This past year, racial injustices committed against Black Americans and Asian Americans have reached new heights. Hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen 149% since the pandemic began. At the same time, worldwide protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police further highlighted the long history of the brutal policing of Black Americans. Despite the visible violence, many people believe the best answer to these systemic problems is to suggest we all live as if we don’t “see” race—as if different skin colors really have no meaning.
In a survey conducted at Ohio State University, Associate Professor of Psychology Philip Mazzocco found 73% of the participants believed they were racially colorblind. Another survey conducted by the Pew Research Center showed 56% of people said being Black “hurts your chances of getting ahead” in the United States. These two results cannot peacefully coexist, which is to say: Being racially colorblind in a society that still discriminates on the basis of race slows the progression of ending racism. Here are some ways to alter a colorblind mindset and embrace a practice of active ally-ship.
Acknowledge the historical impact of race in America
The Association for Psychological Science defines racial color blindness as, “the belief that racial group membership should not be taken into account, or even noticed—as a strategy for managing diversity and intergroup relations.” This ideology emerged from within the Civil Rights Movement in a misinterpreted reaction to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Dr King looks towards a world where people are “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This statement was not presented to encourage the dismissal of race, but rather as a call to action: Dr. King asked that we all do the work to remove racial biases and discrimination from our country and our own perceptions.
In order to achieve what Dr. King proposed, we must address race at its core rather than live as if it has no weight or consequence. People of color are reminded of their race all the time. A personal example: When I was an intern at a well-known theater company, an HR rep mistakenly gave my internship employment letter to another Black woman who happened to have been a full-time employee at the institution for years. The company’s mistake only reinforced the stereotype that all Black people look alike. Even though the oversight was theoretically minor and easily rectified, our individuality as staff members was called into question, and our morale lowered.
The truth is, racial colorblindness only benefits those who have the privilege of not needing to think about race in their daily lives. Those who are unlikely to be discriminated against have the luxury of buying or renting homes, going into stores, or interacting with law enforcement without being reminded of the color of their skin. As Monnica T. Williams, Ph.D. remarks in Psychology Today, “[c]olorblindness creates a society that denies [people of color’s] negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.”
Without critical discourse on the issue, microaggressions and racist systems will persist.
Understand the effects of racial colorblindness
In the wake of his survey at Ohio State University, Mazzocco surmised there are four types of racially colorblind people in the U.S.:
- Protectionist (high prejudice, low awareness): They believe interracial inequality is minimal, or the fault of minority culture. They are likely to say minorities who complain of mistreatment are “playing the race card.”
- Egalitarian (low prejudice, low awareness): They want racial justice and think it has been mostly achieved. As a result, they believe discussion about racial issues is no longer necessary.
- Antagonistic (high prejudice, high awareness): They know there’s a problem with racial justice, but they are fine with it, because they believe it is their privilege as white people to be favored in society. They disingenuously use claims of color blindness to oppose programs like affirmative action, saying that government policies shouldn’t favor one race.
- Visionary (low prejudice, high awareness): They agree there is a racial justice problem and believe the way to overcome it is to stop emphasizing racial boundaries and differences and to focus primarily on what people have in common.
These descriptions detail behaviors that are detrimental to establishing true racial equality. An egalitarian approach denies all parties the opportunity for discussions that could help eliminate systemic racial injustices, while an antagonistic one will serve to erase any strides we have made.
Engage in anti-racist actions instead
Rather than dismissing the idea of race, acknowledge your privileges and use knowledge to create anti-racist environments. Educate yourself on the history of racial mistreatment in this country. Analyze situations you may have been involved in that have made someone of a different race uncomfortable, and learn how to confront and change harmful behaviors and mindsets. If you have decided not to “see” someone’s race, you may be ignoring ways you’re hurting them. Acknowledging these facts is not an indictment—the blog Jostle provides a diagram of basic racist systems that you could be participating in and not even know it. Research micro– and macroaggressions and properly assess your own implicit biases, and do the work to reverse them.
Racism cannot be tolerated, so make sure that it is recognized where it arises. Anti-racism openly acknowledges race and the history of racism in this country, but is not effective unless it is a conscious practice. There are several resources available to help you engage in anti-racist work. The organization Hollaback! offers workshops and training on bystander intervention. You can learn how to intervene when you see a hate crime occur, and how to support the lives of people of color. Anti-racist work does not only mean becoming a part of a group or heading to a rally (though those actions do help). Anti-racism can begin with changing your mindset, calling out your own and other’s actions, and learning to be an effective ally.
As the book How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X Kendi explains, just because you believe you are “not racist,” that doesn’t mean you are advancing efforts towards ending racism. Kendi provides tools for executing anti-racist work, including in the book’s study guide, where one prompt notes the author, “makes the case that to be anti-racist, one must stand against all forms of bigotry. Why is standing against other bigotries so essential to standing against racism?” The book will start you on the right path toward acknowledging the reality of race while actively working against racism.