Watching a roleplay with my classmates, I couldn’t help but notice my peers’ difficulty in describing the interaction occurring on screen. The roleplay was a business scene, wherein an employee and HR representative were discussing the employee’s career advancement opportunities. We were given a very brief introduction to the scenario, and nobody seemed sure what was happening in the beginning, so when we were asked for analysis of the interaction students struggled to identify who was saying what, in part because they weren’t sure who was who. “The guy on the left, I believe his name was Mark…” “the one wearing the jacket said…” What stuck out to me was that of the two characters, one was Black and one was Asian, yet nobody invoked race in their descriptions, despite experiencing difficulty identifying the characters in other ways. How come nobody used this salient and distinctive identifier when it could have easily clarified our dialogue?
Race is one of the simplest and most automatic categorizations humans make, yet so often we are dissuaded from invoking race or mentioning these obvious distinctions, as doing so is “inappropriate” (Sue, 2015). This aversion to invoking race, or acting as if one cannot see race, is known as colorblind ideology, and while on the surface it sounds like colorblindness would solve all racial conflict, colorblindness actually reinforces racial disparities and even makes individuals seem more racist. Research shows that when White people avoid invoking race in contextually appropriate situations, such as when doing so would effectively advance a conversation, they appear more racist in comparison to Whites who mentioned race when it was appropriate to do so (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008). Being consciously or subconsciously intent on avoiding race to avoid seeming racist depletes cognitive resources, and as a result, regulating nonverbal behavior is more challenging. It is these nonverbals, indicative of discomfort or dislike, that convey meaning beyond what the individual says and that leaves an impression on POC.
Additionally, ignoring race and dismissing differences is insensitive and invalidating towards POC. By doing so, one invalidates their experiences and racialized reality, thereby gaslighting them and negating their recognition of the role of race within their life. Sue (2010) observes how this negation is irrational and inaccurate, given that the most marginalized groups make the most accurate assessments of reality in relation to racism and bias. By claiming that “we’re all humans,” one is alluding to an aspirational, idealistic goal, one that doesn’t actually exist, one that dances around the fact that some are not, in fact, treated as humans. Ignoring the role of race in people’s treatment and outcomes serves to maintain an inequitable status quo by brushing aside systemic inequality and racism as invalid premises, wherein the issues addressed are attributable to individual differences and therefore not indicative of a crisis of discrimination.
However, studies show that Black people are, in fact, treated differently on account of their race. In a study by Hodson, Dovidio, and Gaertner (2002), the researchers concluded that Black college applicants who were clearly as qualified or unqualified as a White peer were admitted or rejected appropriately, yet when the qualifications of the applicants were questionable, Black applicants were rejected significantly more frequently compared to White applicants with similar credentials. A similar study focusing on job applications discovered the same pattern (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2005), indicating that despite the dismissal of differences and aspirational kumbaya message of colorblindness, the fact is that people do see race. And they make consequential decisions based on race. By claiming an inability to see race or see how race directly affects the lives of others, the issues directly related to race, such as redlining, educational disparities, and mass incarceration are all obscured and shifted out of public focus. While many White people who employ colorblindness may sincerely mean well, the consequences nevertheless exist and adversely affect marginalized communities.
Given that colorblindness has clear and significant effects on POC, it’s past time to develop a new way to interpret our world. A multicultural lens, in which we acknowledge and accept that we are different, has been shown to be more effective than colorblindness in promoting inclusion (Sue, 2015). Perhaps we consider how we can validate our differences, how we can acknowledge our uniqueness and promote its acceptance. Not only will doing so create a healthier, more inclusive and comfortable environment for all, it will also enable us to begin addressing the challenges disproportionately encountered by marginalized communities.