Colorblindness Contributes to Racism

Recently, the issue of color blindness was brought up during a lecture at the University of Portland. As I sat in a coffee session led by Arizona State Univeristy's Dr. Neal Lester. We were discussion race and colorblindness, and he looked to me and offered the hypothetical (to quote loosely), "What if someone said to you: 'I don't see race, I'm just going to treat you like a person!'" to which I scoffed, shaking my head. Others in the room laughed, also finding it a bit absurd. Dr. Lester followed up to talk about how saying that, to a person of color like myself, is essentially the equivalent of saying that they don't see me. I realized I hadn't quite thought of it that particular context before. I recognized that it could be insulting, to try to separate race from identity -- but hadn't gone deeper to really think about how that isn't possible to begin with.

What is color blindness?

Being “colorblind” or “race blind” has become a new trend among many, supposedly as a way to combat racism. You have have heard someone claim that they “don’t see race,” as in they “don’t care about your race or the color of your skin.” They’ll just treat you like everybody else! Without really thinking about it, this could sound nice and like a legitimate strategy. This approach encourages people to look past race entirely -- or rather, encourages avoidance of acknowledging race, culture, or ethnicity in interactions, discussions, and so on. Without analyzing the implications of such an approach, treating and seeing everybody as if they are the same sounds like a great idea. I’ll admit, I used to also buy into this oversimplified “solution” to racism -- because I thought it was just race that was the problem.

How is this harmful?

There are many ways in which the idea of being “colorblind” is counterproductive. In terms of actually having an impact on racism, colorblindness actually contributes to the problem. First, think about the people you’ve overheard saying they don’t see color. Do they come from a place of privilege? From a group where ignoring race and racism are relatively easy? It’s easy to say you don’t care about race when it’s never been a problem for you. For those who have largely benefitted from systemic racism throughout history, the root of the problem can be construed and made to seem as if it’s only about the color of one’s skin. But, racism was created in order to justify oppression, correct? Justify, not cause. Therefore it would have happened no matter what reasoning they came up with (note that racism was not the only one). So, ignoring race can’t fix a problem that was never entirely about race in the first place. But, it can make discussion more difficult, and recognizing racial disparities next to impossible.

I don’t believe that all who abide by this concept of “I don’t see color” are just looking to avoid the discussion of racism, nor do I think that they all really wish to partake in it. I can’t account for everyone’s motives but as the Atlantic writes, the consequences of this ideology on social inequality have to be recognized.

1. I don’t see (or care about) your race: Hearing a person say that they don’t “see color” to people of color, can be frustrating. It didn’t bother at me at first, but that was before I really learned to love my race and ethnicity. Probably due to residual shame left over from growing up in predominantely Caucasian towns, that wasn't addressed until I spent a year in central Los Angeles when I attended Los Angeles City College. To some extent, I thought that recognizing race (or differences) was the problem, rather than how people viewed and treated people of different races negatively. The statement “I don’t see race” can easily translate to: I don’t see you. My race and my color are parts of me that cannot just be dismissed so that someone else can see whatever is “beneath” it. If you take away my race, you take away core pieces of my identity, and therefore you do not see me. You can’t. A person and their race are not separable -- for several reasons.

“I personally believe that it is ridiculous to say you don’t see color,” says junior psychology major Araceli Gonzalez. “Of course you can see that I am brown, she’s white, he’s a darker shade of brown, that’s not a problem.”

2. I don’t see or care about your struggles: The first, is that to try to look at a person’s race (or ethnicity or culture) as an irrelevant label is to invalidate their experiences. Race is more than Black or White. Since the concept of race was created, it has strongly influenced our societal structures. Some have benefitted from it, many have suffered. That’s an undeniable fact seeing as it was created in order to justify oppression as I said previously. People who choose to be “colorblind” must be aware of this. They clearly acknowledge that racism exists in their attempt to not partake in it. However, choosing to stop seeing race, also means that one is choosing to stop seeing everything that comes with being a certain race. 

Generally speaking, a White person can choose to ignore it, a person of color cannot. Many of our experiences can be shaped by our race and ethnicity. What socioeconomic class we’re likely to be born into, what neighborhoods we grow up in, what schools we attend, how people behave around us, how people interact with us, what we eat, what we drink, the quality of the air we breathe, what opportunities are available to us, how teachers teach us, if employers hire us, how people see us, how we see ourselves, and so on -- these are all things that can be partly determined by race, and usually interact with one another heavily. It’s complicated and goes far beyond just the color of one’s skin. Colorblindness rests on the assumption that everyone is already equal, and that it's about perceptions and individuals rather than the overarching societal issue.

Senior sociology major and President of the Gay-Straight Partnership club, Zeke Pralle, states that, “[Colorblindness] is intensely unhelpful. While in theory, we should treat everyone the same regardless of race, it is necessary to know that not every person has the same social status afforded to them as a result of systemic racism of both the past and the present. So, by endeavoring to treat everyone the same, we are simply maintaining the pre-existing social structure of white domination over people of color.”

Let’s take a brief look at environmental racism. Looking through a “colorblind” lens, wouldn’t prevent you from watching as communities are destroyed by contaminated water from coal ash or an oil spill. But, it would prevent you from seeing the pattern of minority communities being the ones to experience these tragedies. You wouldn't see how the health and safety of minority communities is purposely overlooked time and time again. Sometimes, it doesn’t even occurs in richer, Whiter communties -- but, soon enough, the problem is dumped on the less-fortunate anyway. Or, a predominantely White community opposes an environmental hazard, while another is criminalized for doing just that. I doubt I need to include a link talking about what's still happening in Flint, Michigan. We could also look at police brutality, inner city schools/access to good education, mass encarceration, microagressions, and so on. Colorblindness creates an illusion that we are all equal and problems are the faults of those experiencing them, thus contributing to racism. Choosing to “not see race” doesn’t prevent people from experiencing racism, it keeps people from accepting the realities of it.

To tell a person of color that you “don’t see color” is to say you don’t see all these factors no matter how ingrained they are into someone’s life. Not only do you not see them, but you don't care to try. You may mean well, thinking that it’s easy to just see and treat all people as if they’re just like you… But, the fact is, we’re not all the same and racism will continue to exist if your only solution is to ignore it. People of color will not benefit from having their voices silenced further. It is important to recognize how the concept of race has been used to oppress, but also how ignoring it can do the same -- even if that is not one’s intent.

3. We are not the same, we are different: Experiences and struggles are not the only things that are discounted by “colorblind” individuals. We are different. All of us. We’re different because of our races, our ethnicities, how light or dark our skin color is, our level of education, our citizenship or immigration status, our socioeconomic statuses, our genders, and so on. Chances are, we come from different backgrounds on a number of levels. When people choose to ignore race in favor of treating everyone as if they’re the same, they in turn generally are dismissing cultures too. If someones says that they don't "see" that I'm half-Latina, they are also choosing not to see my Mexican family's culture and traditions and how that is a part of me. Entire ways of life may be overlooked from this approach to combatting racism. EverydayFeminism writes, “Race is also intimately tied to people’s identities and signifies culture, tradition, language, and heritage – genuine sources of pride.” These things can all be tied to one’s race and personal identity. It is impossible -- and disrespectful, I might add -- to simply try to ignore all of it in favor of treating someone like "any other person." Differences are not the problem, seeing differences as a problem is  however.

You don’t have to dismiss key parts of a person’s identity in order to show them basic respect. We don't need to be the same in order to treat each other well. Denying someone’s identity isn’t really far off from telling someone their identity makes them less than. By saying that the way to combat racism is to ignore race, “colorblind” people are implying that it is someone’s race/ethnicity that is the problem. Refusing to learn about race and other cultures, also prevents “colorblind” individuals from actually gaining an understanding about what they’re choosing to reject.

4. Celebrate and learn, don’t reject: As I’ve said before, the concept of color or race blindness implies that race itself is the problem. Many people seem to talk about the things we can do “in spite of” or “despite” our differences. But...why must we treat differences as if they’re a problem? Continuing the narrative of race being an issue, that can apparently only be dealt with my ignoring it, only contributes to racism. If I am to assume that those who claim they “don’t see color” are sincerely hoping to bring an end to racism (rather than attempting to end dialogue), surely they couldn’t want to continue with this approach once they learned that. So what’s a different one? Instead of rejection and denial, we should focus on celebrating, appreciating, and learning about each other's’ differences. I am not ashamed of my race, my ethnicity and culture, or any of the other pieces of my personal identity. I think someone claiming they see me despite or beneath my race is hurtful and contributes to the stigma surrounding having darker skin. There is no “real me” hidden beneath my race. It is a part of the “real me,” and I want it to continue to be, in a positive way. PsychologyToday advocotes for multiculturalism in place of blindness.

“The problem comes when [race/color] means that I’m less, she’s more, and he’s least,” Gonzalez continues. “Color is not the problem, racism and discrimination because of color are the problems. No one would look at a rainbow and say, ‘Well, I don’t see color,’ because that’s a lie. We look at the rainbow and marvel at all the beautiful colors. Likewise the colors of our skin are beautiful and celebrate diversity. We are all part of a rainbow which is the story of humankind.”