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.
by Carmen Nobel

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.

Backfiring Results

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."

About the Author

Carmen Nobel is the senior editor of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge.
    • Melissa
    In 2012, the term "race" is still being used. So sad. There's only one race: human.
    • Anonymous
    I agree with two points in this article. First, it's not so much about race as it is about culture. Sometimes, I feel discriminated against by blacks (I am black) because I am labeled as acting "white" (whatever that means). Also, the bottom line for organizations is this: creating a multicultural environment makes teams and organizations perform better. We can go a long way if we can all agree on that one main point.
    • Philip Hyland
    • manager, in transiton
    To avoid using an obvious description eg short, tall, heavy bald, colour is obviously a sign of prejudice which is particularly common in politically correct N America. and to put it in all perspective a Chinese friend said to me you will no there is no prejudice when a white contractor gets the job to renovate a restaurant in china town.
    P.S. I come form a mixed family
    • Anonymous
    The issue of what exactly group differences involve might be increasingly resolvable technically in biology but they will probably remain controversial socially for far longer because of the implications for our conflicting goals. We want to pursue social equality regardless of differences, we want to pursue mutual tolerance in spite of differences, but we also want factual recognition of legitimate individual and group differences that have meaning to us, both in terms of identity and in terms of medically and physiologically relevant distinctions.

    The differences between us have led to so much abuse of the other principles, that we have come to close our eyes to the real differences between us and to oversimplify their origin rather than seek to understand them and honestly both tolerate and further make best use of them.

    Ignoring our meaningful differences is disrespectful and harmful, just as basing social decisions on stereotypes of differences can be. I agree with the principle I think the article concludes, that it isn't by censoring out perception of differences that we make progress against prejudice but by coming to grips with perceived differences, and tolerating them then seeking to respect them to the degree that they turn out to be persistent and meaningful, or letting go of them as they turn out to be sources of prejudice.

    Much of the harm done by perception of differences is not strictly because we recognize individual or group differences but rather the result of pretending that we can predict outcomes or "potential" from early detected individual and group dispositional or genetic differences, leading to our unfortunate tendency to discount the role of the individual and any interventions in their outcomes.
    • Anonymous
    Does it ever occur to people that if you are not white (which is the only race that is not identified as a descriptor), "He's that nice man who works in operations", could be the preferred description by Frank as compared to "the Asian man"? The person who is asking who Frank is should be asking the question to figure out what his function is in the first place, and working in operations is a better description than the Asian looks description. Colorblindness is good in the workplace. People of different races should be able to define themselves by function in organizations rather than their race.... unless the whole point is describing someone's looks... which should never have any role in the workplace in the first place. Giving into human inclinations is not always the best choice. What are the links between people's comfort level in describing someone of a different race and organizational effectiveness/
    efficiency? This article fails to make a case for the connection. Embracing differences inherently involves noticing differences. Ignoring is a better policy. Otherwise you would have people in Frank's organization asking Frank about his 'culture' as an act of multiculturalism and pretty much nothing else, while operations discussions (work related discussions that can help someone's career) go on naturally and comfortably among white race employees. If a white guy working on operations can be defined as 'he is that nice guy working in operations', it should be good to describe Frank as well. Because what is being neglected in this article is another human tendency of ignoring the other descriptors of the individuals and just sticking with the most obvious and unique one. Then the person gets less and less defined by his function in the organization and his personality, and consequently becomes disadvantaged.
    • Clifford Francis Baker
    • Chair, Neffel Corporation
    "Stressing multiculturalism over racial colorblindness", in my estimation, says it all. However, I discovered years ago that my own bias' were not based on the colour of a person's skin, but were instead based on cultural practices associated with skin colour, whether those practices were actual or perceived.

    In a mindset of cultural bias, it would not have been uncommon for me to reject all individuals within that biased cultural background.

    I have over the years not become culturally blind, but have instead sought to be more accepting of individuals as individuals, regardless of ideological, religious, and tradition based cultural practices. For me, acceptance has been derived from a will toward tolerance; for my sake as well as that of others.
    • Anonymous
    Like law enforcement, tv news anchors don't hesitate to use race to describe individuals.
    • William J
    There are data facts in this article; however, the thematic conclusion is flawed. We are all human, and we all have characteristics that distinguish us. When those characteristics are, or have been, used to create an unfair advantage the characteristics become a problem. Bias cuts both ways, and indeed the sharp end of the blade is currently positioned at the neck of "those of non-color."

    The trends are evident and observable by anyone who does not have Mr. Norton's inbred bias or clouded out-of-touch academic perspective. Since the 1960's movements, individuals of color (Blacks most notably) have evolved to simultaneously adopt a pride of being of color (e.g., black pride, "Afro-American" rather than "American" designations) and a permanent victim status. Concurrently, those of non-color (aka "Whites") are at best derided for being proud of being of non-color, and are only quite rarely considered a victim of discrimination. Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, etc. etc. are following in the same paths as Blacks, and will reap the same consequences of exaggerated characteristic attention.

    For Norton to cite a 2003 event as "recent" only shows the biased "I will prove my thesis no matter what" motivation behind his writing and this article.

    Sophomoric Colorblindness, the type that Mr. Norton and Ms. Nobel discuss, is indeed foolish and counterproductive. Genuine Colorblindness, the type that acknowledges differences but does not attempt to create or assign any advantage/disadvantage solely to the color characteristic, may not work for academics who have a hidden agenda, but it is the key to success in the real world.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Despite the risk of being labeled rascist, there is ample evidence of racial discrimination every where and US is no exception. There is a tendency not to treat every one equally with love. The external labels, white-black, American-European/Asian, blonde-black haired, male-female, tall-short, healthy-obese, etc. get glued as soon as someone is faced.
    In India, it is worse. An, for recognising cast, the Government and even laws play a sinister role. Classifications such as scheduled cast, backward class, etc. are recognised. Special incentives to these
    casts are provided. Equal opportunity to every one on merit basis alone is not available. There are special
    reservations for these classes in jobs. This discourages the 'general' catagories.
    Racial colourblindedness is a good concept as this leads to no distinction on the basis of cast, creed, religion,etc. But many are averse to this and avoid being (colour)blind in reality eventhough they may show off that they have no biases.
    • Guy Higgins
    • Principal, Performance2
    Good article -- I don't think that, in the absence of egregious biases, anyone really observes bias against others. Blacks don't see bias against whites and whites don't see bias against blacks (again, absent the truly egregious examples).

    I think that directly addressing diversity within an organization is both important and good. I think that it has to be more than "identity diversity" (identity diversity relates to how we identify ourselves or are identified by others -- race, gender, religion, culture, etc). Identity diversity and cognitive diversity (thinking differently) are highly correlated (see research by Scott E. Page U of Mich). The article alludes to the benefits of leveraging the power of a diverse workforce, and I think that part of the way to address diversity in the workplace is to show how that diversity improves performance -- figuring out how to achieve that improved performance is the challenge. You cannot get the improvement simply by bringing the people together any more than you get a cake simply by putting the ingredients together on a counter. They won't spontaneously "cake-ize" any more than diverse thinkers will spontaneously achieve improved performance simp
    ly by being in the same room.
    • David Lindsay
    • Lecturer/Tutor, Napier Business School
    I can understand the psychological rationale for this "colorblindness" movement but surely it's a bit like saying " Men and women are equal" when transparently they are not. For decades the protagonists of political correctness and equality have attempted to manoeuvre the language so we all consciously avoid certain words/phrases which "may have cause to offend" ?! We thrive on individuality -it's called being human. We are all different , and instead of managers supressing natural human fears and ,as S. Freud alluded to in "Totem and Taboo "[ 1913] we should confront these with a celebration of differences [familial or otherwise!]. We are driven by fear[s], we detest the unknown, we are wary of other tribal cultures and attitudes as there are way outside our comfort zones, but are thrown together in the name of capitalism and personal greed . I prefer the Scottish "clan" system of
    preserving the disimilar but preserving the "brand". Race is just another word for regrettable trraditions now consigned to history book pages and I'm sure we have all moved on socially and culturally while remembering our past errors of judgment!
    • Mark C
    • Director, Sacramento County Office of Education
    This article underscores the necessity of acknowledging race in the workplace, or in my case, schools. I have been told to be a "color blind" educator by well-meaning trainers in the past. But if I'm color-blind, what do I see when I encounter a black student or parent? Are they transparent? Color-blindness, in my experience, negates who we are.
    • Anonymous
    This article is as counter productive as "The Case against Weight Blindness... or Physical Disabilities Blindness... or Mental Disabilities Blindness... or Blindness Blindness" etc.

    I admire the person who said "he has Pants" for their effort. We all have to take baby steps when changing our bad behaviors. At some point they will eventually get to recognizing the other person as a person and observe "The nice man that opens the door for everyone" or "The nice man over in the Sports Department" etc.

    To use characteristics that create social discrimination and put someone down is to propagate meanness. Plain and Simple.

    To support the practice of hanging onto mean behavior just because "it is easier" is equally destructive on society.

    Related quotes from Anthony de Mello:

    "Spirituality means waking up."

    "Why is everyone here so happy except me?"
    "Because they have learned to see goodness and beauty everywhere," said the Master.
    "Why don't I see goodness and beauty everywhere?"
    "Because you cannot see outside of you what you fail to see inside."

    "Wisdom tends to grow in proportion to one's awareness of one's ignorance."
    • Anonymous
    I believe the new politically correct term is 'racilaized'. The concept of 'colorblindness' is very outdated and can be found in literature from the 80s. I recently came across some recent work done by a Canadian researcher emphasizing the difference 'non-white' social workers and expectations or multicultural practice. It was really interesting to see how different the results of the study were when done by and insider. She talked about how workers are often taught from 'white' perspectives and it is assumed that the clients are racialized and how the diversity of a person's background affects how others relate to to them as clients and/or professionals. She included quotes from people in the study that were very candid. Very interesting things that not all of us stop to think about or realise. It's also interesting to see different perspectives from Canada because they have Multicultural policies and legislation. The auth
    or's name was F. See-Toh.
    • Roger Clegg
    • President & General Counsel, Ctr for Equal Opportunity
    While there can be some benefits to having a diversity of perspectives, race and ethnicity should not be used as a proxy for such perspectives. More to the point, there is no logical, empirical, legal, or moral justification for engaging in racial and ethnic discrimination in order to achieve racial and ethnic diversity. See my testimony before the EEOC here: I repeat: Weighing race and ethnicity in hiring and promotion decisions is ILLEGAL.
    • Juan Aguirre
    • Chair for Entrepreneurship, Universiadad Latina Costa Rica
    One major problem with the USA is that they have been for the past 50 years trying to live down the racial problem.
    I am different, I am proud to be so and I want my colleagues and frineds to respect for what I am. Racial difference are a reality, and the differences are not the problem, but is what you make of the differences.A global world is racially different and multicultural. Once the americans accept that you all will be happier.

    Saludos cordiales,
    • Joe Steel
    • Executive Director, Steele Consulting
    Great article and discussion. The notion of being "color blind" is an ago old way for particularly those with skin color privilege to not address the oppression that still exists world wide. Appearance which includes one's skin color is one of the primary lens when forming first impressions. Hence, to pretend that skin color differences do not exist and/or irrelevant is simply "crazy making" for most relationships throughout the world.
    • Anonymous
    Asian meal must come with sauce or soup. Arabic food doesn't come with sauce or soup. Western food prepared in the west are less spicy than western food prepared in Eastern kitchen. Occasionally,food can also be a great medium to communicate in multicultural environment. It's universal. All people will be happy if they are treated with food.
    • Quick
    • sitting, none
    I am glad to see that HBS's tradition of examining the facts rather than social assumptions continues. I have been a racist for 40 years. Not based on any idea of superiority but I want to live with people of my own race and culture - I understand them better. I observe that most people are as racist as I am but are reluctant to admit it. Well, we can't all go to HBS.
    • Barry
    Racial problems have been exacerbated by those who have provided (and wish to provide) remedies. Just go away.
    • Derek
    • Manager
    Re: Another visual difference.

    I read your article and am in complete agreement regarding your premise that what your eyes see you cannot ignore. I learned this lesson many years ago as I adapted to a right-handed world.

    In 1972 I was a passenger in a brutal car accident. No one was killed, but I lost my right arm. Actually, it was so badly damaged that it was amputated just below the elbow. A few months later I was fitted with a prosthesis and opted for a hook rather than a cosmetic hand. Yes, when I was right-handed, I didn't appreciate how difficult it is for a left-hander to operate in a right-handed world. Also, it is more difficult for a one-handed left-hander to operate in that same world.

    I am fortunate not to have become embittered and was always available to answer questions of the curious. Man or woman, young or old, it didn't matter. I tended to sympathize with children because their parents were frequently embarrassed when the child might wonder aloud, "What is that?" or "What happened to his hand?" I always take a moment to calm the embarrassed parent's fears and answer the child's questions. More often than not, I would calm the parent's fears by saying something like, "How is it possible for a child to deny what they see when it is at their eye level and fills their view?" The child's response is natural, curious , and deserves an answer. Not only an answer, but I calm the child's fears and show them how the prosthesis works. I even let them touch the hook, see it open, and show them how it works.

    Remarkably, I've noticed that infants intuitively know there is a difference, but can't verbalize it.

    Your approach to the colorblindness philosophy is unique.
    • Anonymous
    I personally believe that describing a person by there race is not a big deal. When you are pointing out physical characteristics to paint a picture in someones mind, you cant help but to use what you see. Color, size, and physical features are key components to painting a picture. Any writer would tell you that it is extremely hard to write a book about a specific person and not describe their physical attributes. I believe that it would be considered descrimination if you have a negative thought behind using "Race" to describe someone. One's actions speak louder then there words. Racism is like being the white elephant, its kind of hard not to notice.

    So, maybe instead of being "Blind, " we should open our eyes.

    On another note, i enjoyed the article.
    • Bruce A, Revis SR
    • Student, South University Online Savannah
    Professor Norton your article is spoken as only a white person who wants something to change. Understand what I am saying, you know there is a racial problem in the work force area that needs to be addressed. Colorblindness, am I suppose to feel more confident when applying for a managerial position with a Healthcare system? If I do not recieve a call for a second interview am I to say, someone else was given a second enterview because they were more suitable for that position?
    These people who are doing the interviewing, what are their rooted beliefs? HR sends the message to hire on ability and what they are able to contribute to the team. Am I to feel I have a equal chance from another person with less abilty and are of a different race? Do not think for a moment when a person of color goes into a interview they feel as though they are behind the eight ball already. Are the questions the same, am I being looked at the same way someone else is? You know when you go anywhere if you are feeling comfortable in that situation.
    Afformative Action, when people of color were being denied a chance (and still are in many cases) for a beautiful job, they only pulled their pants back up and got back out there and did it again. It is said other ethnic backgrounds feel they are being racially discriminated because they are of a certain persuation. Deal with it and pick your pants back up and do it again.
    How many people of color have had this happen to them and just went back out there the next day and did it all over again? It is hurtful, give you the feeling of not being good enough as the others. You feel disrespected, your self estem is shot for that moment because as stated before, your interview was uncomfortable to begin with. How many times have you walked away with that feeling?
    Because you have an education does not mean you are smart, it only means you have an education. With that education what else do you bring to the table for any job position? Why do many feel they have to work 4 times more than others to keep their job? Why do you see in many company's only one race of people calling all the shots and pulling all the strings?
    I have not written everything that is on my mind because sometimes I open mouth and insert foot. I am 58 and have been in school since Oct 2010, I will have my BS in Healthcare Management Oct 2013. Do I feel good about my education? Yes I do and know I will find work even though I have two strikes against me.
    Bottom line, hire the best for the position and move on. Sounds easy enough, but we know it will never happen because that person sitting next to us may have an internal problem that only they and their famalies know of. Is everyone this way, I will say no with out a second thought. So here is my advice, until racism is really able to be defined and critiqued, pull your pants up and go on to the next interview, what do you want to do? I will not cry, whine, fight, curse, disrespect anyone, not enough time, I need a job.
    I am sure I have some poor grammar along with other elementary mistakes, but you know what? I gave my name and stated my beliefs, I have experienced it all and I just keep on going. Next! Revis