Race-Colored Glasses

(November 2014)

Color blindness seems to run in my family.  My dad can't perceive many color differences, which has meant a lifetime of very safe wardrobe choices (and a few very unfortunate outfits).  I have recently been reminded of the obliviousness children have toward color differences, and their inability to perceive color gives me a lot more hope for the future.

Color Codes

Like all big American cities, Philadelphia struggles with diversity and how to realize the promise of each of its different communities.  Despite generations of hand-wringing about attitudes towards race and uneven progress, color, too often, remains the convenient lens through which we view the issues of the day.

In discussions of urban development, color is shorthand for the tensions that play out in changing neighborhoods.  As we approach the 2015 elections, the "racial math” of the mayor's race informs coverage and analysis from pundits and observers.  Far from color-blind, we remain color-obsessed, and while we aspire to judge others on the content of their character, we collectively see the shade of their skin first -- and often, sadly, foremost.

For the next generation, here’s hope that might not be the case.

Primary Colors

I took my eight-year old to a Flyers game earlier this season and as we snuggled into our seats, he asked me to be sure to tell him when his favorite Flyer, Wayne Simmonds, was on the ice.  That was understandable to me because we were sitting in the upper deck and with hockey's changes on the fly, players hop on and off the ice quickly with no stoppage or announcement.  What was a little puzzling to me is that of all the Flyers, Simmonds is a little easier to pick out -- he’s the only African-American skater on the team.  (Another African-American plays in goal and wears a full mask that covers his face.)  When Simmonds took the ice, I mentioned it to my son and he quickly shot back, "which one is he?"  I responded, "he's number 17," a little bemused that my son gave no thought to the one characteristic that seemed to set his favorite player apart.

I surprised my 12-year-old daughter, after one of her classes at the Philadelphia School for Circus Arts, with a trip to see the Universoul Circus, which was set up under a big-top tent in West Philadelphia.  The Universoul Circus features predominantly non-white performers and attracts predominantly non-white crowds.  Late in the show (and let me note that we have seen the Universoul Circus before), my daughter asked me if I had noticed that most of the acts featured African-Americans.  I responded that that was sort of Universoul's "thing" and added that I thought we might be among the only white people in the tent out of a few thousand.  Her eyes widened and she quickly looked around to confirm my statement.  I think that if I had said that the audience was full of visitors from another planet she could not have been more surprised.  Until I mentioned it (and presumably during previous visits to Universoul's shows) she took no notice.

Color Guard

It will be a good day, indeed, when people can be as color blind -- as color oblivious -- as my little hockey and circus fans.  Then, perhaps, we can see new neighbors as people and not threats to our community, and we can judge mayoral candidates, like hockey players and circus performers, on the content of their skills, experience, and performance instead of the color of the face on a campaign poster.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm certainly color-aware, but I aspire to do better.  It's much different than not caring about color or looking beyond race.  As my experience at the hockey arena and circus tent demonstrates, it's about seeing substance, not shades.  If the rest of us could get there, we could better take on the challenges of our city and our world.