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.


  1. says

    …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.

    That’s not a bug, it’s a feature. I notice that most of the people who insist that “we shouldn’t be taking account of race at all,” are doing so in response to people who are either observing an unfair racial disparity, or advocating some policy to address such disparity. The most blatantly ridiculous example of such quibbling is when people like Ron Paul insist that black people should always think of themseslves as individuals, never as members of a particular ethnic group. (I’m sure he says the same thing to his racist chums, which of course makes it all okay, right?) The goal of all this “color-blindness” rhetoric is to prevent “other” people from thinking of themselves collectively, and thus prevent them from taking any meaningful collective action to fight whatever injustice they suffer because of who they are.

  2. says

    As your stereotypical straight white guy, I got sucked into the racial blindness idea being ideal. Posts like this help illustrate that while it is a laudable goal, just jumping to it ends up doing harm or entrenching an unacceptable status quo.

    I do think that it would be an ideal to get to, and it is nice to see that the idea of it is at least somewhat useful in preventing snap-judgements. That doesn’t make assuming it as a default stance now a particularly good idea though.

  3. says

    Not disputing your claim, but here’s a fun way, I think, to mess with people’s minds: cover their hair. I recall seeing some years ago a pair of people in a very high-tech full body olympic swimsuits. Speaking as an artist with a concentration in life drawing I didn’t immediately realize the smaller one was female, and part of it was that I didn’t have the feminine cues (hair, being covered up with a cap.) Plus, of course, the woman was muscular and her breasts flattened. But that image *really* drove home how close the male and female body plans *actually* are, stripped of our (media-mediated) expectations.

    Second case: a bank teller, who was very very pale. However, given the venue (poor, mostly black area of Detroit) and her hair, crinkled and red, I knew she had to be biracial. That is, socially black. Had her hair been covered and the bank located in Birmingham, I no doubt would have coded her as white. In a third case a friend was described by another mutual friend as black though I’d considered her white and/or hispanic (and still do). All of us have the same middle-class RP, and relatively smooth hair. The mutual friend is seeing the same person I do, but because of her own background and experiences, classifies differently.

    So I’m betting the subjects in the photos had uncovered hair. If the researchers had cropped *just the faces* I suspect both gender and race in some ambiguous situations would have been a lot harder to parse. Which, admittedly is just another way of saying both race and gender have strong social constructions. —And people wonder why black women spend so much time and effort straightening their hair!

    But even though I know this, it still gets me when I’m tripped up by those assumptions.

  4. Rip Steakface says


    I’ve observed this too. There was a (both practicing and ethnically) Jewish person in my high school civics class who would wear a head-covering, so all I saw was her face. I easily identified her as female, but I actually coded her as a pale Mizrahim (Middle Eastern) Jew and not Ashkenazi (European) Jew as she was.

  5. smrnda says

    I spent some time as a’ white minority’ so I’ve always rejected the notion of ‘color blindness’ – whether Taiwan or the south side of Chicago, I was obviously white and would be perceived as such (not that it ever came with any negative effects.) Race is just way more salient when you aren’t the majority – you expect to be perceived of as a Member of your Race long before anyone knows anything else about you. I didn’t hold this against anyone since if white people are a rarity, you’ll notice a white person, and if anything it made things work out better for me.

    When people like Ron Paul say that Black people should think of themselves as ‘individuals’ and not members of a race, given what he (or Lew Rockwell) has written, it’s clear that he definitely notices the race of Black people. Also, a guy like Ron Paul doesn’t think of himself as a white guy, but as an “American” but is probably unable to see how his vision of an “American” is basically “an angry old white guy.” My agreement that ‘individuals’ is a way for white people to tell minorities not to work together collectively whereas white people are already perceiving them collectively and then denying it.

    Something I wanted to ask – now and then I cannot tell what race a person is, and this causes me no anxiety; I’ll find out if and when I find out, but I notice that some people seem to almost experience anxiety about a person whose race they cannot determine. Anybody have any thoughts on that? Someone once told me cynically that it’s because without that information, the person doesn’t know what stereotypes to apply, but I’d like anybody’s thoughts.

  6. freemage says

    I’m not sure I agree that race is the only issue treated with a head-in-the-sand approach; I’d certainly argue that there’s as many people arguing for ‘gender-blindness’, for instance (at least, among those who have given up vocally supporting sexist structures, which still seems to have more credence in some parts of American society than openly supporting racist structures).

    That said, yes, it’s a seductive trap. I had to read the results of several studies that made it clear that we, as a species, haven’t yet evolved to the point where we CAN ignore race–that demonstrated that, deprived of the usual visual cues, we would go so far as to look for secondary indicators (address and name spelling on loan forms and job applications, for instance) in order to continue to discriminate–before I actually accepted that no, as a matter of fact, race-blind policies don’t work.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    I may (or may not) be able to ignore gender and skin tone, but I’ll always have my buttons pushed by that extra vowel in “colour”…

  8. invivoMark says

    Something that always comes to mind when I think about “color blindness” is how a person’s appearances in general, aside from race, affect judgment and how they are perceived. Now, certainly in many areas, where racist behavior is prominent, both overtly and subconsciously, talking about and being aware of race and race issues are important.

    But if we were to get away from the overt racism, say, in a medium-sized highly progressive college town, I think there is potentially a lot more variation of appearances within a race than between races, and that will end up reflecting more on behavior and perceptions than race will.

    For instance, I’m not a large guy. I have a small frame for my height, I wear glasses, and my face has slightly unusual proportions, so I will never have what you would call an imposing presence. I’ve been told I have a “professorial look”. There are many things that people would assume about me because of my appearances. Most of them would probably be accurate, so I don’t mind so much, but I have friends who are very similar to me in personality but radically different in looks. People react to them differently than they would to me.

    My thoughts on this aren’t complete enough to form a coherent thesis here, so this post is more of a ramble than anything. But it’s something that sticks on my mind whenever I think about race in any context relevant to my life and my surroundings. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, Cromm, but I don’t think I could even phrase an interesting formal question, so I can’t give you much of a prompt.

    It’s something to think about, I guess?

  9. says

    My agreement that ‘individuals’ is a way for white people to tell minorities not to work together collectively whereas white people are already perceiving them collectively and then denying it.

    Not to mention, the whites are already acting collectively and have been for centuries, to the detriment of non-white peoples.

  10. jay says

    I suspect this is Social Justice 101 stuff, but please help me out here and explain how you reconcile what you (and so many others) write and claim with what Dr. King wrote and said,

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

  11. says

    Okay, so my first instinct was just to snark your head off, but I’ll pretend for a moment that this is a sincere question.

    Let’s suppose I had a dream to be fabulously wealthy. Which do you think would be a better path to achieving that dream: a) working hard, innovating, finding some way to make lots of money; or b) buying a tophat and a monocle and a country club membership and generally behaving as though I was already wealthy? Option A is much more difficult, and one might even say that it has a remote chance of success. However, not only will Option B not get me where I want to go, but will likely plunge me into debt and, if anything, get me further away from achieving my dream.

    The “colour blind” approach is basically just an exercise in lying to yourself (as evinced by the first part of the study). It’s pretending you don’t see race, all the while living in a society and a history that places a great premium on it. What ends up happening is precisely the kind of behaviours that I spell out in this post, and in the previous ones that I have written about this topic. It’s trying to ‘end run around’ the issues of dealing with race by pretending the work is already done, so we can just kick back and lounge in our success. Except we haven’t done the work, and we haven’t succeeded, so all we’re doing is kicking back.

    Of course a King scholar such as yourself (seriously, have you read any of the rest of the speech?) will know that Dr. King did not practice “colour blindness”, nor did he advocate it. So even if I was under some duty to adhere to everything the man said and wrote roughly 50 years ago (which I most certainly am not – Dr. King didn’t live in today’s world), I would still not be at odds with his philosophy in the way you (and so many others) repeatedly claim.

  12. says

    Something I wanted to ask – now and then I cannot tell what race a person is, and this causes me no anxiety; I’ll find out if and when I find out, but I notice that some people seem to almost experience anxiety about a person whose race they cannot determine. Anybody have any thoughts on that? Someone once told me cynically that it’s because without that information, the person doesn’t know what stereotypes to apply, but I’d like anybody’s thoughts.

    Well, I read a book called Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg. It’s a fictionalized account of the author’s experiences, first as a lesbian and later as a trans man. From his account, and from those of other transgender and non-binary people, just existing as a person who can’t quickly be assigned to the “man” or “woman” box is extremely mentally disturbing to many people, to the point that they’ll resort to physical violence to rectify their cognitive dissonance. I can easily imagine that a similar phenomenon is at work for people who are upset about people who don’t fit the various race boxes we have. I suppose it depends on how much importance a person places on their own identity being X, in opposition to that which is not-X. Like, if it’s really important to you that you’re white, and that means a lot of things about your identity to you, discovering that “white” is really a made-up category would be disturbing.

    I highly recommend the book, by the way. Very well-written and fascinating not only for the author’s story, but also for the window into working class American culture in the late 20th century.

  13. says

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    Refraining from making the fallacious leap from “black” to “conforms to my negative stereotypes about black people” =/= pretending “black” isn’t a thing.

  14. jay says

    Thank you for your response.

    You wrote 4 paragraphs. Paragraph 4 was responsive to my question. Paragraph 3 is interesting and worthy of discussion and nice background to Paragraph 4. Paragraph 2 was word salad (perhaps it got away from you.) Paragraph 1 was a statement about your assumptions, about the world you believe you inhabit. It’s always good to question one’s assumptions.

    Your argument seems to have the form:

    1. Color blindness as you think of it leads to big problems.
    2. You haven’t read enough of King, he wrote at other times differently regarding color blindness.
    3. King did not mean color blindness as you think he did
    4. King did not practice color blindness as you think he did.
    5. What King may have meant for 1963, what may have worked for 1963, does not work in 2013.

    I think 1 is worthy of discussion, but that’s not the topic here.

    I would have appreciated more than assertions of 2, 3, 4, and 5. A link to someone’s analysis would be very much appreciated.

  15. says

    #1 is the subject of the post you’re commenting on, so I’m going to go ahead and say it’s relevant.

    As for #2 through #5 (#3 is something you’ve just invented, because as far as I know Dr. King never even mentioned the words “colour blind” ever), I think you’re confusing me with a library. I’m not here to do your homework for you. You’re the one dragging the ghost of a dead civil rights activist into a conversation that has nothing to do with him. If you have a claim, then make it. Otherwise I have a whole bunch of ‘off’ for you to fuck.

    The quote you provide does not support the “colour blindness” approach. At all. That’s how I “reconcile” those two things. If you’re having a hard time understanding why, then I wish I felt bad for you but I don’t.

  16. says

    In Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream speech”, says he dreams of a day in the future when his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin”. From his perspective, he was still so involved with peeling back the layers of very overt racism that he could not know what the racial landscape would be like in his children’s lifetimes. It was a dream, not a prediction. We are closer in many ways than we were when he gave that speech, but it is a sad fact that people still look at his children and treat them differently than they would if they appeared white. I’m not sure how many generations we are from his dream. Certainly King never suggested ignoring race as a way to achieve that dream.

    The research cited above, and much other research in social psych, says that we are actually not very good judges of how color blind we ourselves are. There is plenty of evidence that people in the racial majority are just not as conscious of the amount that perceptions of race affect their judgements. Racist attitudes have been part and parcel of our culture for centuries, and we grow up steeped in that culture. Passing a few laws cannot make the unconscious attitudes connected to that culture go away.

    Probably the most important thing for a skeptic to be skeptical of is one’s own self-judgements. I don’t think of myself as racist at all, but if I pay attention, I can see myself do all sorts of things where I respond differently to people depending on how I perceive their race. I don’t intend to, and I’m not consciously choosing to, but I find myself doing it.

  17. says

    Err…when MLK said that he had a dream that his children wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, I’m pretty damn sure he meant that they actually wouldn’t be judged by the color of their skin, not that white folks would just PRETEND not to be judging them by the color of their skin while actually doing exactly that.

    I’m also quite sure he didn’t mean that we wouldn’t “notice” race, which is impossible anyway because you can’t just choose not to receive certain visual stimuli from your eyeballs. But noticing =/= judging. I notice that one of my friends has brown hair and another has black hair, but I somehow manage not to judge either of them on the basis of that.

    Of course, we have such a long way to go before race becomes like hair color in that sense that it doesn’t even feel possible right now.

  18. Edward Gemmer says

    It is an interesting thought. Personally, as a white person, I am pretty color-blind when it comes to black people, but that is more because my partner and my kids are black, and I’m a public defender in an urban area, so the bulk of my clients are black as well. The studies above are a symptom of the way I think we biologically organize others – gender being first, followed by race and other appearance clues such as attractiveness. If we pretend people don’t categorize people this way, we are ignoring reality. OTOH, I think people can grow out of this with enough time and experience (well, with race at least), and it is a good goal. I think it’s hard to strongly say one way or the other is the way to go.

  19. says

    I don’t want people to be blind to my race. I don’t think most racialized people do. I think “colour blindness” is a terrible goal. Acceptance and blindness don’t fall on the same axis.

  20. says

    I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

    Yeah, and I’m dreaming of a world in which my daughters get seen as individuals with individual characters and likes and tastes and strengths and weaknesses and not some uniform members of the group “female”. That means I have to see and understand clearly how they are put into boxes NOW.
    Acting like race wasn’t salient and an important factor in today’s society because we want a future where it isn’t is the same as ignoring your broken leg now because you want to run a marathon in summer.

    I think that one of the reasons why white people might be slower when paired with a black partner is because the actually decent people try so hard not to fuck up that that makes them fuck up.

    I noticed my own personal fuck-up some time in December. I had unintentionally been an arrogant douche-canoe to Russian German immigrants. How come?
    When I grew up, the main immigrant groups in Germany were Turkish people and Italians. The racist’s way to other them was to immediately address them on a first name basis (German has a clear pronoun-system that indicates status or familiarity), something you actually don’t do to a strange adult, but to a child. So, since my parents aren’t racist assholes they taught me about this.
    Now the community I live in consists mainly of Russian-German immigrants, especially among the families with small children. What I didn’t realize was that within this community people were much faster to use the familiar form, so by trying hard not to other them and using the polite form I othered them and told them “we are not the same, I don’t belong to your group”. And I’m still hesitant to use the familiar form, I must always remind myself that “these are the rules of the community I actually want to be part of”.

  21. Edward Gemmer says

    I don’t want people to be blind to my race. I don’t think most racialized people do. I think “colour blindness” is a terrible goal. Acceptance and blindness don’t fall on the same axis.

    Well, I don’t think anyone will ever be blind to other races (unless they are actually blind). And I agree that pretending to be colorblind doesn’t really accomplish much. In my experience white people are more likely to not use race as a descriptor, even when asked what someone looks like, even when mentioning his race would immediately identify the person.

    But that being said, as people we see people and immediately start to make assumptions and generalizations based on all sorts of factors – gender, race, attractiveness, the way they speak, what they say, etc. I don’t think it is controversial to say that a man’s thoughts will be very different depending on whether he is approached by a beautiful woman or an elderly man. This is pretty natural.

    This ongoing series of assumptions based on race is also natural, but not especially helpful or rational. These people pretending to be colorblind still have their ongoing assumptions, but they tend to try and repress them and in doing so aren’t at all comfortable with black people. This is not good. What would be good is if the ongoing assumptions were dulled down so that they were nearly nonexistent, which is to me, what the idea of colorblindness is really about. It isn’t about recognition of race or not, but eliminating the assumptions that go along with recognizing race.

  22. NoAssume says

    There may be something worse: a grand project, an Ethnoclasm, to interbreed and bring an *actual* end to the existence of races. While this might end the material impoverishment along lines of race, it would probably result in the traditions and cultures of Europe replacing all others despite the fact that such a result is the opposite of the intended goal.

  23. NoAssume says

    @Giliel: In fact proven in study. White people are subject to stereotype threat that makes them more racist.

  24. anon1152 says

    You wrote: ” 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.”

    —- I completely agree that colour-blindness or gender-blindness is problematic. It is especially problematic today. But I think it is problematic today precisely because of how successful the colour-blind ideal has been in the past. There was a time when colour mattered when it came to getting (or not getting) registered as a voter; or going to a certain school; or using a certain waterfountain or washroom. Those days are gone. Today, washrooms and waterfountains are “colour-blind”. I think that’s a significant achievement that we shouldn’t forget.

    Racism (of course) hasn’t gone away. Even overt racism hasn’t gone away. But it (overt racism) is dying. And new forms of racism have “evolved” to survive in a “colour-blind” environment. Racism is like a bacteria that develops antibiotic resistance. But I think we should give penicillin it’s due. OK. That may be a bad metaphor. My point is that I think we should acknowledge the progress that has been made, because (ironically) the progress that has been made (with a colour-blind ideal) has become part of the problem we now face.

    I wish I understood Hegel. There may be some sort of Hegelian dialectical process at work here.

  25. anon1152 says

    This might help clarify my previous comment….

    You wrote: ” I think “colour blindness” is a terrible goal. Acceptance and blindness don’t fall on the same axis.”

    I’ve already agreed that colour blindness is a terrible goal insofar as I think it is a terrible goal now, today. But I’m not sure about the second sentence.

    I agree that acceptance and blindness are not the same thing.

    But when I hear the terms “colour blind” or “gender blind” I assume that “blindness” in this context was intended as a metaphor for “acceptance.”

    For example, one might recognize the colour of a person’s hair or eyes, while being “blind” to it during a job interview (insofar as the colour of their hair or eyes doesn’t matter in the context of the job interview). One is not literally “blind” to hair colour, but one accepts it, and accepts the owner of any hair colour as an equal. I think that’s the goal of “colour blindness”.

    Quick question. When Bob Marley sings: “Until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes, I’ve got to say war!”. Is he articulating an ideal of “colour blindness” or something else?

  26. says

    I’m sure what Bob Marley meant was that we should all pretend that everybody has the same color eyes, and assiduously avoid mentioning the color of everyone’s eyes, and get all shifty-eyed and uncomfortable whenever someone starts talking about how their baby has the most beautiful brown eyes.

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