Color Blind

Anecdotes from a Life Without Race

I grew up in a post-racial society. Okay, maybe that’s not quite possible. But it sure felt that way for the first fifteen years of my life in a generic East Coast suburb. Looking back, my youthful obliviousness to skin color was probably largely a product of how I was raised. My dad is German, my mom Filipino. Both are “American” in their values and viewpoints: freedom and equality, responsible voting, and pizza for dinner.

When it came time for schooling, the message was clear: Make judgments based on merit, value your education, and always reach for the top. Mom, the product of an all-girls school in the Philippines, wanted to send me to a similar institution stateside. Dad disagreed. “She needs to compete with everyone on equal footing.” he said. “If boys are supposedly better at math and science, she should be going to school with them.”

So, I went to the local public school, where it never occurred to me that there should be any fundamental difference in someone’s ability based upon their gender, race, or religion.

I progressed happily through elementary and middle school, enjoyed friendly academic competition with the boys, and hung out with a diverse (but mostly “white”) group of friends. Honestly — and you might say naively — I never thought that I looked different or out of place.

Inevitably, things began to happen that forced me to acknowledge others’ viewpoints on race.

In the later years of high school, I started to hear that “all the smart people are Asian or Jewish.” Obviously, I was only “smart” because I was “Asian.” After I got over my confusion, I was offended. My mom is no academic slouch — she has a Masters in Biology and an MBA from Harvard Business School. But my “white” dad was the one who spent elementary school summers reviewing material I’d see in classes next year, the one who signed off on my report cards and went to back-to-school nights to meet my teachers, the one who challenged me most to achieve academically (Incidentally, he also has a PhD in biology, likely making him the most over-educated stay-at-home dad ever). So, while my story did little to silence the stereotype, I at least remained sure that I did not fit into it.

Then, I experienced my first direct attack. While waiting for the buses to arrive with some friends after school, a group of four “Asian” girls approached.

“What are you?” one asked me.

The look of utter confusion on my face must have clued her in.

“What do your mom and dad look like?” she asked again, slowly, as if speaking to a child.

Oh, I thought. She wants to know about race. So I told her about my parents.

The girl looked me up and down, then straight in the eyes. I can still remember her expression of disgust when she spat out, “What was your mother thinking?” before turning and walking away.

After that, I started noticing things in the lunchroom. The girl, whom I assume in retrospect was herself Filipino (I can’t pick up the “racial” differences, to be quite honest), always ate with a group of similar-looking girls. There were other patches of color scattered throughout the room. But, there were also tables full of heterogeneous mixtures of people grouped according to other factors — the popular kids, the nerds, the swim team, etc.

It was high school, after all. Everyone was searching for an identity that conferred two things: a close group of friends to “fit in” with, and an aloof sense of exclusivity. My personal identity has never been tied in with race or gender, so it never occurred to me that someone else might find those factors important. Nonetheless, I was still part of a “group,” although not one defined by skin color.

Lately, I’ve wondered if this grouping means that we’ll always seek quick and dirty ways of sorting ourselves. Skin color and gender are usually obvious: You don’t even need to exchange words to put someone neatly into a box. But as society rejects these boxes, will it just create new ones? New stereotypes based on some other quality or quantity? Is prejudice in our DNA?

Though I wrestle with such questions today, I escaped my teenage years relatively unscathed. My color blinders are still in place, although I have to admit to twinges of fear whenever a group of high-school-aged “Asian” girls walks by. I do notice the signs of our preoccupation with race, though. The National Science Foundation collects “ethnicity” statistics, universities try to increase “diversity,” America flaunts its “black” president. It seems strange to me that we care so much about these insignificant details, when scientists have shown that race is nothing more than a socio-political concept, and that we have far more in common than we have dividing us.

This is the reason I have used quotation marks around my references to different ethnicities and skin colors: not because I wish to emphasize or draw attention to them, but because it reflects my belief that race a vague and very useless concept.

Consequently, it is my hope that more parents will raise their children the way mine raised me — to reach for the stars based on their brightness, not their color. To choose role models based on their success, not their race or gender. And to create a society that is truly post-racial in its color blindness.

Holly Moeller is a graduate student in the Joint Program in Biological Oceanography. She welcomes feedback at hollyvm@mit.edu.