Colorblindness Is Not a Cure
Not seeing or acknowledging race serves as an exit ramp from discussing or participating in advancing social change.
I remember years ago in grade school when kids stood in front of classmates, especially on movie day, and blocked their view. A common retort was, “You know your parents aren’t glassmakers, right?” It was a smart-aleck way of communicating, “You are blocking my view!”
Years later, I have repurposed the adolescent retort when anyone tells me they do not see race or skin color. My parents were not and are not glassmakers. Neither I nor anyone else in my family is “clear.” I am a richly melanated African American woman. Folks without vision issues who look at me and claim to not see my brown skin are not being truthful with me or themselves. Moreover, their unwillingness to see and acknowledge my race makes me wonder if these folks can see and acknowledge the racism I have experienced as a result of my race.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, given in 1963, is often considered one of the many origins of race or color social blindness. Believers embrace the oft-quoted line about not being judged by color but by character. The intent of social colorblindness is positive in that it is rooted in a desire to promote equality, non-discrimination and equal opportunity. What is really interesting about colorblindness is that those who embrace it claim to want to embrace diversity ideals like inclusion and equity. The ideology rests on a belief that if we all just ignore race, racism and race-based discrimination will disappear.
This is a noble goal, but social colorblindness is not the pathway to get to that destination. In fact, colorblind ideologies are more about virtue signaling and less about actually reducing the incidence and impact of systemic and episodic racism.
The Problems With Social Colorblindness
Diversity practitioners like me advocate that we fully embrace the continuums of color, gender, age, life experience, background and many other demographic dimensions. A simple Google image search on diversity programming will lead to images that include people of various races, ages, heights, abilities and more. The images are designed to help people see others as they are, not how we might individually want or choose to see them. So much of diversity work is about acknowledging difference and celebrating how difference enriches us, while not judging it.
Although colorblind ideologies purport to eliminate judgment based on race, the belief system stands in direct contrast to this notion of acknowledgment without judgment. Social colorblindness suggests that we can willfully choose to not see or even notice color and thus be unable to judge based on racial bias, stereotypes or other misinformation. This is a fallacy.
The stark reality is that colorblind ideologies are extremely problematic for three reasons.
1. Social colorblindness absolves adherents from learning about diversity, equity and inclusion. If you do not see difference, you certainly do not need to learn about it. Not seeing race means there is no reason to meaningfully learn about race-based discrimination or any of the social, political, economic or health issues that stem from it. There is no need to learn the vocabulary necessary to have discussions about diversity, equity or inclusion.
Embracing colorblindness also means that one is excused of even engaging in meaningful discussions about racism. It serves to shut down such conversations, and specifically when engaging with Black, indigenous or other peoples of color (BIPOC), pronouncements about colorblindness are invalidating and a signpost that allies will not be found in that space. Currently, the veterinary profession is engaged in an important discussion about the effects of a legacy of racial discrimination in the profession. Not seeing or acknowledging race serves as an exit ramp from discussing or participating in advancing social change.
2. Despite substantial evidence to the contrary, colorblindness relies on believing that race-based differences are inconsequential and that systemic racism is not real. When we say we do not see color, we also do not see differences in culture, which is closely tied to race. We do not appreciate that different lived experiences are influenced by how the world reacts to skin color. While individual acts of racism might be reduced by colorblindness, the ideology fails to face the reality that systemic racism has large-scale effects on all of us.
Bringing things closer to home, the embrace of colorblindness by veterinarians absolves us of attempts to understand why BIPOC applicants are statistically less likely to gain admittance to veterinary school despite having academic credentials and profiles comparable to those of white applicants. Colorblindness requires nothing more than a declaration of not seeing by its adherents; the ideology does not require any additional activity — no advocacy, no mentoring, no exploration of difference, nothing. Not only does the embrace of colorblindness fail in its acknowledgment of individual lived experiences, but it does nothing to advance systemic changes that will lead to true equality.
3. Embracing colorblindness represents an unwillingness or inability to interrogate one’s personal beliefs and behaviors around race. Colorblindness blocks social self-reflection. Inherent in this ideology is the belief that racism happened in the “olden days” and is not a contemporary problem.
Further, it absolves us of the need to do any personal work to understand our social roles in perpetuating white supremacy, and all of us, including BIPOC folks, unwittingly prop up white supremacy in one way or another.
Those who claim social colorblindness relieve themselves of any responsibility to question themselves and their families, friends, colleagues and others about how oppressive systems work and how to dismantle them. Claims of colorblindness are a free ticket out of diversity, equity and inclusion work, which is unfortunate because the sociological literature is clear that self-interrogation is a critical step in becoming anti-racist.
Anti-Racism as the Antidote to Racism
Seeing and acknowledging race does not make one racist. It is OK to see and acknowledge race. Ignoring race, which is what colorblind ideologies advocate, does not lead to less racism. Anti-racism is the only antidote to racism; not being racist and not seeing race are not the same as being anti-racist.
Anti-racism is a conscientious, action-oriented effort to reduce racism at all levels. Anti-racism requires us to study and understand how race influences all lived experiences. It requires critical thinking about the policies and practices that standardize those experiences by racial categorization. Becoming and being anti-racist requires constant self-reflection and interrogation of how and whether race affords or blocks social benefits and privilege in education, employment, housing, health care and other elements of daily life.
Anti-racist ideologies do not create space for shame or guilt about unearned privilege; these ideologies require leveraging privilege to fight against racial oppression.
Here are things you can do personally and professionally to move from colorblindness to anti-racist behavior.
- Get educated. Numerous and widely available books, blogs, podcasts and videos explain systemic racism, social privilege, bias, discrimination, marginalization and other important concepts that will help you familiarize yourself with language and ideas.
- Get comfortable talking about race. This requires practice, so enlist your friends, family, and colleagues. A great resource is the Association of American Veterinary Medical College’s podcast episode “Getting Past the Fear of Talking About Race.” (Listen to it at bit.ly/30KZZ9v.)
- Support organizations committed to fighting racism. Consider co-sponsoring events with them.
- Use your new comfort in discussing race to call out racism when you see it and to deliberately talk about anti-racism.
Choose to see race. Choose to be engaged. Choose to learn about systems of oppression and choose to break them down. Embracing social colorblindness is not the pathway to change; it is the pathway to inaction and the status quo. Choose to be anti-racist and make a difference.
Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Her work focuses on managing the DiVersity Matters initiative at the national and local levels as well as promoting the veterinary medical profession within underrepresented and marginalized communities. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at bit.ly/2APLtk4.