Hey, Mr. White, that's the wrong color for that | People & Places | Smithsonian
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Hey, Mr. White, that's the wrong color for that

As hard as you might try, it's not easy to keep folks from finding out that you're color-blind

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I have been color-blind all my life. Color blindness is a sex-linked genetic dysfunction; about 8 percent of the men in this country are color-blind compared with hardly any women. A lot of people can't resist interrogating men like me. It isn't uncommon for us to have someone we've never seen before thrust a portion of clothing at us and demand, "What color is this?"

I was a middle school teacher for a long time in a small Southern district where most of the students were black. At first I tried to hide my disability. Although I drew elaborate color graphs and illustrations on the chalkboard, I did it early in the morning when the teacher next door could help me select my chalks. At that time, I thought I was smart enough to wiggle out of questions like, "Mr. White, what was it you said that pinkish magenta stuff under that yellowish mauve thing right there by the purple blob was?" "Can anyone help Angelica with that question?" was one of my responses. "Angelica, could you come to the board and point to the structure you are talking about so everyone can see it?" was another. And how about: "What do you think it is?"

None of my schemes worked, so finally I just admitted it right at the start. "Hello, I am your science teacher. My name is Robb White. I am color-blind. Any questions?" "What do you mean by that?" was one immediate response. I answered: "The normal structures of people's eyes that detect color, especially red and green, are missing from mine." "What color am I?" was another question. "The right color," I always said.

Most of our students hadn't had much opportunity to develop compassion for the problems of white people, but they became my allies anyway. "Hey, Mr. White, that's the wrong color for that. I hate to hurt your feelings, but I just can't stand it." All through the school year, things would occur to them. "Mr. White, how can you tell if a white woman gets shy and blushes?" Answer: "Skin gets kind of shiny looking." "How about a black woman, Mr. White?" Answer: "Same thing." "Can you tell when white people get sunburned?" Answer: "Sure, if you poke them with your finger, the skin there stays extra white for a while. Otherwise, they just look sort of miserable and tired."

My sister's son is color-blind, too. When he first started school, his teacher sent a note home saying she thought he needed to have his I.Q. tested because he seemed unable to learn his colors. I showed the poor boy that the names of the colors were written right there on the crayons and all he had to do was read them. I looked forward back then to having some color-blind companionship when he grew up, but now that he is an adult I find that all we do is argue about what color something is. One lady, overhearing a discussion between us during a parade, said: "You know, y'all ain't making a bit of sense with all that."

My grandfather was color-blind. He was a formidable man. Both of his daughters were pretty old before they got married because he intimidated their beaux so. Anyone who knew he was color-blind would not have dared to grab a portion of clothing, thrust it at him and demand to know what color it was. Long after he died, I was talking to one of his old employees about snakes. The fact came out that I had to use ways other than color to tell which snake was which. "You know, Mr. Jim was like that," said the man, looking around to make sure my grandfather's ghost wasn't lurking in the vicinity. "We never let on that we knew. When he would get to going on about this pink this and this pink that, everybody just agreed with him. They don't do that for you, do they?"

By Robb White

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