*I am being asked to check my ableist privilege in the comments because of my use of the term ‘disability’ in the title. While I disagree that my intended use of the term is ableist, I am also aware that intent is unimportant. The context in which I am attempting to use the word is to contrast it with the idea that colour blindness is better than colour awareness, and that adopting a posture of being less able to see it is negative because it robs one of the ability to see if when appropriate. My apologies if this use is pejorative. I will avoid using the term without context in the future.
I am reasonably fluent in English, which is lucky since it is the language of the internet. Sometimes, however, I wish I was more fluent in other languages as well. Not simply because I enjoy the phonics of exotic locales, although I definitely do. Not simply because there are some phrases (or bon mots, if you will) that can only be expressed in their native tongue, although that is certainly true. Not simply to appear more classy and well-traveled than I am, although that would be nice. No, the principal reason I wish I spoke more languages was so that I would have enough words to heap my contempt upon the idea of “colour blindness”.
Colour blindness is an arch-liberal invention that seems to be largely built from ignorance and guilt. The supposed ideal behaviour is to behave as though you do not see racial differences between people, so that you will treat everyone equally regardless of their ethnicity. Sounds pretty harmless, right? For those of you unfamiliar with my stance on this particular attitude, the reason colour blindness fails as a useful method of achieving racial harmony is that it tends to blind people (white people principally) to instances of both covert and overt racism. Race has a real impact, and failing to recognize the role it plays in our interactions only serves to mask it behind good intentions rather than exposing it to the scrutiny it requires.
As I discussed this morning, there are types of racism that cannot be solved by simply wishing them away or attributing them to malice from “racists”. Racism should not be treated as merely a personal character flaw of a handful of backward people, but as a topic of conversation for all people to engage in and explore. It’s already happening in some (perhaps) unlikely places:
What accounts for the decidedly non-diverse results in places like Silicon Valley? We have two competing theories. One is that deliberate racisms keeps people out. Another is that white men are simply the ones that show up, because of some combination of aptitude and effort (which it is depends on who you ask), and that admissions to, say Y Combinator, simply reflect the lack of diversity of the applicant pool, nothing more.
The problem with both of these theories is that the math just doesn’t work.
It’s a fact that the applicant pool to most Silicon Valley startup schools and VCs is skewed. Could this be the result of innate differences between white men and other groups? The math simply doesn’t hold up to support this view. Think about two overlapping populations of people, like men and women. They would naturally be normally distributed in a bell curve around a mean aptitude. So picture those two bell curves. Here in Silicon Valley, we’re looking for the absolute best and brightest, the people far out on the tail end of aptitude. So imagine that region of the curve. How far apart would the two populations have to be to explain YC’s historical admission rate of 4% women? It would have to be really extreme.
…what the grownups have discovered, through painstaking research, is that it is extremely easy forsystems to become biased, even if none of the individual people in those systems intends to be biased. This is partly a cognitive problem, that people harbor unconscious bias, and partly an organizational problem, that even a collection of unbiased actors can work together to accidentally create a biased system. And when those systems are examined scientifically, they can be reformed to reduce their bias.
This is actually a really powerful story, and I encourage you to click through and read the whole thing. The author confronts his own privilege by designing and carrying out an experiment in which he actually blinds himself to colour and, lo and behold, his hiring practices changed to include more minorities that would have otherwise not been hired. Despite our best efforts to rid ourselves of intentional racism, it’s the implicit stuff that often goes on beneath the level of our cognition that trips us up again and again. The only way to combat this kind of subconscious and systemic bias is to drag it, kicking and screaming, out into the open where it can be understood and dissected.
The author also makes some good points (good in the sense that they are the same points I’ve made elsewhere) about diversity and how it contributes not only to meritocracy, but increased overall performance of groups as a variety of perspectives are incorporated into the group’s thinking. Colour blindness would rob us of any kind of intentional importation of diversity, because it forces us to behave as though race and ethnicity “don’t matter”, even if they matter in a positive or useful way. While the author doesn’t specifically condemn a colour blind approach, he is essentially talking about the difference between colour-blind people and colour-blind systems, which is at least a step in the right direction.
While I disagree with the passive way in which the author proposes reducing anti-minority bias, as a passive process rather than an active one, I am happy to see these kinds of discussions happening outside of academia. It’s worth a read.
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