. I have experienced restaurant staff talking to me, and not addressing the black person with me. I grew up in a house on land owned by my family for generations. My family was not prevented from owning land because of our skin color. While my grandparents farmed their own land, black people were prevented from owning land, and these practices continue today. Does unequal treatment happen in all times and places? No. How many times is it acceptable for someone to be treated with inequality?
Living life in a light-skinned body does not make me, or anyone with similar skin, bad or good. Likewise, living life in a darker-skinned body does not make someone good or bad. However, people receive different treatment. When I walk, drive, go to stores, restaurants, government buildings, and travel, people do not question someone with my skin color being there. Not being questioned allows me certain privileges that I do not ever really have to think about. I am glad I do think about it, although I am not always sure what to do with that awareness. As a lawyer, my role seemed clearer cut. I could point things out and ask for a remedy. As a mediator, I seek to understand each person’s experience. People usually need to feel seen and understood before seeing and understanding someone else.
What do you see when you look at someone? Are you willing to acknowledge what you see? Acknowledgment plays a key role in resolving conflict. How do you fix what you do not acknowledge?