Why you shouldn’t be colorblind

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Chances are, you’ve heard a co-worker say something along the lines of:

“I didn’t even notice he was black. Everyone is the same to me. I don’t see color! He could be black, brown, purple, or polka-dotted, it wouldn’t make a difference to me!”

What’s wrong with the statement above?

Well, for one, it’s a big fat lie. All of us notice variations in skintone, facial features, hair texture, eye color, and the myriad of other phenotypic factors that cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.

Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color? Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.

But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on the race you think the person is.

Yes, even if those assumptions you make are positive. Ideas about “strong black women” or “smart Asians” are still racist because they reduce human beings to two-dimensional caricatures and assume that race predetermines intellectual, physical, and emotional traits.

More importantly, when you proclaim that you’re colorblind, what you’re really implying is that race doesn’t matter in America. While it’s true that race is not a biological reality, it is a very real social construct that has a profound impact on our lives. Race still matters because racism is alive and well. Pretending otherwise negates the everyday experiences of millions of people of color in this country.

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond said it best when he stated that colorblindness means being “blind to the consequences of being the wrong color in America today.”

Also, when’s the last time you saw a purple person?

Here are posts from other blogs on the topic of colorblindness, if you’d like to do some more reading on the subject:

Race Relations 101 - Colorblindness
Colorblind Racism
Say what? Colorblind, Part II
Colorblind Racism vs. Old Fashioned Racism

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Life Links 8 (They’re New!) « My Sky ~ Multiracial Family Life on 08 Nov 2007 at 2:49 pm

    […] Colorblind by Carmen Van Kerckhove (my editor at Anti-Racist Parent) from Race in the Workplace […]

  2. Feministe » Sex shouldn’t matter in politics. Let’s all be gender-blind! on 15 Nov 2007 at 1:08 pm

    […] bloggers have been trying to explain for some time now why the concept of racial “color-blindness” is both insulting and unhelpful. You know what I’m talking about — you’ve either heard others say, or have said […]

  3. Here it is: Carnival of Human Resources #21 at Race in the Workplace - how diversity, race and racism influence our working lives on 29 Nov 2007 at 4:32 pm

    […] to respond to a racist joke Why you shouldn’t be colorblind Diversity training doesn’t work. Here’s why. If diversity training doesn’t work, why do […]

Comments

  1. Ana Casian lakos wrote:

    Thank you!

    I think i’m going to forward this to all my peers, right now.

  2. Seattle Slim wrote:

    Oh so true! Very well said and absolutely on point. When people say that to me it irritates me because I know when I’m being lied to. I don’t care if you notice my race, just don’t assume anything about me based off of that.

  3. TheLostGirl wrote:

    I wish I had the guts to show this to the people I work with! Keep up the great work… ery thought provoking

  4. Anita wrote:

    Oh, so true. To claim “colorblindness” is to just be blind to the parts of me that don’t conform to the white standard. To be honest, while growing up I knew I couldn’t change my brown skin, but I would do everything else to make white people forget I wasn’t white– didn’t talk about my immigrant parents, worked hard to not to talk with their accent, never dressed in “ethnic” clothing.

  5. Ina wrote:

    The unfortunate of America inparticular is that it’s foundation is built on color. So no, you can not say you do not see color.

    How about we do see human? Because unless everyone is seen as as part of the universe and yes God created us all equal there within lies the problem of our differences. Whether you understands a person’s enviornment or culture no matter how different from yours’, we all are human. Let’s try respecting that fact first.

  6. Naeemah wrote:

    Thank you for this article! I’ve always despised this statement, particularly in “diversity” workshops. “Seeing” race does not mean that you accept the stereotypes associated with that race. In fact, if you don’t “see me” as an African-American woman then you don’t see ME, because being African-American is part of my identity.

  7. KT Lee wrote:

    My initial reaction to the article — okay, so we shouldn’t be colorblind — then what should we be? This article does not address the solution.

    I always thought of being colorblind as a positive thing. It’s not that you don’t notice a person’s race or physical characteristics, but that you don’t let society’s prejudices or preconceptions about race determine your judgment of a person. You accept them as a person regardless of skin color–they are just who they are to you. To me it also does not mean that one is unaware of or is insensitive to the racial issues in this country. And neither does it mean that I am lying when I say that I am colorblind. Aren’t you prejudging a person and their motivations when you accuse them of lying just because they use the term “colorblind”?

    Like I said, I always viewed the term in a positive way, e.g., “colorblind casting”, meaning that you find the best person for an acting role, regardless of race. I understand that some find this term difficult or offensive because they take it to mean that the person saying it does not see the parts of them that are not of the mainstream White culture, even if they mean well. All I can say is that I agree with Ina, that we should just see human and love our neighbor as ourselves.

    Maybe I view this term differently because I am note a typical White American, and I have lived overseas. Meanwhile, I believe that it will require a lot of patience, understanding and respect between all Americans to achieve a solution.

  8. Herb wrote:

    Carmen,
    I hope my Dr never claims “colorblindness”, there are very real differences between our races and we need preventative medicine as such. Sunscreen for a white bald head anyone? Anyway; Carmen, you mentioned 2 examples of racist assumptions appertaining to Black and Asian people. When do wide spread traits become attributes even though they do not relate to 100% of a race? If you think Asians are not “smart” as an attribute, don’t get involved with any international competitive contracts or the like. You will find out quickly how “dumb” white people are as they brag and divulge trade secrets just to look good to others. Just study how Japanese Honda and Toyota took over our automobile market by just showing up with cash, keeping their mouths shut, and recorded all the bragging by boastful whites. Soon afterwards, here come the rest of the workers from Japan and out go the whites. Asians, on the whole to include rich or poor spanning social-economic groups, earned the right to be considered “smart” by sacrificing everyday comforts and earning extra money to educate their children beyond the regular age appropriate schooling by tutors, music lessons, and going to school 6 days a week in school uniforms.
    Carmen, be careful not to let only your own observations and current research be the “absolute” when it comes to explaining race relationships here in America. The book you referred to about biological “oneness”, although I only read the summary, may be suspect as a research source as it may be the only one so far with those views. Stereotypes are based in fact even if it is a very small percentage of a group. What you do with that information is what makes the difference…discriminate or promote.

    White guy married to Korean woman.

  9. Jonathan Richardson wrote:

    I loved this article! As to what KT Lee wrote, it is commendable that you would like to see a colorblind society as to rid this country of bigotry, but when the overwhelmingly majority of people talk about not seeing color(and maybe you do so unknowingly yourself) they are detatching themselves from the reality of people of color who,(Because of their race) are treated or talked about differently regularly. When you come along and say that you do not see race, you seem to be like the ostrich which sticks his head in the ground unaware of his surroundings. There are too many issues facing people of color in this country to act as if race is of no significance(school admittance, hiring practices, racial profiling, home loan denials, incarceration disparities…ect.) While we can appreciate people like youself who desire to see people judged strictly by their character, you do us and yourself a disservice by not acknowledging race and all the relative factors that accompany it in this society.

  10. adele wrote:

    How can this argument be taken a stop further: For example, if we can agree that colorblindness does not exist, how would one de-program racist stereotypes described in the article, that for many, were ingrained at an early age?

  11. pgnyc wrote:

    It is possible that when a white person claims to be colorblind, she/he is trying to undo racism while struggling with having the identity of the group that is not targeted by racism. As seems evident in the article and in the comments, it’s not an effective strategy for undoing racism as it ends up being based in defensiveness. (Something along the lines of, “But I’m a GOOD white person”.) One of the things I appreciate about the article is it draws a clear picture of what constitutes racism (believing generalized “facts” about a racial constituency regardless of how complimentary they seem to be). As a “white” person committed to ending racism, I am grateful for such direct and succinct writing. Thanks for doing this valuable work.

  12. Ben wrote:

    I’ve generally assumed that the term colorblind was intentionally created to end any honest discussion about race in the US. It’s a fairly common political tactic of the right which uses language as a tool to avoid real debate. Are there other historical uses of the term that imply an honest attempt at fighting racism?

    I’ve always assumed that when someone uses the word “colorblind’ what they actually mean is “racist.” When they use the word “color” (in this context) they mean “racism.” So, “I’m colorblind, I don’t see color at all” translates fairly clearly.

  13. Bob Hibbs wrote:

    Thanks. This was a most valuable positing. Racialiscious continues to be a daily learning. I’m grateful for it.

  14. Magniloquence wrote:

    Thank you so much for the link! I’m glad this message is getting out.

  15. Sara Garza wrote:

    I completely agree, we shouldn’t say that we don’t see color, because that is not true. I mean I get where it comes from, meaning that color to you doesn’t make a difference. But we should appreciate that others are different just treat them the same. People mean well to say they are color blind because being racist is an awful thing, but we should embrace that everyone has different color skin, hair, heights.

  16. al carroll wrote:

    I think the article is timely and right on target.Hopefully it will wake some people to the truth.

  17. Penelope Trunk wrote:

    Caremen. I alawys learn something when I read your blog. I was thinking to myself today, Why don’t I read it more if I learn something every time? And I think the reason is that you almost always shake up my ideas about what is the “right reponse” in a given situation. So often I have to rework how I think about somethign after I read your blog. This post is no exception. Thank you for being a writer who takes so much energy for me to read.

    Penelope

  18. Eric Daniels wrote:

    Reagan used the word “Colorblind” in a speech in the late 70’s as a response to claims of racism in his life and politcal speeches. “He said he did not see blacks as a race”. Conservatives have used this as their “Black Guilt ” to stop any discussion of issues pertaining to African- Americans. I also resent the other term “People of Color” because that assumes that P.O.C. have the same issues and that is not the case either.

    Minority groups in the U.S. have concerns according to our historcial, politcal and economic realities and failure to realize those issues makes people use power politics as a weapon to gain the majority white elite politcal structure. It emboldens conservatives who oppose any rememdies for past discrimination and allows them to accuses progressives of playing “Idenitity Politics”. We should rally like Obama is saying on issues that affect us all, but let’s admit that no society can or will be colorblind. Failure to deal with that reality leads into situations like Rwanda when ethnic groups get played by a conquerer with tragic results.

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