Poetry 67: Colour Blind by Lemn Sissay


If you can see the sepia in the sun
Shades of grey in fading streets
The radiating bloodshot in a child’s eye
The dark stains on her linen sheets
If you can see oil separate on water
The turquoise of leaves on trees
The reddened flush of your lover’s cheeks
The violet peace of calmed seas

If you can see the bluest eye
The purple in petals of the rose
The blue anger, the venom, of the volcano
The creeping orange of the lava flows
If you can see the red dust of the famished road
The white air tight strike of nike’s sign
the skin tone of a Lucien Freud
The colours of his frozen subjects in mime

If you can see the white mist of the oasis
The red, white and blue that you defended
If you can see it all through the blackest pupil
The colours stretching the rainbow suspended
If you can see the breached blue dusk
And the caramel curls in swirls of tea
Why do you say you are colour blind when you see me?

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

2 thoughts on “Poetry 67: Colour Blind by Lemn Sissay

  1. This clever poem packs a sucker punch in its last line, giving the lie to the idea that when it comes to the colour of a person’s skin, anyone is ‘colour-blind’.

    In effect, a person who tells a person of colour, “I’m colour blind” is saying that that person might as well be invisible; the fact that they’re “not white” will be ignored, as one might try to ignore a disfigurement; that their ‘un-whiteness’ will be overlooked, and won’t be allowed to count against them. That any sense of personal discomfort that arises in the observer about the other’s non-whiteness will be suppressed; as a token of which the observer will announce her effort by claiming that she didn’t notice it. Except that she did.

    Disingenuous and dishonest. Deeply hurtful, and more or less endemic.

  2. To take it more positively, I think what people normally mean by ‘colour blind’ is recognising any basic emotional responses they may have to a person’s colour and placing them in a wider awareness, where they make an effort not to let them affect their judgements negatively when they might otherwise do so. I remember once being picked up by a large black taxi driver at 3am in London, to catch an early morning flight, and recognising that my responses to racial difference were quite visceral – in that case, an involuntary fear, which of course I then overruled with an awareness that there was nothing particularly to be afraid of. I agree, though, Peter, that it can be dishonest when people pretend that their basic responses to colour don’t occur in the first place.

    One of the most unhelpful assumptions that seems to be connected to this issue is the assumption of neutrality by white people – that they are the default and other people are ‘coloured’ – as though white (or more accurately, pink) wasn’t a colour! It seems to go with the use of ‘ethnic’ to mean ethnic minority, as though the white English majority in the UK didn’t have an ethnicity. Personally I’ve been trying to make an effort recently to describe my ethnicity and culture as a distinct option, rather than going along with the conventions that make being a white English middle class male the default.

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