“I don’t see colour.”
“Every life matters.”
“We’re all part of the same race – the human race!”
You’ve probably heard — or have even said — phrases like these before. On the surface, these “colour-blind” sentiments seem loving, accepting — even inspirational.
However, when colourblindness is applied to daily practice, it can quickly become problematic. This narrative allows proponents to “turn a blind eye” to how people — specifically Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) — are treated based on their skin colour, and even invalidate their experiences of racial discrimination.
Before diving deeper into the harm colourblindness can cause, it will be useful to sketch out this ideology with the help of some experts on the matter.
Monica Williams, a licensed clinical psychologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa in the School of Psychology, defines colourblindness as a “racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity” (Williams, 2011, para. 2).
Many proponents of colourblindness often quote one of the most famous lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, where he says, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character” (National Public Radio, 2022, para. 24).
As beautiful as this sentiment is, even Martin Luther King Jr. recognized that, while aspirational, this theory did not work within the culture of his time.
After admitting that his dream had become at times a nightmare in an interview with an NBC news correspondent, Martin Luther King Jr. went on to say, “I’ve come to see… that some of that old optimism was a little superficial and now it must be tempered with solid realism” (Franklin, 2013).
And, based on problems still prevalent today, colourblindness seems to be a “superficial optimism” that continues to perpetuate racial issues for BIPOC.
In reality, colourblindness tends only to benefit those who aren’t BIPOC — i.e., those who are white. It essentially excuses white people from feeling discomfort in living with others who are different “from them.” And alarmingly, it allows subscribers to largely ignore society’s very real problem with the disparity in treatment between white and BIPOC populations.
Nilsen and Turner (2014) identify colourblindness as “a political tool, serving to reify and legitimize racism and protect certain racial privileges by denying and minimizing the effects of systematic and institutionalized racism on racial and ethnic minorities” (p. 4). Colourblindness disconnects everyday racial disparities from their larger historical and systemic roots in favour of foregrounding personal deficiencies as if there are no race-related obstacles.
Furthermore, in the article by Williams quoted above, she goes on to say that when a society adopts a colourblind ideology, those unlikely to experience racial disadvantages (white people) can effectively “see no evil”, ignoring and invalidating current and future experiences of those most likely to experience them (BIPOC).
Colourblindness enables proponents to:
- Deny racial discrimination
- Ignore cultural heritage
- Nullify individual perspectives
Ironically, in the effort to see (and therefore treat) everyone the same, this ideology blinds the practitioner so they “can effectively ignore racism in American life, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society” (Williams, 2011, para. 5)
This exacerbates existing issues surrounding race, ethnicity and culture while shutting down conversations that can illuminate, teach and help people empathize with each other.
Because of the harmful narratives resulting from colourblindness, it has been recognized as a microaggressive behaviour.
To better understand colourblindness, it is important to understand what microaggressions are, how they can be expressed and how they can be interpreted by those they’re aimed at.
In an article for Administrative Issues Journal, entitled, Color-blind racial attitudes: Microaggressions in the context of racism and White privilege (Edwards, 2017), Jared F. Edwards defines microaggressions as subtle, verbal or non-verbal denigrations directed at a member of a marginalized group. These can happen both intentionally and unintentionally.
In the journal article, microaggressions are further broken down into three categories:
Subtle stereotypical insults, for example: “Of course you’re late, you’re on African Time.”
More overt insults, for example: “You only got that job because they needed more diversity on the panel.”
Racial colourblindness, for example: “We’re all just humans,” or “Where are you really from?”
Over time, cumulative microaggressions like colourblindness can cause profoundly negative impacts on marginalized groups like BIPOC (Lui & Quezada, 2019).
It’s clear that embracing colourblindness as a peaceful ideology to address racism is faulted. Though it can feel good for subscribers, it’s a subtly disorienting practice that can further perpetuate racism in society.
For a peaceful pursuit of equality, experts like Williams and Edwards point to the celebration of our differences – or practicing a multicultural approach.
- Recognizes, values and celebrates ethnic, cultural and racial differences
- Empathizes with and validates personal experiences, beliefs, values and traditions
- Fosters open, healthy community alliances between groups and individuals
Practicing multiculturalism means actively acknowledging, honouring and embracing our differences to help validate every part of the human experience. Recognizing these differences is valuable because diverse viewpoints can guide and teach us to be more loving and accepting—but with eyes wide open to the realities marginalized people like BIPOC live with.
As Edwards says,
“Open exploration and recognition is part of the solution, not the source of our problems” (Edwards, 2017, p. 15).
Edwards, J. F. (2017, July). Color-blind racial attitudes: Microaggressions in the context of racism and White privilege. Administrative Issues Journal, 7.(1), 13. 10.5929/2017.7.1.3 https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1261&context=aij
Franklin, A. K. (2013, August 27). King in 1967: My dream has ‘turned into a nightmare’. National Broadcasting Company. https://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/king-1967-my-dream-has-turned-nightmare-flna8c11013179
Lui, P. P., & Quezada, L. (2019). Associations between microaggression and adjustment outcomes: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 145(1), 45–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000172
National Public Radio. (2022, January 14). Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety, para. 24. https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety
Nilsen, S. & Turner, S. E. (Eds.). (2014). The colorblind screen: Television in post-racial America. (p. 4). New York University Press.
Williams, M. T. (2011, December 27). Colorblind ideology is a form of racism. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201112/colorblind-ideology-is-form-racism