“I don’t think of you as black.”

With those words Naomi Tutu, during a visit to Knoxville last month, started a conversation that lasted deep into the night for some of us who attended her luncheon speech. And nearly a month later, those conversations continue when we see one another in meetings, at drinks or over meals.

Naomi Tutu

Naomi Tutu

Naomi Tutu is the middle child of Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, famous for his fight against apartheid in South Africa. She was in Knoxville as the guest of Pellissippi State Technical Community College as part of their program to “internationalize” the school. She spoke to about 40 faculty members and students following a small luncheon with about a dozen community leaders.

“I don’t think of you as black.” Naomi Tutu said she has heard that phrase spoken to herself or to others her entire life. Even her close friend and book collaborator of 10 years said it to her. It was not meant as an insult. But it was one.

“I know I’m a black woman and I’m proud of being a black woman,” Tutu said. “It’s part of my identity. When you say you don’t think of me as black, you are taking away a part of my identity in order to accept me.”

The audience, a racially mixed group at Pellissippi’s Magnolia Avenue campus, sat in rapt attention as Tutu explained how the races are characterized in South Africa where she grew up. There are whites; Asians, who in South Africa are identified as people from the Indian subcontinent; coloreds, who are people of mixed ancestry; and Africans, the indigenous people. “In Africa, we have a split personality,” she said. “We are very proud to be the indigenous people of South Africa. The word for African is the same as the word for people. But we also have the learned culture of apartheid: we think it is less bad to be lighter.” Thus, she said, the popularity of skin lightening creams and hair straighteners.

Dr. Allen Edwards, president of Pellissippi State, listens to Naomi Tutu speaking

Dr. Allen Edwards, president of Pellissippi State, listens to Naomi Tutu speaking

Tutu has given this a lot of thought. Here’s what she’s come up with: “It’s the global experience that we want to put the bad qualities on ‘the other’,” she said. “We want our own community to be the people of valor, and noble people and people of wisdom. It is how we organize.”

Thus, this odd experience Tutu has had on her world travels. While white merchants in South Africa look down on black Africans, they consider African Americans to be ”honorary whites.” She has heard them tell visiting African Americans, “You’re not like OUR blacks.” Conversely, she has noticed that when she is in Berea, Ken., where she has taught, the merchants in that community treat her better than they do local African Americans. “You are not like OUR blacks,” she has been told.

What makes her the maddest and most frustrated of all, though, is another presumably well-meaning statement she often hears: “I don’t see differences; I only see people.”

“I want to take them to my mother’s garden and say, ‘Look at these beautiful eggplants and tomatoes and squashes and peppers! You don’t notice any difference?’”

Diversity, Tutu said, is good. Diversity is healthy. Rather than causing hatred and oppression and dehumanization, diversity offers strength and beauty and the opportunity for humanity to share different gifts.

Her advice:

  • Have the difficult conversations;
  • Talk about race and racism;
  • Start healing our communities and our world by facing the hurts and by facing the guilts.

Thoughts, anyone?

Avon Rollins, executive director of Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Avon Rollins, executive director of Beck Cultural Exchange Center

Rosalyn Tillman, assistant dean of Pellissippi State

Rosalyn Tillman, assistant dean of Pellissippi State

Dr. Milton Grimes, executive director of the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies

Dr. Milton Grimes, executive director of the Tennessee Consortium for International Studies

Jerry Hodges, executive director of Project Grad

Jerry Hodges, executive director of Project Grad

Cynthia Manning Dirl, director of the One-Stop Career Center at Pellissippi State

Cynthia Manning Dirl, director of the One-Stop Career Center at Pellissippi State

Naomi Tutu, right,  poses with Terry Strickland after the speech

Naomi Tutu, right, poses with Terry Strickland after the speech

6 Responses to ““I don’t think of you as black.””

  1. Cynthia,
    Thank you for writing about this moving experience. I was one of the people who sat in the audience captivated by Naomi Tutu’s words. Another jewel of hers was “I don’t see you as a woman.” She articulated a message that I have wrapped up like a present and will keep with me forever.

    I wish I understood why talking about race is avoided or why some find it so difficult.

  2. Cythia,
    Thanks for the post. Interesting take on the quote for me. Its interesting to hear how people from different parts of the world percieve and feel about things that are said in respect to racial acceptance. Is it a compliment, an insult? Is it more defined by who you are, are where you are from?

  3. Thanks, Phyllis and Avis. I went to an event last night and ran into a friend who had read this latest post. She said she was tempted to write a comment but decided not to. Why? “I was afraid I might say the wrong thing,” she said. Which makes your point, Phyllis.

  4. Cynthia,
    Thank you for sharing this posting. I am sorry that I missed Naomi Tutu’s visit to Knoxville. I think that the conversations about race, racial identity and racism are difficult because they are highly emotional subjects and we have a national history of blaming and belittling each other in the public conversations. Taking the phrase “I don’t think of you as_______” out of our conversations is an excellent way to enhance trust between people. Thanks. Alan

  5. Interesting. I’ve been deaf since the age of 5, have worn hearing aids since then, and for the last 13-14 years, have worn a Cochlear Implant. I’ve been told more times than I can recall, “but I don’t think of you as being deaf” or “but your speech is so good, how can that be”. Some are surprised to find out I am deaf. Am I insulted? No. The persons making these comments, first, had no ill intent. Second, while being deaf is not a “bad” thing, it does set me apart form the norm (being of the “hearing world”) to some degree and requires continuing effort and education on my part to compensate. Such comments can be considered a back-handed compliment to be sure, but to me, they are recognition that my decades of work, speech therapy, and practice have enabled me to overcome the prejudice often held against the deaf. To me, it means they have seen past my singularity and consider me within the “norm”, which really doesn’t change one whit who I am.

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