A couple years ago, a white friend of mine told me that he thought his girlfriend and I would really get along. I’d never met her, but I did know that she was half Black, like me.
“Yeah, mixed girls are all the same, eh?” I responded.
“Listen, I don’t see colour,” he said, grinning. My eyes couldn’t roll further back into my head, the same response I usually have whenever I hear that tired old trope.
I’m half Jamaican and half Filipino, and it took me a long time to realize why being Black is a huge part of who I am. For a while, whenever my non-Black friends told me that they “didn’t see colour,” I was relieved. I already felt “too Asian” when I was around Black people and “too Black” around Asian people, so fitting in was far from easy. When people said they didn’t see any of that, it was freeing—until I realized that the conscious ignorance of other “colours” as an attempt not to sound racist, in fact is racist. It disregards all experiences that are unique to different cultures, and instead places everyone in the one racial group that’s apparently safe ground: white.
It had been a while since I thought about that encounter with my friend—but the same feeling of rage bubbled up again when I saw a screening of the highly anticipated film The Hate U Give.
The film, adapted from Angie Thomas’s bestselling novel of the same name, tells the story of Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg)—a 16-year-old who lives two different lives (or “versions,” as she calls them) between her poor, predominately Black neighbourhood and the affluent, mostly white prep school she attends. Caught between these two worlds, she tries to assimilate in both, but everything changes when her childhood friend Khalil, an unarmed Black teenager, is shot and killed by a white policeman right in front of her. This devastating crime forces Starr to question her identity, her place in society as a Black woman and her relationship with her white boyfriend Chris (KJ Apa)—creating the context for the scene that is still stuck in my mind.
During the rising racial tension, Chris tries to assure Starr that he doesn’t see her any differently because she is Black.
“I don’t see colour,” he says.
“If you don’t see colour, then you don’t see me,” Starr shoots back.
Colour me impressed because, before then, I’d never thought to respond like *that* to a saying that’s made me feel uncomfortable for years.
Claiming you don’t see colour erases racialized communities
In that scene, Chris was essentially telling Starr that her situation was not unique to Black people and that his white friends could have easily been murdered by the police in the same way. Not true. Full stop. While Chris and Starr attend the same school and are around the same age, they walk through the world differently. A university degree is practically written in Chris’s cards, but Starr’s friends are lucky if they make it out of high school alive. For Chris, having “the talk” with his parents meant learning about the birds and the bees, but for Black kids like Starr, “the talk” meant learning how to act when the police pull you over to avoid getting killed, as shown in the film’s opening scene.
Khalil’s death, though fictional, follows the same storyline of so many real-life tragedies. According a report by the Washington Post, police in America killed 19 unarmed Black men last year alone. Research published in leading British medical journal The Lancet further revealed that police brutality against Black Americans doesn’t just harm the victims, but also the mental health and well-being of Black communities at large. The night before The Hate U Give premiered at TIFF, an unarmed Black man was killed in his home by a white police officer, because she mistakenly went into the wrong apartment, thinking it was hers. (She has since been charged with manslaughter and fired.)
During the The Hate U Give‘s TIFF press conference, Stenberg addressed how claiming to be colour blind actually ignores racial oppression. “The notion that ‘I don’t see colour’ relies upon the idea that we live in a post-racial society. Which we don’t. And I think that’s indicative of a sort of privilege. If you are able to think of the world as existing as post-racial you’re obviously ignorant to the realities that Black people and Black communities are facing every day.”
To that end, acknowledging differences actually brings awareness to these issues. When people finally accept that colour blindness isn’t a thing, that’s when they can actually use their privilege to help those with less.
Now I realize that my Blackness is visible and important
Like the version of Starr at her prep school, as a kid I never wanted to stray too far from what was “normal” or even to accept that I was different, so I defaulted to an uncomplicated, neutral state that my friends described as “white washed.” I told people that my favourite foods were pizza and pasta—God forbid I mentioned anything from my parents’ cultures. By the eighth grade, I started straightening my naturally curly hair more often. I spoke politely and didn’t get involved in drama so no one had a reason to call me “ghetto.”
But all of this changed when I moved from the suburbs to Toronto for university, was exposed to *real* multiculturalism and had more Black and Asian friends. I realized people of colour, like me and Starr, don’t have the privilege of being colour blind. While I was in journalism school (2013 to 2017), I became increasingly aware of how white the industry still is, and that so many stories weren’t being told. Around the same time, tensions between Toronto Police and the city’s Black community were at an all-time high—innocent Black men were getting killed and in response, Toronto’s chapter of Black Lives Matter was protesting at police headquarters, but resolutions weren’t being made. As much as I wanted to fit in, I realized that I needed to make things better for all of us who don’t—and that required embracing where I come from.
So, when people like Chris or my friend attempt to turn a blind eye to POC identities, not only does it piss me off, it makes me feel inferior, as if my race is not a point of pride, but something to be overlooked. Lines like these only make people of colour feel more alone in our struggles. And that scene in The Hate U Give was the first time I’ve seen that play out realistically on screen. Starr’s response was real and raw—it felt like she represented what it’s really like to battle between trying to fit in while embracing your background. I’ll be using her response whenever someone tries to sell me that BS again.
The Hate U Give is probably the hardest I’ve ever cried while watching a film, but it wasn’t all sad tears. While I was emotional thinking about all the innocent Black lives we’ve lost, I was also filled with gratitude, because the large Toronto theatre was filled with all kinds of people who were actually getting to see real-life experiences that Black people face. They got to watch Blackness portrayed in power, not plight. And in that refreshing change, it allows us to *finally* be seen.
The Hate U Give opens for limited release on Oct. 5 and nationwide on Oct. 19, 2018.
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