I Don't Think of You as Black

A published letter from Naomi Tutu, daughter of South African president Desmond Tutu, further explains why her friend's comment, “I don’t think of you as Black” was offensive to her. Read the excerpt and reflect.

By Momentous Institute | Oct 09, 2017
Black Header

Last week we wrote about the flaw in looking at people with a “colorblindness” approach. This idea is beautifully articulated in a published letter from Naomi Tutu, the daughter of South African president Desmond Tutu, to her friend Rose Bator. Rose once told Naomi, “I don’t think of you as Black”. Naomi responded with a long letter explaining why this was offensive to her. Here’s an excerpt:

“Dear Rose,

I can’t believe you said that you don’t think of me as Black. To me that is one of the greatest insults and injuries of racism. It tells me that I am OK as a person if you can ignore this one fact about me. And, it is not a little fact. How can you not think of me as black? As soon as you see me you have to see a black woman. I’m not saying that Black is all that I am, but it is a huge part of who I am. The fact that I am Black has been a significant part of my experience in this world. It feels as though you are trying to erase a part of me.


“To me it not only says that you need to erase a part of me in order to accept me, but it also says that you have the power to do so. You, as white have the power to decide when you will make race an issue and I, as Black should feel glad when you say you’re not making it an issue.


“You cannot live in the US or South Africa or most countries in the world and be unaware of color. And why wouldn’t you want to be aware of color? We are made differently to add diversity and flavor to the world. No one would think that is some great thing to say, ‘I don’t see roses or daffodils, I just see flowers’ or even, ‘I don’t see pink or red roses, I just see roses.’ For me, ending racism is not about pretending that we are all the same, it is about accepting and enjoying our diversity. I love being a Black woman. I hate many of the experiences I have had because I am black but I love the fact of being black, just as I love the fact of being a woman.”

Her friend Rose responded by thanking her for her honest feedback and expressing her appreciation that she valued the friendship enough to bring the discussion to the table. In turn, she responded, “I understand, like I never have before, how your skin color has impacted every part of your life experience.”

This letter can be difficult to read. It might be hard to hear how a seemingly innocuous comment might offend someone so much. 

What feelings or emotions surfaced as you read this?  Sit with those feelings for a moment. Others have read this and have felt surprised, defensive, disappointed and even shameful. Did you feel any of these?  If so, allow yourself to feel those feelings for a moment. 

Now, just reflect on Naomi’s words. Trust that her reaction to that comment was genuine and based on a lifetime of similar comments and experiences. Believe her when she says that the words hurt.

Finally, think about how this message might be extended into your own life. With your colleagues, your friends, neighbors, students. In what ways do you honor their culture and race? In what ways do you turn that part off?

If you felt any sense of shame in reading this letter, please know that is not the goal. Dealing with difficult issues related to race is an ongoing, lifelong challenge. We should be continually pushed to think about things in new ways. In the process, we may discover that our old ideas don’t fit any more. Maybe you’ve made this comment to someone in the past. That’s okay. Now you have the opportunity to think about it in a new light. You can move forward with a new perspective on how this comment, and how this approach of “colorblindness” might impact others.