Because of the Color of My Skin and Other Misunderstandings of Racism

By: Rhiannon Dickerson, Discourse Coordinator and Lecturer in Communication Studies

The other day I was going about my morning routine, making coffee and washing the dishes. I asked my Google mini to turn on National Public Radio (NPR).  Even though the technology makes me paranoid of the surveillance it brings, it’s also very convenient. Within seconds, I heard Scott Simon’s voice booming across the house. He introduced an author, Damon Young who said “the fact of the color of his skin has posed particular lifelong challenges, questions, and anxieties.” I’m sensitive to this particular framing—“the color of his skin posed challenges”—and in an immediate fury, told Google to stop playing NPR. The issue is not Scott Simon or even NPR, but the wider white liberal cultural landscape in which iterations of this same problematic framing are uttered every single day.

We’ve all heard it (and let’s face it, likely said it) before—“they only stopped him because he’s black” or “she was treated that way because of the color of her skin.” We offer up this interpretation of events as racial analysis, a demonstration of outrage and a display of understanding of racism. Of course, these statements do reveal much about the white construction of race, but they do not reflect the reality of racial interactions.

When we say that people of color are dehumanized because of their skin, we’re placing responsibility, or at the very least, the cause on blackness. One of the hallmarks of white racial identity is the lack of recognition of white racial identity. Most of the time, most white folks like myself experience race as something other people have something people of color experience and that we’re notably apart from. So when race is involved, it’s never our race. We can see this misunderstanding of race play out in those NPR moments. Whiteness is completely removed from these discussions. It’s obfuscated. Erased. Concealed. And so, rendered innocent by virtue of nonexistence.

The concept of anti-blackness is central in this exchange and in the construction of whiteness itself. Even in the moments when we white folks acknowledge racism, we’re still placing the responsibility on blackness. “The fact of the color of his skin has posed particular problems”—again, as though the root of those challenges was blackness.

Let’s be very clear: people of color are not targeted because of the color of their skin, but because of the race of the people who target them, because of whiteness, white culture, and white supremacy.

We know that language matters—that it can both reflect and form our understanding of the world. We must stop using language that places antiblackness and racism as a result of black and brown people. We should say instead, “He experienced problems his entire life as a result of the white race” or “white people and systems discriminated against him his entire life”. When we reposition the responsibility, we’ll have a better understanding of whiteness and people of color.