When I had first moved to Australia from India, a friend of mine was growing out his hair and we were having an elaborate discussion about how his hair could be styled. He was looking for some advice from me (I give great hair and skincare advice in general). I suggested a look and he wasn’t convinced at first. So I said to him that I’d google it for him and show him how it could look on someone like him. When I typed the style descriptor in, I added “White male” into the search terms. He found it hilarious and said that just adding “male” would have done the job. He later joked that I was being super racist towards him! I had to explain to him that while in his world, “man” just meant men who looked like him (i.e., White), my world consisted of both White men and other men of colour. In describing him as a White man, I was being specific and descriptive.
Our relationship with race continues to be a difficult one - true for both White folks and for folks of colour.
Consider this: white folks apparently shouldn’t be seeing colour in anything or anyone – things get pretty awkward the moment race or skin colour is mentioned. Additionally, folks of colour can’t catch a break from “where are you really from?” based on how they look. They are encouraged to become race-blind by the very same people when they’re told “Oh my god, stop seeing race in everything!”. It’s only time before someone gets badly hurt from all this blindness!
The topic of race makes people anxious, and it doesn’t help that talking about race also evokes social disapproval. To protect ourselves from all this angst, we use different strategies such as avoidance, pluralistic ignorance, and denial. One particularly preferred strategy, is called strategic colourblindness.
Strategic colourblindness is the avoidance of putting race on the table. It is the avoidance of talking about race, noting racial factors as influencing anything, or even acknowledging racial difference. The purpose of this is to avoid the appearance of bias, or avoiding potential misunderstanding, or the avoidance of discomfort that comes from considering the issue of race.
It’s the familiar “I don’t see race or skin colour, I see people as people” line. It sounds great, right? It may even seem like a strategy that would make the world an equal place for us all. But as research now shows (see here for a review), it is a strategy and set of beliefs that is linked with several social processes that preserve the racial status quo, and further entrench existing cleavages in inter-racial interactions.
So how is it harmful to suggest that we see people as individuals and not as mere members of groups? Let’s break it down from the start.
“I don’t see colour” – is it really possible for us to not perceive race when we meet someone?
People claim that they don’t see race or skin colour, but on the contrary, research indicates that people are not colourblind perceivers. Of all the dimensions on which people categorise others, race is among the quickest and most automatic categories we process when we see someone.
People see colour, but saying that they do, is not socially acceptable. This gap between perceiving racial categories and the reduced social acknowledgement of it, is often guided by social and interactional motivations. This means that people don’t acknowledge race because they don’t want to appear prejudice, and want to avoid the anxiety of race-based conversations.
Is insisting on a colourblind view of the world actually furthering racial hierarchy, alienating White folks, and silencing racial minorities?
1. Colourblind strategies make White people feel bias-free but they ironically appear biased to folks of colour:
Research shows that whilst avoiding the issue of race is a way of protecting oneself from the anxiety inter-racial interactions for socially dominant groups, most commonly White folks in the inter-racial equation, it actually backfires and is counterproductive. Contrary to seeming non-prejudicial and bias-free, when White people avoid race in race-relevant contexts, folks of colour are quick to pick up on the avoidance, and perceive them as racially biased.
2. The “I don’t see colour” line, may feel like equality, but the consequences associated with such beliefs are far from equal.
Colourblind beliefs are associated with implicit bias, modern racism, and less support for equality initiatives that create opportunities for minorities.
3. Colourblind beliefs makes us particularly prone to ignoring, overlooking, or downplaying instances of inequality and bias.
Ignoring people’s identity groups makes us prone to either ignoring or downplaying instances of bias, discrimination, or inequality (see here and here). So when White folks adopt colourblindness, it can make them blind to the injustices that folks of colour face as a result of the racial groups they belong to, and the unique experiences they come with. Also, colourblind views are seen as maintaining the status quo – keeping the system of racial hierarchy and oppression-justifying beliefs going. System-justifying beliefs can include beliefs that racism is now a thing of the past, and that inequality by race or ethnic group no longer exists. Put together, it keeps the cycle of poor faith and mistrust going between White people and racial minorities.
I’m going to end by going back to the question I asked at the start:
How does something that is actually suggesting that we see people as individuals and not as mere members of groups, harmful?
Try to answer the following questions for yourself now that you have read the research.
When I adopt a colourblind strategy:
Tulsi Achia is a second year PhD student in the social change lab, and works as a researcher for a not-for-profit organisation. Her PhD focuses on advantaged group allyship or solidarity with disadvantaged groups and ways in which it goes wrong. In projects outside her PhD, she is currently exploring the framing of group-blind thinking in the context of expressed progressive values and allyship with disadvantaged groups, and its impact on the uptake or rejection of diversity initiatives.
Australia national gender pay gap sits at 15.3%, and has been hovering between 15% and 19% for the last two decades. It’s a complex issue caused by many factors.
It’s not simply that both genders are doing the same work but getting paid differently (although that’s one of the factors). Women tend to have more unpaid caring and domestic chores, they work in jobs that attract less pay, and require more workplace flexibility to accommodate other responsibilities. Taken together, women’s greater time out of the workforce affects their career progression and opportunities.
Would the gender pay gap still exist if women had more flexibility? Let’s take a look at one of world’s most popular ride-sharing services, Uber, as an example.
Is Uber the new example for gender wage gap equality?
Uber seems to offer solutions to some of the issues around the gender pay gap: Their drivers have the freedom to hit the road and start working any time they want; a system of pay based on distance travelled; they also have gender-blind matching of drivers and riders. Theoretically, under those conditions, men and women would earn the same. Perhaps riders would even prefer female drivers?
According to data collected in the United States from January 2015 to March 2017, there was no gender discrimination on the platform - meaning people didn’t show a preference based on the gender of their customers, or their drivers. This is a good start.
However, men were found to make 7% more per hour on average.
So what accounts for this pay difference?
Drivers' decision of when and where to drive accounts for 20% of the wage gap. Men tend to work shifts that have higher pay i.e., late night, early morning shifts. Men also work routes that pay more, such as airport trips. The other reason is that women tend to drive for Uber for shorter periods of time – Men are more much likely to drive for Uber for over 2 years. But how would this affect the hourly pay gap? One word: Experience.
It was found that the more trips a driver does, the more they learn the best ways to make money from the platform. While money earned per trip doesn’t increase, drivers just get better at knowing when and where to drive, how fast to drive, and which ride to strategically accept/cancel. This accounts for 30% of the wage gap.
Need for speed
In general, men drive faster than women, this means that men are completing more trips per hour and thus making more per hour. Faster drivers also attract higher ratings from customers. Driving speed accounts for the remaining 50% of the pay gap.
There is indeed a gender pay gap on the Uber platform, but it is not a structural problem. While gig-work like Uber offers women more flexible work hours, there are still other factors that contribute to the pay difference.
Perhaps over time, the app would improve enough to close the earning gap between new drivers and more experienced ones. Perhaps by putting the spot light on speed as the major determinant of the pay gap, slower drivers (of all walks of life) can step on the pedal and get a bit richer (or die trying).
- Hannibal Thai
Hannibal is a first year PhD student researching how message framing can be used to promote environmentally friendly behaviours.
The right image mage can be a powerful way to capture and engage people on an important issue. Three main tips for selecting the right image are:
Use images that evoke an emotional connection.
Use images that are recognised as relevant to the topic/issue being communicated.
Use images that are personally relevant to the viewer.
In a recent study, I applied these principles in the context of sustainable urban storm-water management.
The Australian government is investing large amounts of money in new, sustainable storm-water management initiatives. These initiatives will help address future challenges associated with increasingly extreme rainfall events like storms, cyclones and flood. But as with any new policy initiative, the government must ensure that the wider community is supportive of this transition away from traditional storm-water management practices. The traditional storm-water systems focus on pipes and sewer systems, and the new systems use more sustainable solutions such as rain-gardens, green-walls and wetlands.
Knowing which images engage or disengage people can help people to better understand this transition.
The Australian government is investing in new “water sensitive” storm-water management like rain-gardens (left) and green-walls (right).
To understand how people engage with pictures related to storm-water management, I showed 70 different images (commonly used in communications about storm-water management) to a group of community members from Brisbane, Queensland. I asked this community which images created the most emotional connection, were perceived to be relevant to the topic of storm-water management, and were considered to be personally relevant to them.
What I found was that images of nature, especially images of oceans and reefs, were very good at creating an emotional connection. These same pictures were thought to be personally relevant, but most people did understand their relevance to storm-water management.
Conversely, everyone indicated that pictures of traditional storm-water infrastructure, such as drains and storm-water outlets, were relevant to the topic, but they evoked disgust. We also found that people thought these pictures were the least personally relevant of all the pictures shown.
Images of familiar environments such as local parks and cityscapes, and images that included people engaging with their natural environment, such as riding a bike or walking in a park, were considered to be highly personally relevant. Unfortunately, people did not feel strong emotional connections to new storm-water management solutions such as rain-gardens and green-walls. These were also not considered relevant to the topic or personally relevant to them. Only images of flooding elicited strong emotional connections for people and were considered both relevant to the topic and personally relevant.
This suggests that images of localised flood events represent the best opportunity to engage community members with the topic of storm-water management.
Overall, the results of our study highlight that it is difficult to find one “perfect” image.
Aside from images of flooding, no other images successfully created an emotional connection, and were seen to be relevant to the topic as well as personally relevant.
We must be careful to select images that match the goals of our message. For example, if the goal was to have people feel good about a storm-water management policy, then using images of drains and storm-water outlets would be counterproductive. However, this type of image may be helpful to help people recognize the connection to storm-water management. Whereas, including images of familiar landscapes and/or people would be best is to increase the personal relevance of sustainable urban storm-water management.
Ultimately while images can be a powerful way to engage people with pro-environmental messages, some are more effective, and some may even be detrimental. The study highlights the importance of conducting research to improve our understanding of the role of images in pro-environmental campaigns.
You can read more about the results of our study here.
- Tracy Schultz
All researchers in the Social Change Lab contribute to the "Do Good" blog. Click the author's name at the bottom of any post to learn more about their research or get in touch.