What it Actually Means When You Say You're "Color-blind"

January 9th 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

Nobody wants to be called racist. Especially not for doing something that they’ve always thought was a good thing to do. Well, dearest white people, buckle in, because one of your favorite things that you love to not only do, but celebrate, is actually quite racist. It’s time to stop saying you’re color-blind.

Let’s ease into this. First of all, if you really think about it, you don’t see a ton of people of color advocating color-blindness. You probably learned that color-blindness was a great idea from a really well-meaning, (white) elementary school teacher. The majority of people of color make no attempts to be color-blind, nor do they advocate it to others. 

The NAACP isn’t called the NAA?P for a reason.

Insisting on not seeing people the way they want to be seen is pretty rude. It would be like if my name was Tiffany, and you insisted on calling me Frank, because you call all your friends Frank and in order to treat someone as a friend they have to be a Frank. And since the average white American has 91 white friends for each one black, Latino, Asian, mixed and other raced friends…clearly the color-blind method isn’t making for a lot of friendships anyway. That’s because, in addition to being rude, being color-blind is an ineffective way of combating racism. Let’s say you have an infection. You go to the doctor, and the doctor says, “Ugh, it bums me out that you have an infection. I’m going to pretend you don’t and give you a hug.” That is probably not going to cure you. You’re gonna need some antibiotics, bro. And if you want to cure racism, you’re gonna have to start by acknowledging race. It’s like the whole first half of the word.

Racism is a problem in this country; pretending not to see something has literally never solved a problem. History has shown that when institutions get rid of race-based affirmative action programs, and focus on color-blind admissions programs, the numbers of people of color getting accepted to those institutions goes down. How can color-blindness simultaneously be not racist and also lead to more segregation?  

For example, since the University of Michigan has banned race-based affirmative action, black enrollment is down 30 percent. Students of color have launched a twitter campaign #BBUM (Being Black at U-M) about the racial aggressions they experience at the university as a result of having so few students of color on campus. Color-blind policies, barred from taking into account past prejudices that have historically kept students of color off of college campuses, not only lead to less students of color being admitted, but also, more incidents of racism on campus. Incidentally, while they have gotten rid of the affirmative action policy, U of M does still have its legacy admissions program which greatly advantages white students (as do most color-blind admissions policies). The irony (and racism) of this can only go unnoticed when you are trying to be color-blind. 

Color-blind policies can also cause life or death problems. Social psychologist Joshua Correll, from the University of Colorado, has developed a software that tests racial bias in police shooting situations. He has found that there is a racial hierarchy in terms of how quickly one will shoot after mistakenly identifying someone holding an innocuous item (such as a cellphone or a wallet) for a gun. Participants (of all races) are most likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed black or Hispanic person and least likely to shoot an unarmed white or Asian person. Police officers shoot more accurately than other participants, but still demonstrate the same bias.

Perhaps the most exciting thing to come out of this research is that after playing the game only four times, participants are much less likely to mistake common objects for weapons, without affecting their shooting times in situations where actual weapons are present. Given the recent national attention and protests surrounding the deaths of black men who were thought to be holding or reaching for weapons that turned out to be innocent items (bags of food, a sandwich, toy guns, a wallet, and, most ridiculously, a young girl), you would think that police departments would be scrambling to get this type of training for their officers. But they are not. Because most don’t think that being more likely to shoot a black man who isn’t holding a weapon is a racial problem. In an attempt to be color-blind, police officers continue not to address a bias that is killing black men at a statistically alarming rate. 

Color-blindness doesn’t work because it assumes an overly simplistic view of what racism is. In the color-blindness model of racism, a racist person sees race, and then goes “I hate you!” And for some reason, color-blindness posits that the solution to that simplified problem is to not see race. Racism is historical and psychological and sociological and complicated and nowhere near as simple as this. But even if it was that simple, why would the "seeing" part be the problem? Isn’t it obvious that the hating part would be the problem? Shouldn’t the obvious solution be to see race and then just not be jerks about it? Is it really just inconceivably difficult to notice each other’s differences, acknowledge the historically different experiences people of different races have had, and then not be jerks to each other?

Most people who claim to be color-blind do so because they don’t like racism. But color-blindness not only doesn’t help to solve racism, it often perpetuates it, and makes it more difficult to implement solutions. Color-blindness isn’t doing anyone (of any race) any favors. So, stop it.