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Another stake in the heart of colour blindness

I hate “colour blindness” as a racial philosophy. Well-intentioned though it may be, it’s a profoundly unhelpful and unworkable proposed solution to a very serious intercultural issue. Is there any other problem on the planet that we think is best addressed by simply pretending as though it isn’t there*? For every other social issue I can think of, failing to at least appreciate the existence of reality is seen as a vice, not a virtue. And yet, when it comes to race, we have somehow managed to convince ourselves that the ostrich has the right idea.

Liberals and conservatives alike have expressed serious resistance to the idea that ignoring race doesn’t solve race. As I’ve explained before on this blog, a couple of times actually, colour blindness not only doesn’t bring us any closer to solving racial issues, it actually makes us less able to describe and address those issues. Far from being a solution, it makes us silent on the problem, meaning that the unacceptable status quo of racial inequalities is allowed to run its course unopposed.

So once again, it’s skeptics to the rescue, this time with a study examining a novel downside of the “colour blind” approach. Researchers at Tufts and MIT examined the effect of “colour blind” approaches to problem-solving in an experimental setting.

First, the researchers established that white students were more likely than black students to underestimate their own ability to distinguish between people on a racial basis. Participants in the first study ranked their perceived ability to sort a group of photographs along a number of axes (as in plural of axis, not like… chop chop), and tended to report that they wouldn’t be particularly good at distinguishing between faces by race. Race was the #3 fastest axis, behind the colour of the background and the gender of the face. They were also 99% accurate in this sorting. Black participants were no less accurate/speedy, but did not seem to adhere to a self-assessment scale that suggested a “colour blind” approach.

Having demonstrated that white people** demonstrate this preference to see themselves as colour blind, a separate group of students were asked to perform a similar photo-sorting task, this time in partners. Participants were randomly assigned a partner who was either white or black (the ‘partners’ in this case were confederates in the study). When partnered with another white person, participants were able to complete the task more quickly than those who were paired with a black partner. They were also more likely to use racial terminology in describing the photo they were tasked with identifying.

The sessions were videotaped as well, and participants who were paired with a black partner were more likely to avoid eye contact, and were rated as less friendly by observers of the taped sessions. I think this is the key finding of the study, even though the authors seemed to think that the time to completion of the identification task was the more interesting outcome. The “colour blindness” method wasn’t a complete failure in a sense – white participants were loath to racially profile photos who were identified as potential criminals, suggesting that colour blindness was used to consciously avoid making snap racial judgments, which I think we can generally agree is a good thing.

There is a truly disturbing implication to these findings that I want to take a couple of paragraphs to explore. White participants were less able to complete a task with a black partner where race was a salient factor than they were with another white person. This suggests, at least to me, that “colour blindness” and a desire to avoid racial awkwardness means that white folks aren’t as comfortable working on solutions to problems with a racial component with people from outside their own group. In a world where white people still control most of the power and money, this suggests that our most popular method of dealing with race – “colour blind” attitudes – once again makes it more difficult to formulate solutions in ways that adequately include the perspectives of people who are most directly affected by racism.

Interracial conversations between people of colour and people of “colour blindness” were also rated as less friendly and, I would imagine, carried a higher level of anxiety for both participants. This is unfortunate, but matches my experience of talking about race to white people who, despite having positive intentions, trip all over themselves when it comes to making even basic statements about race. I understand exactly why, and what it is they fear, but the fact is that the “colour blind” approach does us exactly zero favours when it comes time to actually deal with the real-life racial implications of certain things. “Colour blindness” might actually end up serving as an incentive to avoid interracial interaction and co-operation, rather than being a path toward it.

There is no shortage of people who interpret Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to mean that a racially harmonious world is one in which people do not notice race. The manifestation of that belief is a fastidious devotion to the practice of behaving as though race was not evident to them, as if wishing it hard enough was all that was required. But as I have said before, simply acting as though you’ve already reached a goal is not a path to achieving it. All we gain by deluding ourselves is a false sense of accomplishment, which is inevitably accompanied by a sense of impotent dread any time we are confronted with the reality of our ignorance.

It is for this reason that I think we need to engage more in racial conversations; not less. The dream of a world in which racism no longer plays a role in our lives is perhaps possible, but any road we’d like to take there must first go through the intermediate destination of racial awareness, rather than the route through racial ignorance we’ve been trying to navigate for too long.

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*Commenter freemage rightly points out that “gender blindness” is a buzz-word you often see in anti-feminist discourse.

**There is a major problem in these studies, which is that they are carried out on college students. It is not fair to generalize the entire population of white people from people in their late adolescence, when social bonding skills are still forming. College is also an environment that bears no resemblance to anywhere else in the world, so interpret these studies with a certain amount of suspicion as to their generalizability.