Colour blindness – not a virtue

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.


  1. says

    Great post, Sir! This is something I’ve struggled with often over the years. I think you’re spot on, though, when you state, “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.” This really is key to the issue, and we can never achieve the color blind state while the negative effects of racial difference persist.

    I agree wholly with your conclusions here, but come to that agreement along a different path, I think. Though I grew up in northern Minnesota (land of the Great White Scandinavian (I’m not Scandinavian, but I am white)), I was fortunate enough to experience a good bit of cultural diversity. Part of my mother’s employment in the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s involved resettling Southeast Asian “Boat People” (Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese folks), and later, helping in the same capacity with Ethiopian refugees. Looking back, I feel I can honestly say that as a child, race had no impact on my feelings or impressions of these folks. Many of the children were the same age as me, and though there was a language barrier, as I recall it wasn’t enough of a barrier stop us from playing together. But, as one grows and learns more about the world, the differences between people become more defined (for good or for ill). One also sadly becomes aware of how much strife these differences have caused over the millennia.

    In any case, at some stage, color becomes a factor; if for no other purpose than to serve as a physical indicator. At this middle point of my life, I don’t believe it is possible for me NOT to see color. So, to pretend that we are all the same, that race difference does not exist would require me to willfully ignore that difference. To me, this is akin to ignoring the lack of evidence for a supreme being, or, say, the laws of gravity that keep our feet on the ground. It’s a simple impossibility (for me, anyway). And as you say, ignoring the difference effectively dismisses both the beneficial and negative aspects of diversity. And that does a supreme disservice to the wonderfully varied and diverse human community as a whole.

  2. says

    Thanks for the comment, Chris.

    I think your experience is very interesting, and definitely different from my own. It’s gratifying to know that the relevance of these ideas are not simply confined to my own personal world-view and experience.

  3. Lotharloo says

    Wow, this completely changed my mind! I could see nothing wrong with being color-blind but what is written here makes sense. Thanks a lot!

  4. says

    Hmm… I’m not sure the evidence from that study is quite as compelling as you may think, especially since it was a study of a mere 217 students at a single college. I also think that the study seems to be fixed to produce the outcome that it did.

    Perceived racism is not the same as actual intended racism and this study appears to be measuring the ‘context-free’ perceived levels of racism within a small population and then claiming that this is evidence of actual racism. Do you not think these results could just be due to heightened sensitivity to the potential for racism, not evidence of actual racism in progress?

    Dressing up as someone of a different race isn’t an inherently racist act either (though it might be inherently offensive). Actors may be required to do this as part of a play for example. It doesn’t make them racist – even if the outfit is explicitly racist (Minstrel make-up for a period drama, or Nazi costumes for example). But show a photo of them in costume to someone without letting them know the context of the situation involved and they understandably might think it incredibly racist.

    At fancy dress parties you’ll find no shortages of Hitlers, Osama bin Ladens (George Bushes) and other costumes designed to cut close to the edge of acceptable taste – can we really expect everyone to offend no-one all of the time? What right does anyone have to tell a white person it’s wrong to dress up as say Mr. T. or Jimmy Hendrix if they love those people? And what right does anyone have to stop a black person from doing the same if they so choose to?

    You’ve not changed my mind I’m afraid (though it was an interesting read all the same). I still think colour blindness before the law is the only sensible path to equality. It will take time for society and attitudes to adjust but to me it’s the only way that stands a chance of working.

    I also don’t think that having such a view makes me less “racially sensitive” (or an outright racist as the article suggests) just I understand that a person can’t take things at face value all of the time. You have to ask yourself, what is the motivation here? Bigotry or bad taste? There’s actually a huge difference between the two, and I’d say, if you can’t work out the motivation (as you can’t from a simple photo) you should reserve judgement somewhat. Being labelled a ‘racist’ is as offensive as any racial slur to a none-racist.

  5. Crommunist says

    Intent is meaningless in this context – we judge the action by the harm it commits, not by whether or not the person meant it that way. I might not mean to marginalize gay people when I call my buddy a “total fag” for watching Twilight, but that is the effect of my actions, and it is right to judge them by that standard. You’re failing to make the distinction between labeling an action as racist (which those costumes clearly are) and labeling a person as racist, which is mostly incoherent.

    There is a difference between dressing in a costume for a play and doing so for fun. I’m pretty sure you understand that distinction, so I’m not sure why you put that red herring out there.

    What right does anyone have to tell a white person it’s wrong to dress up as say Mr T. or Jimmy Hendrix if they love those people?

    What right does a Jewish person have to label an action as anti-Semitic? What right does a gay person have to label an action as homophobic? What right does an X have to label an action as Y? If the action causes offense, people have a right to point out where the offense lies. Nobody is talking about making it illegal to dress in blackface, I am merely pointing out that in doing so you prop up negative stereotypes about disadvantaged groups in a way that most people would agree is unwelcome. If you insist that your right to be racist trumps other people’s right to point out that you’re being racist, then by all means go nuts. You’ll find very little company out on that limb.

    Colour blindness before the law isn’t what this article is about, is it? This is talking about interpersonal interactions. The reason it doesn’t work is, as I point out, because only one group – the group that is rarely on the receiving end of racism – benefits from “colour blindness”. The rest of it is just failing to talk about actual problems in such a way that they don’t disappear, we just lose the ability to identify them because we’ve got our blinders on.

    I don’t know what the term “a racist” or “a non-racist” means. Despite what you repeatedly assert, I do not recognize the all-healing powers of “intent” – as though oppressed minorities should tolerate racist actions because people “didn’t mean it”, thereby absolving the offender of any responsibility and keeping the weight firmly pressed on those already at the bottom of the power divide. And if you think that being called “racist” is as bad as being called a nigger, then you’re outside of your damn mind.

  6. says

    As a disabled person, I loved the analogy of treating everyone the same by eliminating Welfare (a truly terrifying concept for those of us incapable of forcing the “free market” to pay us a living wage commensurate with our abilities.)

  7. Onamission5 says

    I am totally bookmarking this so I can refer back the next time I get in an argument with a well intentioned but clueless friend who’s clinging to their color blind banner as if it’s the epitome of enlightenment. My usual response goes something like, “But you’re deliberately ignoring a heap of possible cultural and social factors which could have contributed to this person’s identity!” and also “You might as well have just said, ‘I don’t think of you as an (insert cultural and/or ethnic identity) person.'” Then I have to explain why saying that would make them an asshole. Then I beat my head into a wall.

    I think I like your approach of not beating your head into walls better.

  8. raincloud505 says

    I am amused that even in this outcry for being observant to cultural and racial differences the far ends of the flesh-tone spectrum lose all their unique attributes under the headers “white” and “black.”

    Culture and race are different if someone is Nigerian, South African, or Kenyan. They may speak different languages, have different religions, or have completely disparate values. The same is true if someone is Irish, Swedish, or French. Yet in all the pieces presented here, these groups were lumped together to be “black” or “white.”

    Even when you started picking apart the colour spectrum with the Vietnamese, Pakistani, and Congolese example persons, you lumped all the blanca together under the header “European.” Yes, that continent is responsible for getting its collective offspring all over. No, it’s not all one big mass block of “white” with no culture and no differences to bring to the table.

    In protesting colourblindness as a means to promote stereotypes and crush diversity, you deny that access to cultural identity to everyone you lump together under a colour heading. You do the same to all the “black” people, amalgamating the races and forgetting the things that make them unique and special. In a lot of cases, this is something that their ancestors and their societies have already done to them. Some of those white people have no idea what boat they came over on, no idea what languages they once spoke or whether their people were kings or slaves. The truth of history for many black people was stripped from their ancestors forcibly when even kings were enslaved.

    The purpose behind the path of colourblindness was to let old hatreds die so we could recognize one another as fellow humans. We strove to learn blindness to colour so we might recognize the same hopes, fears, dreams, and insecurities in one end of the rainbow of human flesh that we do in the other. The concept was only a stepping off point. From blindness is birthed either complete amalgamation, or true multiculturalism. Which we get depends on where we go from here.

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