Seeing Color & What it Truly Means to be Offended
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
Earlier tonight I read a Twitter thread regarding the use of the phrase “I don’t see color.” and it made me think a good bit. Now if it’s not perfectly clear from my avatar, I am a person of color. I’m also a person who will readily tell you that the majority of the time I don’t see color when I interact with people. Part of this could be that courtesy of my autism I have less attachment or awareness of the emotional components of human society quite often. People are just people to me and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. I mean it in the sense that a person’s color,gender and even sexual orientation rarely affect my feelings toward them and that’s for better or worse. I understand on a basic level that the world and people around me will judge me based on color and other factors, but I don’t take that to an extreme where I become overly sensitive or take labels farther than they need to go.
I realize there are people that say that to cover something, which appeared to be the bias at work in the person’s tweet, as it was yet another jab at white male privilege. What puzzled me was that only one or two people interacting in the thread saw the meaning that the phrase can mean a person treats all people equally without putting weight on their more arbitrary traits. Putting conditions on things is a staple in our society, to the degree it can be dangerous and blinding in excess. The debate over this phrase made me wonder not just about double standards and biases but on a deeper level about what it really means to be offended by things we see and hear each day.
In any given debate there are many dueling things at work but at the root of it all is context. We live in a society that has a very skewed idea of context. I’ve discussed in a previous blog that words just mean what they mean, and not on a spiritual level, but on a dictionary level. It doesn’t negate that words can carry emotional meaning, but it means that many times we can let the emotional meaning overshadow what words actually mean. The skew comes in hot when we base our reactions on traits of the person using the words.
As an example, I recently discussed another hotbed case with a friend. The issue was a white professor using the N word in an academic light while discussing how the word was used in a book by a black author. He was chastised for the incident and whether that was because he was white could be purely up for debate. For the record, I think that’s exactly what happened. I’ve seen many African-Americans use the word casually with each other as if it was a term of endearment then turn around and be offended by the same word when a white person uses it. Has the word changed meaning? No, it hasn’t. It’s an offensive word regardless of what the color of the speaker’s skin is. But in a skewed context, the word was perceived to have a different meaning when used by a person with a certain skintone.
The bigger question you might have is whether that incident offended me. The answer is that it didn’t. I hate the N word as much as any other person of color but it didn’t offend me because I framed it in proper context. The word was being used because it was a study on the word. As a writer I have a healthy understanding of learning the roots and context of a word. I believe what happened was that the word was taken out of context and with a heavily emotional meaning instead of the intended one. It was a prime example of letting context, or lack thereof, lead to offense where there may not be cause for it.
Quite often when we “debate” in our society it can amount to a contest of black and white thinking. What I mean by this is that it’s more common for people to see the two most popular extremes but not the more objective grey option or even a merging of viewpoints. I’ve discussed in another past reflection how I felt about whether there is in fact a solid right or wrong in a situation and to sum that up, I don’t think there is. It’s not possible to be completely right or wrong in a disagreement. The more correct conclusion is that in most situations you’re a bit of both.
But what would really be up for debate is what it means to be offended. What causes us to become offended and what dictates how right it is to be in that state?
There are a lot of factors to consider here. The first part to remember is that we all have a right to our feelings. I’m not saying that just in the case of being offended but also in reference to the people saying or doing things we deem offensive. Let me repeat that for you. We ALL have a right to our feelings. Whether you are white,brown, red, yellow or polka dot you have a right to your opinions,thoughts and feelings. No trait,including race, makes you more or less worthy of that right.
The second most important thing to remember is that we’re all human. Regardless of your gender,race,sexuality,religion or whatever other label you want to include you are a human being and we all share in being human beings. I used the word being way too much, but I hope you get the point. You will always have at least one thing in common with every person you meet and that’s being human. Remember that and you might get that much closer to dialing down your asshole vibes. I don’t understand why people choose to segregate and classify each other all the time but I suspect it’s because we forget that we’re all human under the labels.
When I feel myself getting a little too close to climbing on a pedestal I try to mentally remind myself the person I’m interacting with is human just like me. I don’t focus on their color, genitalia or lifestyle choices. That’s how it should be. There’s a song that was made by Duran Duran called “People are People” and it has always carried a knowledge well beyond its years for me. It basically questions why people are assholes when we’re all just human beings trying to live life.
But that doesn’t answer the question posed,does it? We’re talking about the roots of being offended. I will be brutally honest with you. Being offended is a choice. Now don’t misinterpret that as me saying you don’t have a right to be offended or that I’m ignoring “systematic oppression”. I see you making that angry face and pecking keys at this very moment. I want to be very clear that the only thing I’m saying is what I’m saying and that is that getting offended by things is a choice. When we get offended by something it stems from interpretation. If you think I’m wrong, take a moment to disconnect from whatever hive mind you’re in at the moment and think about it. There’s a set of events that leads up to any reaction and regardless of how right or wrong our reactions are, they are a choice.
When we get offended we are choosing through our own unique set of criteria to disagree and take personal stake in something we’ve heard or seen. At the root of being offended, however, is the truly interesting part of human behavior. Human beings form opinions and each one of us does that in a unique way. The criteria we use to form opinions comes from a number of things but most prevalent when we discuss the feeling of offense is our biases. A bias can form in many ways such as from past experiences or personal experiences, but also from outside influences such as religion,education,social observation and the media. Our biases can even gain or lose significance based on the situation. But a bias can also be a blinder.
In the case of what we started with, think about that phrase about not seeing color. It was taken wrongly because a bias was present toward a white person using the phrase. Would it have been different if a person of color said it? Would it have been different if a poor and not a wealthy white person said it? Would it have been different if a woman and not a man said it? These are all things to consider when we think about getting offended. In my other example of the N word usage it is clearly apparent that there’s a bias because a white man and not a person of color used the word but as previously stated the word is offensive in both instances and the word never changes meaning.
The most dangerous thing about a bias is that it can catch like a fire or spread like a plague. It can also create a hive mind scenario or lend heavily to an “us vs. them” mentality. Bias is somewhat of an antichrist to things like unity and common sense but can also tamper with a true sense of clear and reasonable thought or being able to form a decent opinion. Having a bias present is primarily what creates offense, because offense can only really flourish when we can’t ground ourselves in rational thought. Having a bias isn’t the same thing as being prejudice but it can lead to developing a prejudice.
So at the end of the day, what causes us to be offended and is it right or wrong? Being offended is an emotional choice we make and in most cases it’s bad. You can be angry,upset and even resentful but still respect a person for the most part and be able to analyze a situation. However,if you find yourself being offended it could be a sign you’ve picked up a dangerous bias and may be a pot calling a kettle black. It’s important to remember that we all have commonalities in the things we say and do at times. With that fact comes the idea that we all have a right and tendency to screw up in our words or actions. We all have the ability to offend another person or persons at one time or another. The right to those actions and meaning of those words shouldn’t be judged by a label, but rather by the correct label-free context of the person they originated from. Think before you start throwing stones and think about how you’d want people to take your social vomit.
When we encounter offensive things in our world, or really just things in general, it can be important to take a step back and pause to look at it for what it is. It’s fine to contemplate and process, but not everything is worth going to war over and not every label we assign has a deep or hidden agenda tied to it. Sometimes things are what they are and words mean exactly what they actually mean. When we learn to think and discuss before condemning, it can give us a better overall picture of a situation.
The next time you feel offended, try a small exercise. Take out every label,understand the true meaning of every word and action and think about the actual context of the situation. As an example let’s summarize the tweet I mentioned.
A wealthy white man said “I don’t see color.”.
But what if it was more like….
wealthy white human said “I don’t see color.”.
See the difference there? A lot of situations aren’t nearly as close to the end of the world as you think when labels are removed. Take the time to strip the situation down to what it is and I guarantee you the world will get under your skin a lot less. You might even become more open to being able to see the other side of a situation more often and learn your perception isn’t quite as in the ballpark as you thought. Some things really are just simple mistakes or poorly chosen wording so don’t move right to labeling it as privilege,sexism,racism or some huge matter of systematic oppression. If it looks like a duck, don’t find reasons to see it as a goose. It might just really be a duck and reaching can sometimes make you look like just as much or more of a duck, if you get my drift.
You might still feel something and you may even still get offended briefly but odds are better that you’ll just be able to accept how you feel personally and move on without the weight of a blinding bias. Anytime we waste time and energy being angrier than we need to about something is unhealthy. Feel what you feel, understand the perspectives of both sides out of basic respect and move on with your life. Life is too short to waste it letting every single thing become a cause for a rally or a reason to shoot out an angry tweet we can’t revoke.
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