The Illusion of Blindness
Once upon a time in America, the idea of colorblindness was thought to be an enlightened one. It referred to the belief that individuals and institutions would stop evaluating others on the basis of race. They would stop because, according the concept, they suddenly stopped seeing race at all. If I don’t see that you’re Black or Latino or Asian, how can I discriminate against you based on that factor?
The problem with that line of thinking is that it’s based on the idea that we can simply “turn off” our awareness of color. Oh wow, Rita, a minute ago I thought you were Latina, but now your race is invisible to me! Um, that doesn’t happen.
While many of us have opened our eyes to the fallacy of colorblindness, many of us, institutions included, have not. A recent article in Teaching Tolerance provided a classic example in which a teacher reassured an African American mother that the omission of African history from their curriculum was not based on prejudice. The teacher claimed that race isn’t even an issue and “We’re not talking about whether people are white or black.”
Well, why the heck not?!
We all, children included, see race. In fact, studies show that children as young as six months old are able to discriminate between people of various races (albeit, nonverbally). While they don’t yet have biases (which are formed by age three or four), they recognize that humans come in different shapes, sizes, and colors.
Colorblindness purports, with seeming great benevolence, to say that race isn’t important. But the fact is, race is important. And it’s actually a sign of privilege (often, white privilege) to say that it’s not. Ignoring race just makes the racism and prejudice go underground, and secrecy and subtly are not antidotes for bigotry.
You may have heard this all before – that we need to talk about race, bring it out into the open and recognize our own biases. You may believe that we need to create dialogue about it to truly do so. And you’d be right.
But what I don’t often see is the same idea applied to weight. While examples of weight bias are sometimes glaringly apparent, more often they are subtle and may even hidden behind the guise of weight-blindness. I have heard from numerous people that they simply “don’t see weight.” While I don’t think that this is relegated to people of a certain size, in my experience it’s always been thin individuals who have said this. This fact is what ties the idea, in my mind, so closely to the issue of colorblindness.
Thin individuals are privileged in our society. Period. And thus it’s easier for these individuals to claim that they don’t see a person’s size and that someone’s weight doesn’t matter at all. Because, more often than not, they are not the recipients of the direct attacks on self that larger individuals in our society are. Ask a fat person if they fail to see size in others, and I bet you’ll get a hearty laugh.
We do no one a service by claiming that we don’t see someone’s size. In fact, ignoring the issue only serves to enshroud it in more shame and, like racism, make the prejudice go underground. It’s hard to fight an underground battle, and in order to truly take down the stigma of weight, we have to be willing to acknowledge what we see.
This same concept applies to individuals who are of very low weights as well. I see firsthand the devastation that results when friends and family ignore an individual’s rapid weight loss for years. While the issues are admittedly complex, I wonder if we aren’t more hesitant to address eating disorders because they often deal with weight – an issue we’ve been told is not appropriate to talk about.
The bottom line is that “blindness” only leads us to flail around in the dark. To truly change our weight-focused world, we need to stop claiming that we don’t see each other.