observations thought fodder

One Source of Our Blindess

Nonprofit With Balls” is a blog that’s all that and a bag of chips (with some unicorns thrown in for good measure). Its posts, written by Vu Le (pronounced “voo lay” – because I know how to read an About page), offer a typically irreverent, but uncomfortably honest look at the nonprofit world. Vu’s humor makes the uncomfieness easier to bear. (And, frankly, darn it, we do-gooders are not the dour types that we are often made out to be.)

In short, because the posts on “Nonprofit With Balls” are so funny and sharp, they get shared a lot. Yesterday’s post popped up in my Facebook timeline because a museum group shared it. Entitled “All right, “color-blind” colleagues, we need to have a talk,” the post discusses the habit among white people wherein we claim we don’t see color. Comedian Stephen Colbert used to say this on The Colbert Report and it’s a polite way of back-handedly dismissing people of color by claiming skin color and race don’t matter.

As I was reading Vu’s post, an insight about one source of this color-blindness crashed into me. (Vu makes reference to Kenny Loggins in his post; I just inadvertently referenced Dave Matthews Band with “crashed into me.” So, now we have dueling musicians! And if you haven’t read Vu’s post yet, hop to it. What I’ve got to say will wait ’til you’re finished.)

Before I launch into my insight, let me tell a little story.

I recently conducted a tour for elementary school kids at the museum where I work. It’s a tour about the logging industry, one I’ve given too many times to count. Sometimes the kids are lackadaisical and could care less what I have to say; sometimes they’re simply excited to be out of school and only half pay attention. When the kids are engaged and asking questions, that’s a dream tour, even if they ask questions wholly unrelated to the topic at hand. This was a dream tour. In this group, one boy had his hand raised for a few minutes before I had a chance to pause and take his question.

Here’s what he asked: “How old are you?”

The teacher reacted swiftly, saying in a stern voice that the question was inappropriate.

The question and reaction took me by surprise, such that I didn’t know how to respond and was silent through it.

Here’s the deal. I don’t mind having people ask my age. I tend to come across as younger than my years (thank you, Dad, for your genetics!), so I probably would have had the boy guess my age. But even if I looked my age or older, I’ve reached a point in my life where I am pleased to have been around this long and am proud to show it.

Previous generations haven’t necessarily felt this way. My dad’s mother, my Grandma Bea, habitually lied about her age, claiming she was younger than she was. When she died at age 70, my mom was shocked that this was her age, having been led to believe she was in her 60s.

So, the response from the teacher, that a kid asking an adult woman her age is impolite and inappropriate is a holdover from a time when you just didn’t do that because adult women were made to feel embarrassed about their age. (Have you read Vu’s post yet? He mentions age-blindness. Can you see where I’m going with this?)

These sorts of conversations have happened over and over between adults and children in white communities. I can only speak to white communities because I grew up and live in an area that is predominantly (over 90%) white. When a kid notices someone of a different color or who has a disability or is somehow different from the kid, the first reaction is for him or her to blurt out a comment noting the difference. And what do the mortified adults do? Shush the kids. Because we don’t want them to make a big deal about the difference; we don’t want the person to feel uncomfortable; and, most of all, WE don’t want to be embarrassed or have to have an awkward conversation.

As children, we are struck blind to diversity through such actions.

If you were to ask adults what they are thinking during these moments, they would say they are teaching kids manners, that such comments and questions are too personal for a kid to ask a stranger.

Yet, this doesn’t help us acknowledge the diversity that is all around us and the beauty that it brings.

(Have you ever noticed how often adults ask kids their ages? Not only are we making them blind to diversity, we’re making them operate under a double-standard.)

Instead of teaching kids color-blindness (and every other blindness) through these subtle (and not-so-subtle) rebukes, we need to find a different way to respond to their natural curiosity about the differences between people, while also teaching politeness.

Do I have an answer for how to do that? Not yet. I only just had this insight, so I haven’t had time to noodle around for solutions.

For the boy who asked how old I am, I don’t mind answering. I’ll be a half-century this year. (Apparently that’s old enough for an AARP membership.)

To Vu Le, thanks for your insightful blog posts (must be the magical unicorns, eh?).