“I don’t see color.”
Have you heard this statement before?
When someone says these words, they usually mean that they view (and treat) everyone equally regardless of their race or ethnicity. And while I don’t doubt the sincerity and intentions of those who have spoken these words, as a person of color—I am African-American—I find the phrase to be problematic.
Allow me to illustrate why I feel this way with a personal experience.
At a recent Iowa-Missouri Camp Meeting, I was speaking with a member from one of the churches I was then pastoring. She expressed that she (and others) appreciated my ministry, which was encouraging to hear as a fairly new pastor. But as the conversation progressed, she shared something with me that I could not unhear: that a fellow member from the same church felt that my assignment to the district, as an African-American pastor, was conference leadership’s way of “punishing” them.
My jaw dropped.
It felt like the air had been sucked out of my chest. Her words stung. The reality that someone had made a judgment, based on the color of my skin, left me deeply hurt and disappointed.
And herein lies my issue with the statement.
Not only can saying “I don’t see color” be culturally insensitive and dismissive (because some of us are, and historically have been, seen and treated very differently on the basis of our color), but I believe it is also theologically inaccurate. In Galatians 3:26-28, Paul makes a powerful statement with which many of us are familiar. Writing to a culturally-diverse church that was struggling to understand how to relate to God’s law (and perhaps each other) in the context of their salvation, Paul said, “For you [Jews and Gentiles] are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Unfortunately, some have used this verse to justify their use of the phrase “I don’t see color.” But let’s not stretch the passage further than Paul intended. Paul was not saying that ethnic, socio-economic, or gender distinctions completely disappear in Christ. If this were true, Paul would not have had so much to say about how married couples, parents and children, masters and slaves, and other categories of people should treat one another (see Ephesians 5:22 – 6:9; Colossians 3:18 – 4:1; 1 Timothy 5:1 – 6:2). What Paul is saying, is that every other descriptor of our identity becomes surrendered to our identity in Christ. In other words, as a Christian I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus—then a husband, father, and pastor who is unapologetically African-American. My racial, social, and gender identities do not become irrelevant in Christ; rather, they become a lens through which I am able to understand, appreciate, and communicate His gospel.
Allow me to push this further: if God doesn’t see color, then why did He lead the prophet Jeremiah to raise the rhetorical question, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots?” (Jeremiah 13:23). If God doesn’t see color, then why did He reveal to John “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Revelation 7:9)? If God doesn’t see color, then why did He lead John to specifically say that the everlasting gospel would go to “to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people” (Revelation 14:6)?
Interestingly, the Greek word used for nation in Revelation 7:9 and 14:6 is ethnos, which is where we get the English word for ethnicity. In other words, God foresaw a time when people of every ethnicity, every people group, and yes, every color, would have an opportunity to hear, respond to, and experience the gospel in a way that is culturally relevant and meaningful to them.
Simply put, to ignore color is to ignore a piece of the incredible beauty and diversity expressed in God’s creation of humanity. The challenge, then, is not to downplay, dismiss, or ignore racial or ethnic differences but rather to embrace them in the shadow of the cross.
During this Black History Month, which takes place each February in the United States (and some other countries around the world), I believe we have an awesome opportunity to recognize, embrace, and even celebrate our racial and ethnic differences as never before. Perhaps God is calling us to honestly admit that, as a church, we have not always modeled what racial unity looks like on a corporate and institutional level. Perhaps God is calling us to repent for the times we have been less than understanding and compassionate toward one another—and to our Black brothers and sisters, in particular. Perhaps God is calling us to intentionally seek out those who look differently than we do, and to listen carefully and non-judgmentally to their stories and experiences. Perhaps God is calling us to a greater cultural and interpersonal awareness, so that we can model the ministry and unconditional love of Jesus to everyone with whom we come in contact.
Perhaps God is calling us, during this Black History Month, to be more intentional about seeing color. For when we see color, we see a small part of the character and creativity of God Himself.