Psychology Fact: Colorblind Doesn’t Work

Onyx Contributor:  Johnny Silvercloud (@JohnnySilverclo)

If anyone is even vaguely familiar with the Bible, one should know of the story of Adam and Eve.

The story consists of Adam, Eve, and a “Tree of Knowledge” that they were not supposed to bite into.  Once they both bit the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they both realized they were “naked”, meaning, they were without clothes.  They then went to make clothes upon this newfound knowledge.

Whether you believe in this Bible story or not, the function of knowledge is factual as it’s illustrated in the story of Adam and Eve:  basic knowledge cannot be undone.  Once they knew they were both naked, they knew what it means to be covered with something or not.

This simple fact of life, how sapience cannot be removed, is the precise reason why colorblindness doesn’t work.

Adam and Eve could not go back to walking around naked after knowing they once were.  If they were to do so, they would be pretending to act like they don’t know they are naked – and pretending to not know something leads to awkward and idiotic results.

A team of socio-psychologists conducted an experiment on this.  Each participant was given a stack of photographs, which included 32 different faces.  A partner sat across from the participant, looking at one picture that matched a picture from the participant’s stack.  The participants were told that the goal of the game was to determine which photo the partner was holding by asking as few yes/no questions as possible—for example, “Is the person bald?”

Half the faces on the cards were black, and the other half white, so asking a yes/no question about skin color was a ridiculously easy way to narrow down the identity of the photo on the partner’s card.  But the researchers found that many of the participants completely avoided asking their partners about the skin color of the person in the photograph—especially when paired with a black partner.  Some 93% of participants with white partners mentioned race during the guessing game, as opposed to just 64% who were playing the game with black partners.

Two independent coders were hired to watch videos of the sessions on mute, rating the perceived friendliness of the white participants based on nonverbal cues.  Predictably, the participants who attempted colorblindness came across as especially unfriendly, often avoiding eye contact with their black partners.  And when interviewed after the experiment, black partners reported perceiving the most racial bias among those participants who avoided mentioning race.

“The impression was that if you’re being so weird about not mentioning race, you probably have something to hide.”

It gets worse.

The researchers then repeated the experiment on a group of elementary school children.  The third graders often scored higher on the guessing game than grown-ups because, as developmental psychologist Michael I. Norton says, “they weren’t afraid to ask if the person in the photo was black or white.”  But many of the fourth and fifth graders avoided mentioning race during the game.  As it turns out, racial colorblindness is a social convention that many whites start to internalize by as young as age ten. “Very early on kids get the message that they are not supposed to acknowledge that they notice people’s race—often the result of a horrified reaction from a parent when they do,” Norton says.

There’s more research than this that proves colorblindness as a policy for positive race relations doesn’t work.  Actually, common sense alone should be more than enough; firefighters don’t fight fire by pretending heat doesn’t exist, and crime fighters don’t fight crime by pretending crime doesn’t exist.  Add the fact that you cannot unlearn basic things, pretending to not know race and ethnicities exist makes you look like a bigoted asshole.  Colorblind policy is a policy is denial, and denial is intellectual dishonesty; it breeds liars.  Have you ever dealt with someone who knows something, but they insisted on blatantly lying in your face?  Someone in denial of something?  That’s what folks look like when they prescribe to “colorblindness” regarding people of color.  It’s dishonesty for no reason.

“Colorblindness” negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color.  Even if an individual white person can ignore a person’s skin color, society does not.

The first problem with colorblindness is the fact that it attempts to maledict the mention.  Meaning it attempts to go tsk tsk and wave the finger at the mere MENTION of race.  Sure race is a social construct, but much like the clothed Adam and Eve, once you notice it it’s impossible to un-notice it.  In it’s ill-fated attempt, pretending someone’s skin tone is not what it is is like trying to pretend you don’t know two plus two equals four.  To maledict the mention is an attempt to redefine racism by making racism equal “the mention of race.”  This means, technically, that any black person (for example) is “racist” just because they KNOW they are black.  This ideology is very popular in white conservative circles, where once race is mentioned people begin shitting their beds, pointing fingers, accusing the messenger, and call it “the race card”.

In addition, colorblind policy implies is deeper racism: “I cannot accept/respect/appreciate/like/love you IF I’M REMINDED that you are a black person.” 

In having to remove someone’s race or ethnicity you imply that that said race or ethnicity is “bad”, automatically, as if something is inherently wrong about being black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc.

Their race or ethnicity isn’t the wrong thing. The wrong thing is what you do (or neglect to do) BECAUSE of their race or ethnicity.

Perhaps the most compelling critique of the colorblind approach is the fact that people do notice race when perceiving others.  Perceptual differentiation of race occurs rapidly — in less than one-seventh of a second — and emerges as early as 6 months of age.  (This isn’t an opinion, this is science, people.)

So yes, it’s stupid to pretend you don’t know someone’s skin tone.

The second and perhaps the most profound problem with colorblind policy is the simple fact that it serves either by design or neglect — to default to the dominating residual self-image.  For example, in educational colorblindness we learn a lot about Europe and European values, but we don’t learn in equal parts about Africa and African values and accomplishments.  A colorblind policy then attempt to demonize the one who asks the question: “how come we don’t learn about Africa?”

Organizational colorblindness as a problem is easy to identify.  In 2014 the U.S. Army issued a regulation revision which targeted black women’s hair.  While not mentioning race, you’d have to be an idiot to not know that they were specifically inferring to black women’s hairstyles, when many of them (if not all) were field expedient in the first place… meaning the Army should let them do their hair right.  Is the Army racist?  No, but colorblindness — pretending or ignoring the fact that people of different ethnicities have different hair textures — is by far one of the more idiotic, racially ignorant moments in the U.S. Military’s modern times.

White defaultness is the phenomenon where white people are implied to be the “raceless default” human, the universal human which can represent all the rest (which is false).  If Hollywood took a colorblind policy, Nicolas Cage can be cast as Malcolm X — instead of doing the more obvious such as casting a black actor, for example.  Sounds ridiculous?  Of course it does; with Malcolm X, Fredrick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and other black historical dominant figures being black is a HUGE part of their identity.  If colorblind policy looks ridiculous in ignoring the race of these historical figures because it subtracts from their experiences which makes their identity, it does the same thing for any ordinary modern day person of color.

Overall, it is immensely arrogant to only accept people only by removing aspects of them, and to pretend to not know something that’s in plain sight makes you a liar.  Denial isn’t a valid platform, and shouting a flawed opinion on scientific, sociology/psychology matters is idiotic at best.  Opinions don’t matter when facts are involved.  This isn’t politics, this is science.  Don’t be arrogant, and begin listening to the scientifically minded folks on socio-psychological issues.

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