Is Colour-blindness Racism?
Imagine that after telling people that you really love food, for some reason they choose to completely ignore that fact. They get awkward when anyone mentions snacks, get a little tense when a pizza commercial comes on, and keep their eyes wide open in feigned indifference at the mention of desserts. Doesn’t that seem a little goofy? Wouldn’t you feel like people are going out of their way to ignore a part of you for no reason?
This article is about ‘colour-blindness’ – an approach to race and diversity that seemed like a good idea in 1960s. It was a snap-back solution to racial tensions of the time, running high post-segregation. The idea was to ignore racial differences all together, in hopes of creating equal treatment based on personal merit instead. Although the discussion focused primarily on race, it is fair to extend it to nationality, ethnicity, and culture, as they’re all inextricably intertwined.
The approach came from good intentions, and was a definite improvement over the racial hierarchy in place up until then. It had been taught in schools, encouraged in the workplace, and offered as an open-minded ideology to embrace in parenting, dating, travel, etc. Over the last 50-some years it slowly helped to loosen the previously impenetrable walls of institutionalized discrimination, built stairs between social classes, and allowed us all to stand on even ground – in theory.
In practice, this approach is by no means a solution to, or a resolution of, racism. At best, it got us to ‘tolerance’ of diversity, and is nowhere near acceptance of it, not to mention appreciation. Colour-blindness is an avoidant policy that left us incapacitated to handle human variability all together. Lost in the vague boundaries of ‘political correctness’ the topic of race became taboo, and is enveloped in shame, guilt, and discomfort.
Who are we kidding? Why would we pretend that carnations, orchids, and roses smell the same? Why would we pretend that peaches, cherries, and cucumbers are all of the same taste?
We are told to ignore something that we’re faced with every day, and given no mental framework to approach it with. Ignore-ance, or ignorance, is no way to deal with anything, let alone something as vitally important and complex as ‘race.’
What are we so afraid of?
Are we really so afraid that admitting the very existence of our differences will somehow shatter our fragile balance? So insecure about our prejudice, so helpless against the ignorant, outdated mentality of racial hierarchy?
Why can’t we trust ourselves to stay open and accepting after ‘seeing’ colour? Are we so afraid that we will lose all control and empathy for a human because we notice their difference?
Can people not be of the same value if we grant them their right to diversity? Equality doesn't come from pretending our differences don't exist. It comes from acknowledging them, and still treating everyone with the dignity they deserve.
The problem is not seeing colour, ethnicity, nationality. The problem is letting it be the only thing that defines a person.
But that problem is not even about race or colour, it’s a much bigger principle. How would you like to be defined solely by your taste in music? Judged only by your cooking skills? Confined to your job description?
You wouldn’t go to a gallery and assess a work of art by only one quality. You wouldn’t look at Michelangelo’s David and describe it only as ‘marble’. The Statue of Liberty cannot be limited to the description of ‘green-ish’. Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is not just ‘German.’
Nothing is just something. Humans are multi-faceted, multi-dimensional beings and judging them by any one quality is a huge disservice to all of us.
What is Colour-blindness?
So why exactly is colour-blindness outdated and insufficient?
1. It denies humans a major part of their identity
For some of us, our racial/ethnic/cultural background is one of our most meaningful aspects of our identity. It’s the seed of who we are, it’s woven into our very bones. It’s the fairy tales we grew up with, the lullabies our grandmas sung to us, the one-liners we all know from our favourite old movies, the foods we eat each New Year’s Eve, and the jokes that work only in our language. Why is it okay to deny someone such an important part of themselves?
And even for those of us who don’t necessarily identify as closely with our race or ethnicity, ignoring any part of a human shouldn’t be ‘standard procedure’ implemented by consensus. What part of you would you be okay with giving up, just because we don’t know how to talk about it? Even if it is something as insignificant and inconsequential as your love of knitting, or your secret collection of all the Friends DVDs. Which part of you would you be willing to compromise and cut out of your identity, just to accommodate someone else’s ignorance?
Colour-blindness is an awful approach to raising interracial or adopted children. Deprived of their ethnic/cultural background, they are deprived of their back-story, their roots to grow from. They sense it is something to hide, be ashamed of, or at best to ignore.
Minority children who are taught ‘colour blindness’ at school fail to develop a complete sense of self; their social development and self-esteem are adversely affected.
When a non-white person is taught ‘colour-blindness,’ it robs them of their sense of belonging. No longer allowed to identify with their own background, and sensing an obvious outsiderness to their current cultural context, they are left isolated, marginalized, and rejected. This issue is even worse for those who are multiethnic or bi-racial.
2. Colour-blindness is a ‘White’ approach
I bet even reading the above sentence made you feel like it’s a bit harsh. Let’s step on those eggshells of political correctness, and be honest: race and ethnicity are not usually a necessary part of a White person’s mindset, as it isn’t a source of personal, internal tension. It’s something that’s happening outside of them, and being ‘colour-blind’ to it is an easy way to dismiss this conversation as someone else’s problem. Specifically, the minorities’ problem.
However, the world is shifting. For the first time in U.S. history, a majority of all babies born in 2011 belonged to non-white minorities. And for all of those kids, their parents, and billions of non-white people worldwide, race and ethnicity are very much a part of daily life. It is estimated that by 2042, the ‘white’ population itself will be a global minority.
If there was ever a time to have that conversation, it is now.
Just because a relatively unaffected white population has been making ‘race management’ decisions on behalf of those who actually have to live with those issues, those attempts are clumsy, to say the least. For example, the US Census Bureau has two separate sections for ‘White’: ‘Hispanic/Latino White,’ and ‘Non-Hispanic/Latino White.’ “According to the 1997 OMB standards, Hispanics may be of any race,” but for some reason, it is problematic to lump them together with other members of those races.
Since those statistics are collected on self-reported data, apparently we have a ‘problem’ of people of Hispanic origin identifying themselves as ‘White.’ It appears they’re not ‘objectively’ quite as White enough as the rest of people in that category. Note that the list is not further divided into ‘British White,’ ‘Slavic White,’ and ‘Miscellaneous White.’
3. It ignores and undermines the existence of racism, discrimination, and racial/ethnic tensions
I’m sure you’ve heard it all before, but minorities continue to be discriminated against in the US justice system, and racism still continues to deny non-white people a full life through a variety of institutional, social, global, and economic practices. For a huge chunk of the world’s population, those issues are right all up in their face, and it isn’t up to a privileged White class to decide that it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t matter.
Kids need discussion and practice to build a framework from which to approach diversity in others, as well as in themselves. Minorities are disproportionately and inevitably judged by their appearance, and pretending that it doesn't exist only leaves them helpless in dealing with it.
The thing is, even if a non-white person does not subjectively identify themselves with their race, nationality, or ethnic background, they are still judged by it. Much too often it is a source of tension, and it is out of their hands – regardless of the strength of their cultural identities, minorities are betrayed by their accent, first or last name, skin colour, facial features, etc. Racial and ethnic affiliation becomes something that’s given and assigned to a non-white person, even if it is against their will.
With the absence of a real, deliberate conversation and education about race and ethnicity, healthy curiosity is shut down. The only mental framework people are left with is based on the stereotypes and caricatures floating around in ‘pop culture’. So even when the racial/ethnic aspect of one’s identity is allowed to them, it is given on someone else’s terms.
For some reason, it has become commonplace for people to assign their classifications and stereotypes to others, just based on their appearance. Watch Ernestine Johnson redefine the ‘Average Black Girl’ – a bar set for her, based solely on her skin colour:
How would you like it if your identity was assigned to you by someone else? What would it feel like, if before you even opened your mouth, just by your appearance alone someone already limited you to a stereotypical classification? This may offer some perspective.
4. Colour-blindness hijacked history and education in countries like the US, further stomping out cultures already maimed by racism
Racial avoidance goes as far as omitting African history from school curricula, and complacently teaching about ‘white’ civilizations and achievements. When ‘Black History’ is taught, it tends to focus on apartheid, slavery, or civil rights – yet again defining a race in terms of its struggle and imposed inferiority. Kids are given a limited view of what it means to belong to their culture, every member tied into its negative past. It is hardly ever about progress and achievements accomplished by African Americans, as if the African cultures had no imprint on the world outside of their painful encounters with Europeans.
Native American history gets wiped out of the ‘All American’ narrative, with accurate representations of history being seen as too ‘controversial’. When they do surface, Native cultures are presented as old and withered, as if their existence stopped all together in 1900s. Native Americans continue to be wildly misrepresented in textbooks and literature, stomping on the remnants of those cultures.
If that doesn’t seem like a big problem, consider that according to the most recent reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, 83.5 % of American teachers are white. Non-white children currently make up 44 % of the student body in grade-schools, and roughly 60% of university graduates are minorities.
Despite the growing diversity of school environments, teachers remain culturally inept. They are afraid that any talk of race will be perceived as ‘racist’. With such embarrassing cultural competence, it is no surprise that teachers fail, time and time again to provide inclusive, culturally-responsive classrooms.
Even with ‘colour-blind’ policies in place, teachers continue to have lower expectations for minority kids, piling onto the already existent biases against those vulnerable groups.
Julie A. Helling brilliantly de-tangles this whole issue and urges discussions of race and colour to be brought back into the classrooms. We are all people of ‘colour’, and students need a safe space to be their full, diverse selves.
5. It stops us from having an open, honest conversation about all our differences, what they mean to us, and everything they come with
Colour-blindness makes us tip-toe around something as beautiful and expansive as culture. By our very existence we are walking, talking, breathing lessons in diversity, yet we are encouraged to avert our eyes from each other in shame and discomfort.
We are told that the curiosity we feel for someone else’s experience is not just the deeply human need for empathy, but some undignified, politically fueled transgression.
It’s about time we allow ourselves to burst out of the confines of monotone perception and open up to the full spectrum of human diversity. Stop walking on eggshells, and step boldly into a world of multicultural experiences.
Open up that conversation, one question at a time: