Being colour blind in the context of race, or anywhere else, is not something I would choose.
Colour vision deficiency – to give it its medical name – means that people find it hard to tell the difference between certain colours. In its most common ‘red-green’ form, this means that oranges, yellows, browns, reds and greens appear duller than they would to someone with normal vision; red is easily confused with black, purple becomes hard to distinguish.
Think about what that means for people’s experiences of life. Simple activities throw up challenges: picking out which clothes to wear, telling the difference between a ripe or unripe tomato, knowing whether meat is cooked through, identifying traffic light colours and making sense of devices with red/green/orange LED displays.
Think about school for children with colour blindness (often undiagnosed in the early years) where colours are used for learning; or encouraging a child to eat green vegetables when they all look brown. In more severe cases, certain career choices – becoming a pilot, electrician or train driver, for example – are harder, too.
Around three million people – mostly men and boys – live with some form of colour blindness in Britain. The majority of people are born with it and usually there is no treatment – people just have to find ways to adapt to the condition. Colour blindness impacts arguably our most important sense – sight. It limits what we see in the colours of nature and the world around us.
So why would we want to be colour blind when it comes to race?
When I hear people claim not to see a person’s colour, I question how that can be true. And then I question why someone would make that claim.
It might seem like a progressive, liberal view – one that exists a world where we’ve moved beyond the debate about race, where people just see people. But we don’t live in that world – I know that from seeing the experiences of my wife and my four mixed-race children growing up.
Instead, claiming to be colour blind shuts down the discussion. It silences people of colour from articulating their experiences and provides a shortcut to avoid a conversation that many people still find uncomfortable.
Far from being a positive, supportive sentiment, it reveals the (conscious or subconscious) prejudices that make people not want to talk about race in the first place. As a consequence, it blocks attempts to build a better understanding of race and ethnicity, which is the first step in tackling the systemic inequalities that persist in our profession and many others like it.
In journalist Reni Eddo-Lodge’s words: “Not seeing race does little to deconstruct racist structures or materially improve the conditions which people of colour are subject to daily.”
When you think about it, it really says to a person of colour that it’s not ok to be different – it’s not ok to take pride in being black. That essentially implies a need for assimilation.
In the context of Black History Month, it must also mean that we can’t celebrate the huge amount of black British culture around us. Do we really want to live in a society where we don’t appreciate the heritage and influences in the art, music, film, theatre, writing – everything that people of colour contribute to Britain – because we don’t acknowledge different races and ethnicities? Our heritage is surely a hugely important part of all of us.
I know some people dismiss these arguments as another example of political correctness. But look at the anti-racism demonstrations that have spread across the country this year, listen to people’s real experiences and fears and it becomes clear, I hope, that this is not about ‘wokeness’ or ‘cancel culture’. It is about understanding those different experiences and treating people with humanity and respect.
Black History Month is also, of course, about history – understanding the story of race in Britain, both in the distant and recent past. Large chunks of this, as historian David Olusoga writes, have been wilfully forgotten. Most of us know about the civil rights movement in America – we know about Martin Luther King Jr and Rosa Parks – but we don’t know about black British history. This creates a sense that we don’t have the same problem with racism here and therefore should stop talking about it. But we can’t move forwards unless we understand the past.
So while there is no cure for the medical condition that causes people to see the world with less colour, when it comes to race we have a choice. Each of us as individuals can choose to ignore colour – to avoid conversations and stifle understanding – or we can choose both to see and celebrate our differences. In my experience, it is seeing and listening that drives us to act.
Paul Flanagan is a partner with Allen & Overy and co-chair of the firm’s Race and Ethnicity network in London.