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Is Colorblindness a Covert Way of Protecting Racism? (#26)

Dec 03, 2020

Guest blogger:  Nonjabulo Mlangeni


I had a White peer who was far from racist. She was in a long-term interracial relationship, and she and I lived together for a stint during college. I saw her regularly, often spoke to her at length, and never detected an inkling of discrimination. In fact, we shared similar political views; if anything, she may have been even more liberal than I. But she also “didn’t see color.” 

She was happy to talk about feminism and the disadvantages women face in society and the workplace. She was comfortable pointing out sexism, but she had far less passion for racial discrimination. Even the slightest mention of race seemed to make her visibly uncomfortable. Intersectionalities – such as the double whammy of sexism and racism that women of color contend with – were well beyond the scope of her considerations. 

She was a fundamentally nice and well-meaning person, whom I still remember fondly. But she was also a woman whose social justice ideals were built on a colorblind ideology that made them fall short – an ideology that was problematic in ways she was not prepared or motivated to understand. 

Why is colorblindness problematic?

Imagine you’ve just bought a starter home with great bones. It’s not quite perfect, but it has potential. The only real issue is the backyard: unsightly, overgrown, even precarious. It needs some major landscaping; it’s going to take a lot of work. 

In the meantime, putting pretty curtains on your windows may obscure the chaos that’s out there. But no matter how much you alter your view, the mess remains. You can’t fix it by “rising above” it, or not directly contributing to its improvement. Not going outside won’t change the fact that the weeds are still growing, and debris keeps piling up. The mess simply waits for you while you look away and gets worse over time.

Colorblindness is that pretty set of curtains that creates a false utopian view. It makes us feel good about the world and ourselves but does nothing to create meaningful change. After all, if we “don’t see” color, then we “can’t see” race. Which means we can’t engage with the reality of structural racism. 

If we really want to foster systemic change, we must see color the same way we see gender, disability, poverty, or any other material facts that create privilege for some but disadvantage others. No, we are not all equal. No, we are not all the same. And if we want to achieve the former, we must start by accepting the latter. 

Colorblindness and history

Many people who subscribe to colorblindness tend to inaccurately credit this concept to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the decades since his famous I Have a Dream speech, his words have been repurposed to fit a colorblind narrative. Contrary to the modern myth, the original speech didn’t present colorblindness as a solution to any social problem – especially not systemic discrimination. 

Dr. King dreamt of a world where we would not judge people by their color – not one where we feign a lack of racial awareness. Dr. King himself saw race. His speech went on to mention Black men and White men: recognizing them as separate (racial) groups in the same way he recognized Protestants and Catholics, or Jews and Gentiles. He did not suggest that we ignore difference; he wanted a society where racial difference was not used as a basis for unjust treatment. 

If we "don't see" color, then we "can't see" race.

Colorblindness justifies resource discrimination 

Ahead of his time, Dr. King recognized even then that real change requires more than a changed perspective. Unsurprisingly, researchers have found that colorblind ideology can do far more harm than good. One study in American classrooms found that students exposed to colorblind rhetoric were less likely to recognize racist acts in the aftermath. 

In other words, encouraging students to believe we are all the same ultimately blinded these young people to the realities of social inequality – making them less effective at detecting discrimination when it happened1. That is the first major shortcoming of colorblindness. It helps create a perception that the world is far more equitable than it really is. This cheats us out of the chance to develop the skills we need to recognize everyday injustice. 

Like the insidious curtains, colorblindness obscures our view. And because we don’t have to see the mess before us, we can become complacent. Indeed, researchers have found that colorblind ideology actually makes people less likely to actively support policies that address inequality in material ways2. After all, if we are all the same now, there’s no need to take reparative action for groups whose labor and resources have been historically exploited. 

[Dr. King] did not suggest that we ignore difference; he wanted a society where racial difference was not used as a basis for unjust treatment.

Colorblindness supports the status quo

Through this kind of logic, colorblindness creates system-justifying beliefs. These are opinions that ultimately impact the way society works. In doing so, they also suppress people’s motivation to support social change. It works like this: (1) if race is nothing more than color (and color doesn’t matter), then (2) the disproportionately greater socioeconomic hardship Black and Brown people face (on a global scale) is somehow not due to systemic racism. And if it is not a systemic issue, then the world is fine as it is, and the social system need not change. 

These system-justifying beliefs are dangerous, because they blame marginalized groups for their own oppression, whether directly or indirectly. This is what scholars call colorblind racism: “a subtle form of racism that rationalizes the disadvantaged status of racial minorities, and legitimizes the practices that perpetuate this inequality.”2

If color is arbitrary, then everyone gets an equal start, with the same level of access to the same resources and opportunities. From this logic, the socioeconomic disparity between White Americans and Black or Indigenous Americans is not the result of systemic oppression, which can only mean that the disadvantage faced by minority racial groups is simply their own fault. 

This subtle, victim-blaming ideology is what leads to problematic narratives like the bootstrap theory, which is often used to downplay the reality of systemic racism. The bootstrap theory is the moral of the many stories that we hear about European immigrants who managed to create generational wealth despite the disadvantages their ancestors endured. 

These anecdotes are often some variation of, “When my [insert ancestor here] came over from [insert European country here], they had nothing.” To rectify this, said ancestor turned to hard work, persevered, and defeated the odds. While heartfelt and often sincere, these narratives are harmful and misleading. They are nothing more than personal anecdotes yet are used as blanket evidence that everyone can defeat the odds if they want it enough. They ignore the reality that everyone does not face the same odds. 

In truth, there are shades and nuances to discrimination, meaning that people experience varying forms and levels of oppression. Colorism is not the same struggle as racism, racism and sexism are not equal, sexism is not the same as xenophobia. This is the very basis of intersectionality: the understanding that different identities create different realities for different people. This often subjects certain groups or people to harsher and more overt obstacles to equality. 

While the White ancestor undoubtedly faced some hardship due to xenophobia, they still had the protective factors of being an ethnic but not racial minority, of not being at the very bottom of the totem pole (a place historically preserved for dark skinned people), and of not being a descendent of slaves. By pretending these material differences are immaterial, colorblindness ensures that various forms of discrimination quietly live on. 

Colorblindness breeds tension

In another famous quote, an exasperated Dr. King asked why we can’t all just get along. Colorblindness has sometimes been the answer. Research has found that to be true in some workplaces, where colorblind company culture proved even worse for group relations than doing nothing at all. 

When White Americans and team leaders in the observed organizations endorsed colorblindness, it resulted in greater relationship conflict, along with the lowered engagement and self-distancing of racial minorities1. In other words, the strategy had the opposite effect of what was intended, ultimately undermining inclusion. It’s not hard to imagine why. Since colorblindness allows the status quo to continue, an organization that purports to not see color may seem dismissive and disingenuous. 

Colorblindness is a form of erasure

Time and time again, diversity work has shown us that minority employees are more responsive to proactive company approaches than strategies based on denial. Far more realistic (and believable) than “we don’t see color” is “we strive to ensure that color is not a gateway to unfair treatment.” While the latter doesn’t have the same ring to it, it’s the only approach that doesn’t ignore or negate the vulnerability of minorities. This is especially important in modern times, when overt bias has become far less frequent, giving way to more discreet expressions of racism. 

Several years ago, I had a difficult landlord. Had anyone asked, he would have vehemently denied that he was a racist. Most people who knew him would have probably agreed. As a member of the LGBTQ community, he had personally experienced discrimination. He also had a token biracial/Black friend, as many racists tend to do. 

Despite all these markers that outwardly communicated acceptance for all people, he often gave me – his Black tenant – backhanded compliments that revealed his true feelings. 

He was modern and politically correct enough to do business with a Black woman – but she had to be the “right sort,” someone like me who, he claimed, was nothing like “those low-income Blacks.” The ones from urban areas where they “always blast their music so loud.” 

The colorblind fiction, which pretends that racism today is not just as severe as it was a generation ago, would tell me that this man wasn’t racist and offer up many excuses why. After all, I rented his guesthouse, so I effectively occupied his home. Why would he do that if he disdained Black people? 

Yet we who experience racism know the only thing that trumps prejudice is self-interest. I was just someone he made an exception for because my rental payments lined his pockets. Just like his Black housemaid, I was of some use to him, so we were both tolerated. 

As I eagerly waited for my lease to end, I endured various microaggressions. Always, his comments were just rude enough to register with me, but discreet enough to go over the heads of anyone who wasn’t sensitized to anti-Blackness. This was the sneaky, cunning sort of racism that colorblindness has blinded people to. The kind that allows people to describe men like these as problematic, ignorant, or old fashioned…any adjective in the world other than outright racist. 

Colorblindness quite literally shuts our eyes to the quiet violence: the instances when discrimination is calculated, skillful, and covert. It allows the experiences of minority groups to go unrecognized and unvalidated. It serves to erase lived experiences that cause genuine suffering. It serves to revictimize.

Instead of colorblindness, embrace multiculturalism

Since colorblindness cannot create the world that we want, what can? Like any other layered problem, there isn’t one broad solution. On an organizational level, experts have consistently found that embracing difference is better for inclusion than downplaying difference could ever be. 

Before we all began socially distancing, I met an Asian-American man through a mutual acquaintance. The conversation naturally shifted to COVID-19, and we both expressed concern about the spread. I asked him what his personal experience had been in light of the anti-Asian rhetoric and the incidents we were seeing in the media. 

Somewhat sarcastically, he quipped, “you mean how does it differ from the anti-Asian sentiments I’ve experienced my entire life?” His snark was meant to imply that my question lacked nuance. By not verbally acknowledging that Asian people have faced worsening discrimination due to COVID-19, my question lacked tact and may have come across as ignorant of the history of Asian people in America. 

He was simply highlighting that this problem was, in his experience, nothing new. Moreover, his reaction was coming from a deeper place that didn’t have much to do with me. Although he knew what I meant, I also knew what he meant, so I took no issue with the subtle reprimand. I only made a mental note to be more articulate when I try to express empathy for other racial minority groups. After all, when we show up for each other, we must do so correctly. 

Unlike colorblindness, multiculturalism accepts that difference exists and basks in it. It doesn't expect minorities to assimilate or promote essentializing narratives that ignore systemic inequality. Instead, difference is embraced and used as strength.

This is what the multicultural perspective looks like. It recognizes that we see things differently because we are different. It gets that being an ally means changing our behavior and frameworks to accommodate the worldview of people whose realities are not ours. It also means putting aside your pride.

I could have just changed the subject, as my dear old college friend would have done. Or fallen back on a stereotype or microaggression, as my less dear old landlord would have. I could have even regurgitated some pseudo-comforting colorblind rhetoric, like most of us have been socialized to do. 

Thankfully, the multicultural perspective gave me the desire to make the equitable choice. Empathy is what drove me to inquire about his experiences in the first place, and it’s what kept me listening when the answer didn’t quite come in the spirit that I had expected. More than that, it made it easy for me to accommodate his frustrations. That’s the thing about empathy: it helps you do the work.

Unlike colorblindness, multiculturalism accepts that difference exists and basks in it. It doesn’t expect minorities to assimilate or promote essentializing narratives that ignore systemic inequality3. Instead, difference is embraced and used as strength: a source of dissenting opinions, unique voices, and various areas of expertise; fostering equity, creativity, innovation, and so much more. 

The work of social justice changes depending on the circumstances: sometimes it’s intellectual labor, sometimes it’s a cultural shift or a policy change. Always, it comes down to humility: a willingness to be wrong and to recognize what doesn’t work. Colorblindness has failed to create the world that we need. Maybe we can finally pursue more equitable solutions. 

 


Nonjabulo Mlangeni has an MA in African American Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. She began her career as a journalist and now works as a technical writer and editor, primarily in the areas of public health; psychology; and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Are you able to acknowledge differences without bias?
  2. Are you a member of any group that's tired of having your unique background ignored?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills covered in this blog post:

  • Bridging differences
  • Recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
  • Address underlying systemic biases
  • Seek to understand others' perspectives; put yourself in their shoes

Disclaimer

The views and opinions expressed in this or other blog posts at www.leadingconsciously.com are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Leading Consciously. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, organization, company, individual, or anyone or anything.


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[1]  Yogeeswaran, K., M. Verkuyten, et al. (2018). "’I have a dream’ of a colorblind nation?Examining the relationship between racial colorblindness, system justification, and support for policies that redress inequalities." Journal of Social Issues, 74(2): 282-298.

[2]  Dovidio, J. F., S. L. Gaertner, et al. (2015). "Color-Blindness and Commonality: Included but Invisible?" American Behavioral Scientist59(11): 1518-1538.

[3]  Richeson, J. A. and R. J. Nussbaum (2004). "The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias."  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(3): 417.

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