Race, Books, Inequality

Colorblindness is not Progressive: a Review of “The Color of Water”

We should make it clear that the concept of colorblindness isn’t just a white perspective to have or to talk about.

James McBride and his mother

The Color of Water: a Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother (1995) tells the story of a mixed race man named James McBride and his Jewish mother coming of age in a time when mixed race visibility was relatively taboo. This nonfiction novel’s format is such a unique one because while you read it, you can see how fluid time is and how history is capable of repeating itself for generations. 

This is such a good book, you guys. After re-reading it, I was struck once more by the intricacies of McBride’s storytelling, the parallels between McBride and his mother, and their human strength. Hands down, one of the most interesting people to read about in this book is Ruth McBride Jordan, the author’s mom.

Here’s what really stood out to me about her:

Ruth McBride Jordan refused to let “the system” get in her way. Her thirst for knowledge growing up, and ensuring all twelve of her children made it to college (and half of them to graduate school) justifiably classifies her as a TOTAL BAWSE. There are even many parts of the novel where she uses her white privilege to her advantage, fully acknowledging the obligation she had to protect the people she loved at the same time. For example, she was able to secure a building for purchase on behalf of her husband (who was African American), get her son out of jail after he was wrongly accused of selling drugs. She’s what we would describe today as “pretty woke” for taking action the way she did.

However, Jordan encouraged her children to be colorblind, and didn’t educate her children on their Jewish heritage until she was much older. She told them not to identify with any race or color – not with blackness, or whiteness. She believed God is the color of water, and as such, it was best for her children to identify as simply “human,” since God has no color.

While I can kind of understand where she’s coming from, I find her colorblind perspective to be problematic. As a mixed race individual myself, I understand that we shouldn’t immediately judge people on the color of their skin. However, by not acknowledging a facet of a person’s identity such as their race, you’re still not able to see the person as a whole.

Having to raise twelve children all at once in a low-income neighborhood, McBride’s mother was trying to protect them when she tells them not to identify with either group. She tells them that she is “light skinned” whenever she was asked why she looked different from them. She didn’t want her children to experience the same struggles she faced growing up Jewish and marrying men of color.

And we should make it clear that the concept of colorblindness isn’t just a white perspective to have or to talk about. McBride’s stepfather, Hunter Jordan (who Jordan married after her first husband passed), is African American and Native American, but never discussed race in the house either. He could have been someone the McBride-Turner clan could relate to and talk to about their experiences, but that obviously wasn’t the case. 

As an adult, McBride now identifies as mixed race and African American. He has an African American wife, and children who, to my knowledge from the book, identify as African American. For him to take matters into his own hands to find that missing part of himself and to convince his mother to actually talk about what life was like for her is powerful indeed. 

James McBride’s personal growth between chapters is a creative take on being able to finally talk about race in a constructive way. I remember my mother, who identifies as biracial, recommending me to read this book, just as my grandfather, who identifies as white, recommended her to read it. And I’m so glad that I read this book, because it’s pretty damn good. It’s an encouraging way for readers, regardless of their racial background(s), to talk about the meaning of family, and seek avenues for them to find themselves.