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Color Does Matter, But It's Not All

''I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.''

-- Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

''The truth is that so-called colorblindness is neither possible nor even desirable.''

-- Me, 2002

Recently, some nice people asked me, in effect, to reconcile what I said in a column a few weeks ago with what Martin Luther King Jr. said 39 years ago on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. This is for them.

Let me begin by telling you about myself.

I am a linear descendant of Mississippi slaves. My ancestry -- and I suppose this is true of all ancestries -- is a fundamental part of who I am, a wellspring of challenge and pride, my spiritual and emotional home. I am black.

That's not, however, all that I am. I'm also a man. I am a native of Southern California. I am a husband and a father. I am a comic-book geek. I am a Christian. I am in my 40s. I am a hope-to-die Lakers fan. I am, in other words, many things, each relevant to different circumstances and occasions. The same is true of anyone.

Of course, not one of the many things I am puts people on edge quite like blackness. Which is why some well-meaning people think it would be best if we could somehow factor race -- race alone, of all the things I am -- out of the picture. Their mantra: Let us be colorblind. If all they meant by that was ''equality,'' I'd have no disagreement with them. But for them, the term seems to mean something considerably more radical. For them, colorblind means making oneself literally blind to color.

I didn't notice that you were black, they will say. Or, I don't see you as black. Journalists writing about the popularity of Michael Jordan or Oprah Winfrey will frequently note how they have ''transcended'' race.

Here's what bothers me: No one has ever felt the need to not notice I'm from California. No one has ever made a point of not seeing me as Christian. And I have yet to encounter a journalist who felt compelled to note how Jordan ''transcended'' his sex or Oprah her Mississippi roots.

Given that each of us is a combination of many characteristics, why is it necessary to make such an ostentatious show of not seeing one: race? The unavoidable answer is race isn't perceived like other characteristics.

Rather, it's one that makes some people nervous. For them, it's That Which Must Be Overcome. Where I see ancestry, challenge and pride, they see something onerous and burdensome. Where I see one of the things that makes me whole, they see something that polite people should ignore and I should work to transcend.

I can appreciate the frustration of white Americans whose only desire where race is concerned is to know what's OK, what's allowed, what behavior will allow them to finally consider themselves enlightened. Frankly, black folks don't always make that easy. Some of us are never too far from outrage. Some of us could find a racial conspiracy in a phone booth.

So maybe if you're white, just ignoring blackness altogether comes to seem like a good idea. But that's naive and faintly insulting. How do you foster equality by making an essential piece of who I am vanish?

Decent people should seek balance instead -- to make race neither smaller than it is nor larger. Because race is neither a defining facet, nor a demeaning facet, of individual identity. It's a facet, period. Unfortunately, much of what passes for racial dialogue in this country is the chatter of two extremes: the Afrocentric-to-the-point-of-paranoia one that says race matters always, and the ''colorblind'' one that says it matters never.

That's a false dichotomy. Race matters when it matters, and it doesn't when it doesn't.

So there's no need to reconcile what I said about color with what King said, because there is no dissonance. He didn't say avoid color, ignore color, pretend it doesn't exist. The key to what he said lies in four words:

''Not be judged by.''

© 2001 The Miami Herald and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.

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