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.
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.