Colorism in Action

In my blog, I work to recognize what unconscious thoughts and behaviors I have that keep me from really “seeing” a person. I wonder, “What reactions to characteristics such as skin color, gender, culture, and religious affiliation, keep me from seeing a person with all her or his possibility?”  

Because it’s tough to get a cab at an airport for six people, my husband Cyril ordered a van to be waiting for us and our four kids in Mexico City. It was well after midnight when our plane arrived and because I was tired, I wasn’t thinking as much as simply noticing the different sights, smells and sounds around me. After going through customs, we went looking for our driver. When we found him, the first thing I noticed was his fair skin, light eyes, and mop of gray hair, unusual for a driver in Mexico. I felt comfortable with him.

It wasn’t until the next morning that I became more conscious of my reaction. I realized I had felt comfortable with him and didn’t even known the guy! I mentioned to Cyril that I had felt safe with this driver because he looked more like us.

Cyril told me that he had had the opposite reaction. He felt less trust when he saw the white driver. When I asked why, he told me it was because the driver “looked American.” I thought that was a strange reason-until I remembered Cyril had spent his formative years in Brazil and Holland, where he had developed very different concepts around skin color and nationality. In both our cases though, colorism impacted the way we viewed the driver.

Fortunately, we were alert enough to our immediate considerations that they didn’t keep us from getting to know our driver while we rode in his van. But I discovered that while I don’t have control over my initial reaction, I do have control over my next response. It’s in the second step where I have the power to choose my behavior. This is significant because folks in my cross-racial discussions are often worried that they can’t help being judgmental. And we can’t help it, because the brain is continuously and unconsciously monitoring if it’s safe or not. It’s in that second step though, where we have the opportunity to choose how we respond. That’s where our power lies.