The first time that I became “conscious” of colour was probably at the age of ten or eleven. My parents wanted my brothers and I to excel outside of the classroom as well as in it, and so most of my afternoons as a child were spent engaging in sports, playing instruments and learning new languages. I swam for a local swim team, and I remember taking part in a gala against some of the other London clubs. The gala venue had stadium seating positioned behind the starting blocks. During the interim of my own races, I remember walking along the length of the pool, looking up at the faces of all of the other kids’ family members and seeing my parents stand out against a sea of beige. My thinking went as far as ‘hey, my parents really stand out’, but I didn’t really think too much of it beyond that. And I don’t think I really have since.
During her press rounds for 2013 film The Butler, Oprah gave the following account of her understanding of race in a November 2013 interview with LBC’s James O’Brien:
James: What about the riots after Dr. King was killed? How do you compute that as a little girl?
Oprah: I was aware of it [race] from a child’s point of view…not knowing, even. Because I was always in an integrated school, not feeling the brunt of, ‘wow, I’m lesser’, and ‘I’m not going to have the same opportunities as other people’… Because, fortunately for me, I was always the kid in class who was the first one with my hand up. Yeah, I was always the one that kind of annoyed everybody else. The first one with my hand up and the one who was, you know, favoured by the teachers and all that.
James: [But] you were conscious of colour, though…?
Oprah: [*coolly*] No, I was not.
I remember being a young girl in high school, hearing Jesse Jackson as an orator come to our school… and this really changed the way I saw my life. He said, ‘excellence is the best deterrent to racism; therefore be excellent. And excellence is the best deterrent to sexism; therefore be excellent. And excellence is the best deterrent to all the ‘isms’ that confront you in your life. Therefore be excellent, because when you’re excellent it’s really difficult for people to ignore you.
Is this childlike indifference the right attitude to have as an adult? Is there a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attitude to have when it comes to being aware of racial or gender difference? I have come across many a discussion which do a good job of disseminating the notion that it is impossible not to be conscious of difference (in many cases, of colour in particular). A statement from Sheryl Sandberg seems to concur with these discussions; in an interview with McKinsey & Company dated April 2013 Sandberg remembers how she "spent most of my career, including my time at McKinsey, never acknowledging that I was a woman. And, you know, fast forward—I’m 43 now—fitting in is not helping us." These accounts would always irk me, and I couldn't quite put my finger on why until now.
Sandberg argues that opening a general dialogue on inequality is more pressing than any individual's desire to overlook their difference. I agree with Sandberg on the importance of addressing an overarching problem, but I want to know how becoming conscious of difference can affect individuals themselves. Could a consciousness of one’s difference not also fuel an internal despair or anger towards the masses, such that the reason behind one's achievements shifts from their own merit to forced equal representation; receiving lazy customer services shifts from a lack of skill from the salesperson to deliberate discrimination; or the reason for being looked over for a promotion at work shifts from gaps in their own performance to automatic favour of the male colleague who got it instead?
I recently read an interesting observation on the perception of difference (race) which said: "...if [Obama] wins [the 2009 election], he will no longer be black, just as Oprah is no longer black, she's Oprah." And then I thought to myself, why can’t we all just imagine ourselves to have achieved that “just Oprah” status already? Oprah is “just Oprah” because her undeniable excellence and glowing career has largely acted as a deterrent to any racism that she may otherwise have encountered (but also because, in many ways, race is actually a social construct - but that's a different discussion). Her success has reached the levels described to her as a child by Jesse Jackson, with her sex and race now being irrelevant. If we re-consider Sandberg's observations on difference in the workplace then, would a "just Oprah" sense of self-belief not prompt more women to volunteer themselves for the larger and more challenging roles, and consequently increase the numbers of women in top positions from a meagre 14 percent to a more substantial figure? Change the mindset of enough individuals and you are sure, soon enough, to see a correlating change in the bigger picture.
In my opinion, each time a person notes their difference to the next person, they place an invisible barrier between themselves and the primary objective in that particular instance. The thought process becomes “there is one other black person at this Deutsche Bank assessment day so I might not get picked because they probably can't take both of us”. Or, “I want to get on to the Partner track at work but there are so few female Partners at this firm that it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll be properly considered.” Sometimes, it’s even “that tutor’s always giving me an A minus when I'm sure I should be getting an A plus. He’s definitely racist.” Wrong. While (unfortunately) some instances prove that there is validity in such perspectives, I still question why many people know nothing else but to surrender to these excuses and thus fall victim to their own self-fulfilling prophecies - not securing the graduate role, coveted work promotion or stellar grades. What about making the light of your greatness so bright that it outshines race or gender or sexuality or religion or disability? What about focusing more on how to achieve excellence and less on whether or not you adhere to the “standard” in any given situation? It’s so easy for me to type this, I know, but it's the truth. “Therefore, be excellent”, says Jesse Jackson. So be excellent.
Oprah didn’t see her difference as a person of colour because she didn’t see the benefit to herself in doing so. Sandberg doesn't see the benefit in not seeing her own difference as a woman. I think I’m with Oprah on this one.