The Case Against Racial Colorblindness
Research by Harvard Business School's Michael I. Norton and colleagues shows that attempting to overcome prejudice by ignoring race is an ineffective strategy that—in many cases—only serves to perpetuate bias.
In trying to prevent discrimination and prejudice, many companies adopt a strategy of "colorblindness"—actively trying to ignore racial differences when enacting policies and making organizational decisions. The logic is simple: if we don't even notice race, then we can't act in a racist manner.
The problem is that most of us naturally do notice each other's racial differences, regardless of our employer's policy.
"Very early on kids get the message that they are not supposed to acknowledge that they notice people's race—often the result of a horrified reaction from a parent when they do."
"It's so appealing on the surface to think that the best way to approach race is to pretend that it doesn't exist," says behavioral psychologist Michael I. Norton, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. "But research shows that it simply doesn't work. We do notice race, and there's no way of getting around this fact."
Several studies by Norton and his colleagues show that attempting to overcome prejudice by ignoring race is an ineffective strategy that—in many cases—only serves to perpetuate bias. In short, bending over backward to ignore race can exacerbate rather than solve issues of race in the workplace.
"Umm, he has pants"
In efforts to be politically correct, people often avoid mentioning race when describing a person, even if that person's race is the most obvious descriptor. (Comedian Stephen Colbert often pokes fun of this tendency on his TV show, The Colbert Report, claiming that he doesn't "see color.") If a manager, for example, is asked which guy Fred is, he or she may be loath to say, "Fred's Asian," even if Fred is the only Asian person in the company.
"Instead, it's, 'He's that nice man who works in operations, and, umm, he has hair, and, umm, he has pants,' " Norton says. "And it keeps going on until finally someone comes out and asks, 'Oh, is he Asian?'"
Norton and several colleagues documented this phenomenon in a study that they described in an article for the journal Psychological Science, Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction. The researchers conducted an experiment in which white participants engaged in a two-person guessing game designed—unbeknownst to them—to measure their tendencies toward attempted racial colorblindness.
Each participant was given a stack of photographs, which included 32 different faces. A partner sat across from the participant, looking at one picture that matched a picture from the participant's stack. The participants were told that the goal of the game was to determine which photo the partner was holding by asking as few yes/no questions as possible—for example, "Is the person bald?"
Half the faces on the cards were black, and the other half white, so asking a yes/no question about skin color was a very efficient way to narrow down the identity of the photo on the partner's card. But the researchers found that many of the participants completely avoided asking their partners about the skin color of the person in the photograph—especially when paired with a black partner. Some 93 percent of participants with white partners mentioned race during the guessing game, as opposed to just 64 percent who were playing the game with black partners.
Two independent coders were hired to watch videos of the sessions on mute, rating the perceived friendliness of the white participants based on nonverbal cues. Alas, the participants who attempted colorblindness came across as especially unfriendly, often avoiding eye contact with their black partners. And when interviewed after the experiment, black partners reported perceiving the most racial bias among those participants who avoided mentioning race.
"The impression was that if you're being so weird about not mentioning race, you probably have something to hide."
"The impression was that if you're being so weird about not mentioning race, you probably have something to hide," Norton says.
The researchers repeated the experiment on a group of elementary school children. The third graders often scored higher on the guessing game than grown-ups because, Norton says, they weren't afraid to ask if the person in the photo was black or white. But many of the fourth and fifth graders avoided mentioning race during the game. As it turns out, racial colorblindness is a social convention that many Americans start to internalize by as young as age 10. "Very early on kids get the message that they are not supposed to acknowledge that they notice people's race—often the result of a horrified reaction from a parent when they do," Norton says.
A zero-sum game?
In addition to an ineffective strategy at managing interracial interactions, racial colorblindness has evolved into an argument against affirmative action policies, an issue Norton addresses in a recent working paper, Racial Colorblindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications, cowritten with Evan P. Apfelbaum of MIT and Samuel R. Sommers of Tufts University.
"Though once emblematic of the fight for equal opportunity among racial minorities marginalized by openly discriminatory practices, contemporary legal arguments for colorblindness have become increasingly geared toward combating race-conscious policies," they write. "If racial minority status confers an advantage in hiring and school admissions and in the selection of voting districts and government subcontractors—the argument goes—then Whites' right for equal protection may be violated."
In a related article, Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing, Norton and Sommers surveyed 100 white and 100 black respondents about their perceptions of racial bias in recent American history. They found that black respondents reported a large decrease in antiblack bias between the 1950s and the 2000s, but perceived virtually no antiwhite bias in that same period—ever. White respondents, on the other hand, perceived a large decrease in antiblack bias over time, but also a huge increase in antiwhite bias. In fact, on average, white respondents perceive more antiwhite bias than antiblack bias in the twenty-first century.
"It's very hard to find a metric that suggests that white people actually have a worse time of it than black people," Norton says. "But this perception is driving the current cultural discourse in race and affirmative action. It's not just that whites think blacks are getting some unfair breaks, it's that whites are thinking, 'I'm actually the victim of discrimination now.'"
In "Racial Colorblindness," the authors suggest that organizations might ease racial tensions among a diverse workforce by stressing multiculturalism over racial colorblindness. "Shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear, but it does make it harder to see that colorblindness often creates more problems than it solves," they write.
Norton points out that while many companies host "diversity days," these celebrations often focus solely on the cultures of ethnic minority employees. Excluding white employees from celebrating their cultures can breed resentment, he says, suggesting that an all-inclusive approach might work better.
"Think of having not only black people talking about being African American, but also white people talking about their Irish or Italian heritage, for instance," he says. "Research shows that in highlighting everyone's differences you can create a kind of commonality—we are all different, and my difference is no more or less valued than yours. Most organizations do not manage diversity in this way, however."
For organizations, supporting multiculturalism is not just about paying lip service to cultural differences, but—increasingly—also about forming a stronger team and improving performance Norton says. He cites a recent incident in which several retired high-ranking US military leaders publicly supported a Supreme Court decision in favor of affirmative action in university admissions.
"Their point was that enlisted men and women were predominantly minorities, and that the military needed minority officers who were college graduates to lead their diverse enlistees," Norton says. "Statements like these help to reframe the general notion of why developing effective strategies for managing diversity is crucial for managers. Multiculturalism is not just about feel-good sentiments. It's about organizational effectiveness."