It is helpful for us as Bahá'ís to periodically deepen on our Faith's teachings relating to race unity in order to improve our understanding of their import and our application of their principles. This is especially the case as we teach the principle of the oneness of humankind and offer our community as an example of evolving race unity.
A couple of years ago during a consultation on race unity a I heard a statement to the effect that we as Bahá'ís are seeking "racial blindness" or "blindness to racial differences" in our social interactions. Although this did not sound quite right to me I held my peace lest I be the one mistaken and resolved to find out what the Bahá'í writings actually do say about racial differences and how we are to look at them. I felt this was important not only for my own deepening, but also because one commonly hears similar terminology used in the larger society as a positive quality. If Bahá'í teachings really do offer a different perspective on race, it is important to know what that is and how appropriately to phrase it. I would like to share some of what I found during my personal research relating to this issue on the chance that it may be of interest to some of the Friends.
The first step I took was to divide the phrase that prompted this effort into its two parts: "racial differences" (or differences we call racial, since there is in reality only one human race) and "blindness" (and other metaphors of lacking a sense of sight or shutting it off). I then dealt with the latter part first, as it seemed less complex, and saved the former, which was after all the crux of the matter, for later attention.
Blindness is usually used metaphorically in a negative context in the Bahá'í writings - blind in heart, inwardly blind, spiritual blindness, blind imitation, etc. These are conditions which prevent one from perceiving the Manifestation of God and understanding His message. Therefore, we should never seek blindness, but rather its opposite. Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh gives the utmost importance to vision:
"In this Day whatsoever serveth to reduce blindness and to increase vision is worthy of consideration. This vision acteth as the agent and guide for true knowledge. Indeed in the estimation of men of wisdom keenness of understanding is due to keenness of vision." Tarazat, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 35.
While vision is good, however, there are some ways in which we are instructed to train our faculty of sight. For instance: "Let your eye be chaste,..." (Lawh-i-Hikmat, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 138), and "Thine eye is My trust, suffer not the dust of vain desires to becloud its luster." (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 322). Closing off one's sight is used metaphorically in a positive sense in this context:
"O Son of Dust! Blind thine eyes, that thou mayest behold My beauty; stop thine ears, that thou mayest hearken unto the sweet melody of my voice; empty thyself of all learning, that thou mayest partake of My knowledge; and sanctify thyself from riches, that thou mayest obtain a lasting share from the ocean of My eternal wealth. Blind thine eyes, that is, to all save My beauty; stop thine ears to all save My word; empty thyself of all learning save the knowledge of Me; that with a clear vision, a pure heart and an attentive ear thou mayest enter the court of My holiness." Hidden Words, Persian #11.
This may be understood to mean that we should refocus our perceptions on the spiritual in order to realize our highest potential as fundamentally spiritual beings.
In the same vein, Bahá'u'lláh gives counsel on how to relate to each other: "Shut your eyes to estrangement, then fix your gaze upon unity." (Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 67). It is interesting to reflect on the parallels between the distractions of the material world and estrangement on one hand and spiritual growth and the building of unity on the other, and on how metaphors involving the faculty of sight are used in both of the last two quotes.
The writings on racial differences appear at first to be a little less straightforward, as they seem to instruct us both to see racial differences as beautiful and to not look at them.
`Abdu'l-Bahá for instance compared differences in color and other aspects of physical appearance among humans to the variety found in a garden and elsewhere in nature. Such diversity, He said, is beautiful to behold, indeed more pleasing than homogeneity, and should not be the cause of disunity.
"Let us look rather at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson from the vegetable creation. If you behold a garden in which all the plants were the same as to form, color and perfume, it would not seem beautiful to you at all, but, rather, monotonous and dull. The garden which is pleasing to the eye and which makes the heart glad, is the garden in which are growing side by side flowers of every hue, form and perfume, and the joyous contrast of color is what makes for charm and beauty.
..."The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in making the perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and color from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different colored roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them." Paris Talks, pp. 52-3.
"In the realm of existence colors are of no importance... In the vegetable kingdom the colors are not the cause of discord. Rather, colors are the cause of the adornment of the garden because a single color has no appeal; but when you observe many colored flowers, there is charm and display. "The world of humanity, too, is like a garden, and humankind are like the many-colored flowers. Therefore, different colors constitute an adornment." The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 45.
On the other hand, Bahá'u'lláh tells us "Close your eyes to racial differences and welcome all with the light of unity" (quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 37). And 'Abdu'l-Bahá elaborates:
"Let them look not upon a man's color but upon his heart. If the heart be filled with light, that man is nigh unto the threshold of his Lord; but if not, that man is careless of his Lord, be he white or black." (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 113).
If racial differences are beautiful, then why are we instructed to shut our eyes to them in order to be able to achieve unity? Perhaps these passages counsel us not to consider racial differences as distinguishing characteristics and to focus instead on what unifies us. That unifying factor would be our spiritual reality. It is certainly significant for the context of this discussion that we are told to close off and redirect our sight rather than to strive for sightlessness or "blindness." What is prescribed is the action of training our perception rather than a state of impairment or absence of perception.
However, noting the similarity between the passages beginning "Shut your eyes to estrangement..." and "Close your eyes to racial differences...," one must ask if there are any ways in which racial differences themselves may still be viewed as barriers to unity? Perhaps racial differences are comparable in some ways to material goods. We are permitted to enjoy material things but not to the point where they come between us and God. Similarly, racial differences are in no way a problem unless we allow them to prevent unity.
Differences that we call racial have, of course, historically been one of the major factors defining lines of division among peoples. These differences, however, have not been the cause of racism. It is misunderstanding of the differences that has been at the root of racism. The answer, ultimately, is not to try to ignore them but to learn to see them for what they are and are not.
The answer, then, is not "racial blindness" or "color blindness." Nor is it the means to achieve race unity. Not even for individuals in early stages of overcoming racism should this terminology be used, and it should never ever be used to describe Bahá'í teachings on race unity. What we are seeking is, as was so nicely put in The Vision of Race Unity, "to look at the racial situation with new eyes."
Diversity in appearance should be a source of joy to a unified humanity, just as variety in cultural traditions should be a source of strength to it. Ultimately, however, they are insignificant, as it is what is in the heart and how we relate to God that is important. By recognizing that the fundamental human reality is found on the spiritual level we can appreciate the diversity in which God created us and "discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork..."