I have heard people say that Barack Obama is the same as everyone else; that everyone should stop dwelling on his skin and focus on his brain, his competency or whatever. That is true to a great extent, but not really possible when it comes to the first of anything. If there had been other black presidents before him who stood a chance of winning, then Barack's colour would not be an issue. But he has created history as the first African American president. That fact should not be denied him in a superficial colour-blind approach, nor something that can be ignored or brushed aside, for the purposes of fake equality.
The question such 'colour blind' people should ask themselves is this: Would they ignore the president's gender too and pretend he isn't a man? Yet, both his colour and his gender make up his identity.
People generally find it hard to deal with difference because any kind of difference often appears threatening until it is understood, or there is some familiarity with it. So difference tends to be approached in 5 stages:
First: Fear of it and some tension (a desire to retreat from it or explore it)
Second: Interpreting it in known terms (i.e they are like us, so we are comfortable with that, hence colour-blindness)
Third: Acknowledging its value without sharing (no desire to ignore their identity, but a detached alignment)
Fourth: Understanding the difference and accepting it on its own terms
Fifth: Celebrating its presence and value (emulating that difference, respecting it fully, enjoying/adopting their cultural norms as on par with our own etc.)
The Power of Interaction
One cannot move from the first stage to the fifth in rapid succession because without understanding there is no alignment or acceptance. Transition takes quite a while, depending on the degree of interaction between the parties, the level of education between them and the level of fear involved. Where there is little interaction, like never coming in contact with someone black/white, and little education, the Fear stage will dominate for a very long time. The Third stage usually happens when people live as distant neighbours but don't really mix together, a kind of 'live and let live' approach, which is common in the UK. Very few people manage to reach the Fifth stage: accepting difference to the extent of celebrating it. Such people tend to be highly confident in themselves, secure in who they are and don't mind crossing cultural boundaries to appreciate the real people behind them and even to emulate them.
Thus the essence of diversity and equality is not the desire for sameness. It is actually acknowledging that difference, then moving away from any difference, once we feel comfortable and secure with it, to share the similarities. But that difference has to be positively acknowledged and respected first, not wished away as though it isn't a key part of that person. Racists merely see the differences, not the similarities. Yet we do not forget gender and pretend a person isn't male or female. We fully acknowledge their sex and move beyond it.
The clear stages in coping with difference means that one has to get over that fear BEFORE they can see the person as 'normal'. So there will be much focus on Barack's race until he is a 'fixture' in the post, then the focus will shift to other things. But we cannot hurry the interaction process because it is a perfectly natural human one of overcoming the difference first, to align it with our expectations, before we can see past it. Except where some people cannot cope with colour and then pretend it isn't there to make themselves feel comfortable!
However, I do agree that the president also deserves to be heard for his talent and not just noted for his colour because he is pretty inspiring. The key here is not to just emphasise one aspect of a person to the detriment of the other, nor to ignore the bits we can't cope with to show how 'fair' we are. That's a spurious form of equality which robs the person of their own identity. We need to appreciate everyone fully without denying them what they cherish.
©Elaine Sihera (Ms CYPRAH) 2012
Emotional Health and People Management Consultant
"Happiness is a state of being. We are the ones who decide whether we wish to be happy or not, by the script we use inside our heads.