Updated: Jan 31
If you describe yourself as culturally or racially 'colorblind,' what you aim to tell people is that you judge the content of a person’s character, not the color of their skin. That's a positive message of unity and acceptance. So why do some people roll their eyes at the popular saying? Why are articles written in earnest that decry being colorblind?
The problem lies in the disconnect between what a colorblind individual wants to say and what they’re actually saying. Here, I’ll debunk some common misconceptions and hopefully convince you to ditch that slogan. Plus, read to the end for three new things you can say instead.
NOTE: I am a black woman and I will stick to examples that highlight black struggles, but know that people of any race can claim to be colorblind. The first place I heard this phrase was from my black drama teacher and, yes, it’s still wrong.
4 Misconceptions v. Realities About Cultural/Racial Colorblindness
“‘I don’t see color’ is a good way to let others know I’m accepting of all types of people.”
While there are countless real life examples of discrimination, bias, and racism, one widely experienced phenomenon is ‘shopping while black,' where shop attendants ignore their black customers, follow only black customers around the store to ensure they don’t steal, or even refuse to accept payment from black customers (this one has happened to me!) Colorblind individuals might see the pattern of race based discrimination but choose to believe there is some other factor dictating the store employee’s actions, or maybe even that the discrimination was the black customer’s fault because of how they were acting or how they dressed. Which brings me to my next myth vs. fact.
Colorblindness leaves no room for racist ideologies.
Colorblindness and race based prejudice are more closely related than they might seem.
Racism is prejudice or discrimination directed at a person based on their race or ethnicity. It is also the belief that one racial group is superior while another is inferior. Racism flourishes where learned behavior meets unchecked unconscious biases. Colorblindness suppresses even positive race talks, allowing unconscious biases to go unchallenged.
This can leave a person without the language to discuss race topics, which may then lead to insensitive slip-ups at best, and discriminatory behavior that gets someone hurt or killed at worst.
Colorblindness puts us all on an equal playing field.
Colorblindness raises you above historically marginalized groups by saying, ‘I am privileged enough not to see your issues and I can pretend we all have the same starting point.'
This is most relevant in workplace discrimination. Employees are told there is growth potential in their workplace, there are competitive rates on commissions, or that bonuses and special projects are available to any employees who are willing to work hard. Yet, all too often, black employees are passed over despite impressive work portfolios. With the illusion of equality, it’s easy to deny discriminatory practices. But trends in the workplace can reveal hidden biases that cannot be ignored, like in the case of Warren v Xerox Corporation, which spanned from 2001 to 2014. Six black sales agents filed a discrimination suit against Xerox for racially motivated unfair treatment and won.
Colorblindness puts people first, not their ethnicity.
Colorblindness emphasizes ‘me before you.’
While a racially colorblind person is able to put every other factor aside and view a historically marginalized person as no different from others, many people of those underrepresented groups feel as though their race or ethnicity precedes them into a room, especially in spaces where they are the minority.
Years ago, I visited a restaurant with a friend and her father. My friend was excited to go to this restaurant because her family had been regular customers her whole life and she hadn’t been in a long time. When the three of us walked in, my friend and her father saw familiar faces and a cozy atmosphere. I saw confederate flags strung up all around the dining room and it instantly made me uncomfortable. I felt like I'd wandered into someone else's clubhouse by mistake, that everyone was staring at me - the only black person in the dining room. My friend later asked me why I’d been so quiet during dinner and my answer shocked her. She hadn’t noticed the things I had. Her colorblindness had made her blind to me.
In short, colorblindness is selective obliviousness.
“But I don’t mean it that way!” you shout. I'm glad you don't, and if you’ve read this far, I know you’ll be as horrified as my friend to realize that you’ve been miscommunicating the whole time. So, as promised, here are three common phrases that echo colorblindness and what you can say instead.
DON’T SAY: I don’t see color
DO SAY: a person’s ethnicity does not determine the level of respect I give them.
DON’T SAY: There’s only one race, the human race
DO SAY: If you want a slogan, how about ‘more variety, better society!’
DON’T SAY: I’m cool with everyone who’s cool with me
DO SAY: I treat everyone with respect and common decency until they give me a reason not to.
BONUS: Everyone should be treated equally - Yes, we should. But treating people equally means we have to make room for efforts that allow historically marginalized people to catch up before we move forward. You don’t have to stop saying this phrase as long as you aren’t saying it to criticize inclusion efforts that seek to correct systemic injustices and biases.
The goal of diversity and inclusion efforts is not to have a society where we don’t see color, nor is it to have a society where we see ourselves as the same, but to have a society where we acknowledge, champion, and celebrate diversity without using it to discriminate.