Diversity 101: The Problem with ‘Colorblindness’

Colorblindness? Blind to color? Let’s reflect on the implications of this compound word and compound idea.

Blindness first. What does it really mean to be blind? How many of us would choose a sightless, lightless existence? How many of us would choose to be confined in a world of darkness where we could not easily distinguish shapes or spatial dimensions, or the faces of our loved ones? Such a choicewould seem pathological.

Color and blindness? Does this mean a world without color? If so, what would a world without color be like? How would a colorless world change us as individuals, how we relate to others, and how we experience life in general? How many of us would chooseto dismiss the powerful influence of color as a way to understand and interpret our emotions or the spiritual values we associate with different colors? Would any of us choose to not see the dramatic or subtle variations in nature’s color spectrum that add meaning, beauty and texture to our lives? Such a choice would seem irrational and self-destructive.

And yet, there are many vociferous (even rancorous) advocates of colorblindnessas it relates to the color of human skin. They argue that it is a good thing because it helps us navigate over and around the thorny issues of race and ethnicity, and cross-cultural and inter-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts. These advocates equate colorblindness with open-mindedness, sensitivity, even kindness. They say that this stance represents progress that moves us forward as a society.

And yet, if colorblindness is such a good thing, perhaps we should go even further. Let’s not stop with a self-imposed blindness to the color of human skin. Perhaps we should ignore color altogether. Why not ignore color-streaked sunrises and sunsets? Why not ignore the subtle color variations of flowers and trees, or the way yellow roses make us feel? Or why not neutralize the azure blues of the Caribbean or Van Gogh’s dramatic indigo colors swirling through his night sky?

This is absurd, of course, because life without color is unthinkable. Why then do so many Americans continue to promote the idea of colorblindness when it comes to people? This idea may seem simple, even harmless, but it is neither. Colorblindness, when considered in the context of the American experience, is quite complex, even troubling when we consider what it actually means and who benefits or is it hurt by it.

Colorblindness is like a one-way street.  In my experience, it comes up only when Caucasians are speaking to or about people of color. It is presented as a good thing; an unspoken tribute to themselves, and their ability to be unbiased, inclusive and accepting of “others.” A colorblind perspective is meant to show honor and respect to “others,” but the underlying and implied sentiment is: “It’s OK that you look different from me. I’ll accept you anyway.” This presupposes that the skin color is really a problem, but something that can be overlooked, tolerated or even forgiven. This also presupposes that the “colorblind” looker and the person of color see things the same way, and agree that the darker skin color is problematic, reprehensible or detestable, or embarrassing or shameful.

When one adopts a colorblind perspective, it introduces a power dynamic into the situation because the one who says he or she is colorblind is exercising power over the person of color: the power to choose to see that person, or not; to acknowledge that person’s reality, or not; to acknowledge that person’s value, or not; to accept that person’s identity as it is, or not. In the end, a colorblind perspective says: I have control over youridentity; Iwill see you the way Iwant to see you, not the way you are or the way you want to be seen.

In contrast, people of color rarely (probably never) use the term “colorblind” or validate the concept because they live in their skin every day. This is their reality; a reality reflected in the faces of their children and families and friends. And skin color is linked to culture, traditions, values, history and pride. So, if a Caucasian looks at a person of color and claims to be colorblind, it is both a critique and a form of denial; it implies that the person of color is really defective and “less than me, but I’ll pretend that it doesn’t matter, that it doesn’t influence social relations or how well we can communicate with each other.”

The concept of colorblindness makes it harder to address racial issues. It shuts down open, honest conversations between people who want and need to communicate with each other. How often have we heard a person of color accused of “playing the race card” when he or she introduces race or color into a conversation? However, doesn’t the concept of colorblindness do the same thing in a surreptitious way? Color or race doesn’t go away simply because we say we don’t see it, or refuse to acknowledge it. Human nature tells us that people are more likely to notice the very thing that you tell them to ignore.

The concept of colorblindness not only defies logic and human nature, it defies entrenched American attitudes and traditions. We must acknowledge that America is a country that has historically made skin color the paramount repository of personal and social value. In America, people with darker skin (black, red or yellow) have been denigrated, and erroneously equated with social, cultural and intellectual inferiority. This idea is a defining element of American history. This is not something to be proud of, but it is an important part of America’s reality. Now, we are being urged to be colorblind, to ignore race, the same concept that American citizens have spent centuries internalizing. Now, we are being urged to accept the idea that skin color does not matter; that we should ignore it in social relations. We are also being urged to neutralize its meaning and ignore the social and historical contexts. This, I think, is unhelpful. As a society, colorblindness makes us like the three monkeys who “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil”— we become colorblind and “colormute,” and we keep walking through racial minefields.

Dr. Gloria Holmes is a professor emeritus at the School of Education at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut. Committed to promoting cultural literacy in schools and communities, she has worked as a diversity trainer for the Anti-Defamation League and has conducted anti-bias workshops for the Connecticut State Department of Education. Dr. Holmes is presently writing a book on school leadership and social justice, due to be published this year.