I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term “colour blindness” in a racial context. Basically, the philosophy is that it is virtuous to not see a person’s race, and to behave as though race plays no role in the formation of your opinions or actions. On the surface, this seems like an admirable idea – treat all people as though they are one group of human people, regardless of their background.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:
In a study that examined the associations between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology, Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois, discovered that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes.
The study looked at how students responded to obviously-offensive racist stereotypes depicted by their peers. The first was photos from a “gangsta theme” party in (non-)celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a US holiday – we don’t tolerate that kind of foolishness here in the great white north). The second was two students dressed as Hispanic people wearing t-shirts that said “Spic” and “Span” (for those of you who don’t know, “Spic” is a derogatory term for a Hispanic person). The participants were asked to write a comment on the photo as though they were commenting on a friend’s wall. Students were also administered a racial attitudes survey specifically designed to measure “colour blindness”.
The response was as I would have suspected, and that the proponents of the “colour blind” philosophy would find disheartening. Students who tested high on the “colour blindness” scale were more likely to see nothing wrong with overtly racist depictions of different ethnic groups. There was a direct linear relationship between “colour blindness” and reaction – students who were “colour blind” were less likely to see anything wrong with the pictures. Black students were far more likely to be upset and react negatively to the pictures than white students were (~60% vs. ~20% respectively). Black students were also much less likely to be “colour blind” according to the scale.
As I said, none of this surprises me in the least. Racism can’t be overcome by pretending it doesn’t exist, and race will continue to divide people until we start talking openly about it without fear of reprisal or social ostricization. Colour blindness only works if everyone is equally blind, including those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of racism (a.k.a. visible minorities, a.k.a. non-white people). It’s all well and good to say “I don’t see race”, but to not see it means to ignore the effect that is still has to this day. It’s akin to saying “we should treat all people the same, so we shouldn’t have welfare programs.” Canceling welfare is certainly one way of demonstrating that you consider poor people to be the same as the fabulously wealthy, but it doesn’t do anything to help those who are impoverished, nor does it help identify and remedy the underlying causes of poverty.
Please note that I don’t think people who say they wish to be “colour blind” (some of whom are close friends) are secret racists or anything of the sort. I think they genuinely believe that ignoring race is a solution to the problem of racial injustice. I used to feel the same way. However, the idea of “colour blindness” is basically the same as sticking your fingers in your ears and screweing your eyes shut until race goes away. In fact, as the above study would suggest, this attitude might actually preserve racist attitudes by blinding people to all aspects of race and race discrimination.
I am reminded of an evening I spent with one of my closest friends. She is an immigrant from a country with a strong racial majority and (at the time she moved to Canada) very little black/white racism in its history – today is quite a different story, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. She was telling me that she was excited to meet her (black) boyfriend’s family at a trip that was to take place that summer (I am just going to call him “Tom” and her “Jane” for the sake of clarity). I asked whether they (Tom and Jane) had talked about the inter-racial issue, considering that while he might be as accepting as all-get-out of her race, his family may not be so tolerant. She looked at me like I had grown a second head and said “Ian, race doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in love.” “Doesn’t matter to whom?” I asked.
In the Caribbean (where Tom is from), race matters a great deal. Most of the countries (if not all) were colonized by white Europeans. It’s only been a handful of decades since the colonial powers granted independence to the countries, most of whom are in a very sorry state. There is a deep economic and social divide between white Caribbeans and black Caribbeans. It doesn’t help at all that there is a stereotype (however true or untrue) that white women come in and “poach” the more successful black men as trophies (or vice versa, that successful black men date white women to gain status). Is this fair? Is this ideal? Certainly not! It would be best to recognize the truth – that these two people are dating each other because they are very much compatible and in love; however, the reality of the situation is that their racial makeup will loom large in the eyes of families on both sides. I asked her to imagine what would happen if she went back to her country of origin and introduced her all-white family to her black boyfriend – she wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.
The other flaw in the philosophy of “colour blindness” is that it ignores the other side of race – racial differences can be a positive thing. There are experiences and insights that a Vietnamese or Pakistani or Congolese person can bring to the table that a European person may not have access to (and, of course, vice versa). If we pretend as though everyone is exactly the same, we miss the opportunity to bring the richness and context of cultural heritage to bear on any number of life’s problems. I’m proud of my racial heritage and I certainly don’t want it to be ignored to serve a patronizing view that all racial differences are inherently bad.
People in the “colour blind” camp and I have the same ultimate goal – to see a world in which a person’s race is no more influential in how they are treated than their height or hair colour or weight (which might not be so great if you ask a fat ginger dwarf). However, we approach that goal from very different sides. The “colour blind” philosophy wants to jump right to the end, where through sheer force of will, hundreds of years of racial socialization can be instantly undone. Mine is, I think, a bit more realistic – I want us to acknowledge and discuss the ways in which race affects us both as individuals and as a society. I want to see us take a hard, uncomfortable look at our behaviours and practices and see where race, despite our best intentions, manages to creep in to the way we do things.
As I’ve said before and will continue to say, ignoring racism does not make the problem go away. The answer is to own up to our mistakes and speak openly about race. Only after we can talk about it in the full light of day will its spectral influence finally fade into history.