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How I became colour-blind

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IMAGINE that Satan shows you a crowd. Each person in it represents a different race. Satan then says he will force them to march, one by one, over a cliff until he decides they should stop, after which those left alive will be allowed to go free. There’s one twist. You have to organise the queue.  

Although you might prefer not to believe it, I have no doubt that you would find an order to put those people in.  

Of course, we all have preferences and dislikes about everything and everyone and about every quality that is susceptible to taste. Race is just another attribute, about which it is impossible not to make distinctions.  

When I go on holiday, I might prefer Dorset, whereas you might prefer Pembrokeshire. And who is qualified – much less, entitled – to judge between them? In the same way, whether we care to admit it or not, we do like some races better than others.  

I might prefer Italians over Spaniards, whereas you might have the opposite view. Without doubt, it’s all a bit of a low-resolution reaction to the world that surrounds us, but there it is, as indefatigable as the weather.  

I am a little bit racially prejudiced and so are you. We all are. But how much is ‘a little bit’?  Here’s a true story that might be useful in answering that question.  

Many years ago, I enrolled on a night-school course to improve my fading powers of conversation in German. I enjoyed the classes, not least because the college where they were held had a cosy little bar where I used to drink a half of lager in the company of a young woman called Sharon, during our 15-minute break from incorrectly conjugating German verbs in the subjunctive mood.  

Sharon and I were always left to enjoy our drinks alone together. We were noticeably younger than the other Conversational German class students and they never seemed to want a break-time beer.  

In a very short time, I became smitten with Sharon. It was the sort of smiting that makes you stare into space when you are at work; that makes you not realise that other people are trying to talk to you.  

I felt sure that Sharon felt the same way about me, though nothing was said. We were in that ‘should I take a risk?’ period that all romances go through before they start – but ours would never start.  

It couldn’t start because I already had a girlfriend and I was too dishonest and too lacking in moral courage to face telling her that I had found someone else. So I just stopped going to night school and threw away a real chance of happiness with a beautiful young woman.  

Sharon did ring me to ask why I had stopped coming to class, but I put her off with lies. It’s a tale that’s much more common than you might think. What really threw me about the whole experience, however, was that Sharon was black. And I’m not.  

Of course, I had always recognised that I had preferences when it came to being attracted to girls. Their hair colour, their facial structure and their voice were all important to me.  

One of these preferences led me to believe that I would never find a black girl attractive. I could see that many of them were beautiful, but they weren’t for me. They didn’t turn me on.  

I had puzzled about that, because it was a curiosity to me, and I had attributed my feelings to inbuilt prejudice. I felt a little ashamed about that, so I decided to conceal it by avoiding talking about it.  

But now Sharon had made me realise that my ordinary, everyday assumptions about what I would or wouldn’t like could be overcome by ordinary, everyday experience.  

Not that I went through an epiphany. I still didn’t find black girls, in general, attractive. I hadn’t suddenly become racially colour blind. It was simply that one individual had shown me ordinary, everyday qualities that proved far stronger than one of my assumptions about race and skin colour.  

That’s how I now understand race. And gender. And political views. And age. I still have background assumptions about what I will like and what I will not like, but I now know that they are insignificant compared with personal interactions.  

As Martin Luther King trumpeted to us all those years ago in Washington, ‘content of character’ really is more important than ‘colour of skin’.  

So, where has this left me? Since meeting Sharon, have I lived my life with a pure heart and an open mind? Do I never judge a book by its cover; always seeing beyond appearances?  

Far from it. I still instinctively prefer young over old, blonde over brunette, thin over fat, white over black; but I now expect to be surprised.  

The beautiful young blonde woman might turn out to be a psychopath. The old black man might turn out to be a fountain of wisdom. His qualities might make me rejoice in the pleasure of his company whilst I might look to escape hers with the first lame excuse I can muster.  

But it’s OK – and still would be even if it were the other way around – a young blonde genius and an old black murderer. After all, in reality, all of those permutations – and many more – exist. Once you realise that, then you realise that your prejudices don’t matter.  

More importantly, there is nothing wrong with them. In a country where racial equality before the law is guaranteed and where racial equality is guaranteed in every situation imaginable, then beyond the confines of the minds of the intellectually perverse, ‘racism’ simply does not matter.  

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Nigel Drake
Nigel Drake is 64 and teaches GCSE English in Leeds. He is married with two daughters.

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