by Alison Clougherty
From the Editor: I first saw this article in the summer edition of Future Reflections, a publication of the American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults. It is edited by the well-known author of many children’s books and a longtime leader in the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois, Deborah Kent-Stein. Here is how Debbie introduces this wonderful blog entry, which is also used here with permission:
On her blog, Seeing Things in a Different Way, Alison Clougherty has written a number of thoughtful posts about her journey as the parent of a blind child. This recent post is especially insightful today, as the nation reflects upon our history of racial division and injustice. You can follow Alison's blog at https://seeingthingsinadifferentway.com/2020/06/19/why-im-teaching-my-blind-child-not-to-be-color-blind/.
I have said many times to friends and family that I'm thankful that Finn can't see skin color and thus won't judge people based on color or other appearance-based information. I now know that it was both naïve and wrong for me to believe this was true.
Following George Floyd's murder and the ensuing protests over the past months, I've been doing a lot of research, reading, self-examination, and listening. One thing, among many, that has really been a lesson for me is that "not seeing color," something I've more than once been proud to claim, is not the goal in achieving racial equality. Rather, the Black community and other racial minority groups want badly to be seen. They want to be seen, they want their differences and struggles to be known, and they want to be treated fairly and equally. I now recognize that ignoring race only perpetuates systemic racial prejudices and the idea that being white means being normal.
This has been a real shift in perspective for me, and this shift in perspective has taught me that I need to adjust some of my parenting tactics. I work to teach Finn colors by saying "The grass is green" or "The sky is blue" so he can begin to understand that objects in the world have distinct differences beyond texture, taste, and sound. What he imagines green or blue to be in his mind is known only to himself, but I want him to be aware that the world is full of different colors and that diversity is a wonderful, beautiful thing. What I've failed to do is point out to him that people come in different colors, too. I've never once mentioned his skin color or anyone else's to him, and this was purposeful. I thought I was doing the right thing—that I was allowing him to view all people (or characters in the books we read) on an even playing field and to make his own judgments about them based only on their words, actions, or his interactions with them.
I no longer ascribe to the belief that being "color blind" is doing a favor to Finn or to those who may be treated unfairly due to the color of their skin. The reality is that we don't reside on an even playing field. Sooner or later my child, blind or not, is going to figure that out.
Recently a friend of mine told me that her ten-year-old daughter asked whether she would approve if she wanted to marry someone of a different skin color than her own someday. My friend replied, "Of course! As long as he/she treats you well, then you marry whomever you want!" My friend is one of the kindest, least racist people I know, yet her daughter still felt the need to ask that question. Why? Because my friend has remained mostly silent on the topic of race with her child, just as I have with mine, in an effort not to draw attention to race or make it an issue. Nevertheless, her daughter deduced somewhere along the way that an interracial relationship might not be acceptable. She didn't automatically know that her mother would approve.
This is the difference between being non-racist and anti-racist. We have to talk to our children about racism, and we have to tell them that we are against it in every way. We have to explain our role in not perpetuating it.
Luckily, my friend's daughter asked the question and didn't make her own assumptions. But many children won't ever ask. In the absence of direct conversation, our children are left to make their own assumptions or gather information from other sources that may not be aligned with the values we hope to instill in them. We have to open the conversation.
My blind son may not see differences with his eyes, but he will see them. He will learn them just as he learns everything else. In fact, in part of my research recently I discovered a study from 2015. The study found that, although it may take blind people longer to categorize people by race, they still often develop racial stereotypes.1 As he grows up, Finn is going to be out in the world, encountering new people and places beyond the small circle he lives in right now. He's going to learn about the world from many sources other than his family. I never want him to mistake my silence on the topic of race for underlying prejudice.
We can't protect our children from the prejudices that they will encounter, whether it be through classmates they meet, books they read, music they listen to, or television they watch. However, we can talk openly with them, make our beliefs known, and control the narrative as much as possible. It's on us as parents to make our children know from the start that there are differences of all kinds, that we see those differences, that we celebrate those differences, and that we do not support racism, sexism, ableism, or any other "isms" of any kind. Ignoring these topics does not make them go away. It does not make them a non-issue, and it does not serve those on the receiving end.
We have to tell them.
So how do we start? For us, it's starting with direct dialogue and representation in our home. Recently we started explaining to Finn what his skin is, that it has a color, that everyone has skin, but not everyone has the same skin color. We talk about the people in our lives who have different skin color than ours and how these differences make the world a better place. We also took stock of our children's book collection. Unsurprisingly, we realized that it is overwhelmingly representative of people who look like us. Immediately we ordered a collection of children's books reflecting races, histories, cultures, and skin colors other than our own to read to Finn and his sister.
My son has his own physical differences, and I want people to see him for exactly who he is—a sensitive, sweet, blind boy—while also treating him the same as they would treat a sensitive, sweet, sighted boy. I've never wanted his blindness to be ignored, unseen, or not talked about. In fact, I've often hoped that parents out there are reading books to their sighted children that include representations of little boys and girls holding canes or reading Braille. And I hope they are telling their children to be kind and fair and to listen to kids like Finn when they encounter them in the real world. Why didn't I realize sooner that the Black community would want the same?
Finn is not yet even three, and Sloane is not yet one. There is a limit to what they can understand right now, but this is only the beginning. We plan to teach our children not only about color differences, but about the different lived experiences (good and bad) that often come with them, just as we will teach Finn about his own differences. We will teach our children not just to be non-racists, but to be anti-racists. We will teach them that the word ally is a verb—with it there must come action, and silence is inaction. We will teach them to stand up and say something when they encounter injustices in the world. We will teach them that events such as the murder of George Floyd are not just single events where "one bad person did a bad thing." We will help them understand that institutional and systemic prejudices, alongside inequality of resources, lie at the root.
There is much more work to be done, definitely including my own, but this is a starting point for how we hope to move the needle with our children and make sure they don't go into the world color blind.
Below is a link to several books for young children to help start the discussion about race. I've also linked an article about how to choose the right anti-racist media for your children. Finally, I've linked an episode from a new series on Instagram called “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” that briefly addresses the issue of color blindness.