You know when you’re in a conversation about racism and injustice, and that one white person declares, “I don’t see colour?” That way white people show their progressiveness, illustrating how race isn’t an issue for them? At first blush, this approach to race – also known as colour blindness - might seem like a reasonable idea. If you don’t 'see colour’ you are working on judging people based on their character, not their skin colour. But this idea that you ‘don’t see colour’ promotes the notion that ‘race should not and does not matter.’ And while we can all agree that race “should not” matter, there’s no way we can argue that race “does not” matter in North America today. According to a 2014 study from David Binder Research, 73% of millennials believe that we should not see the colour of someone’s skin, as this would better our society. Nearly 70% believe they have achieved this and are now ‘colour blind.’
It’s understandable; race is an uncomfortable topic. But as uncomfortable as it is to discuss racism, race politics and discrimination, imagine how much more uncomfortable it is to live it. People of colour do not have the option to be colour blind. They can’t ignore race. They live with the consequences of not being white every day, whether or not white people want to acknowledge it.
Let’s get real. No person of colour is going to believe you if you say you don’t see colour. Sorry, but we all know that is complete BS. You’re going to seriously proclaim you can’t see any differences between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Lena Dunham? Just two regular ol’ feminists? That Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio are both just middle aged actors? Even if your intentions are good, saying you are colour blind leads us down a path where no productive conversations are had.
Despite best intentions, ‘not seeing colour’ can send a number of detrimental messages. If you are a someone who espouses the idea of colour blindness, I urge you to consider how this may affect others.
- It strips people of their identity and their uniqueness.
To tell someone that you don’t ‘see colour’ means you don’t see their race. You don’t see their background, their heritage, their ancestor and their traditions. You don’t see part of what makes them unique. You strip them of part of their identity.
To say you don’t notice if someone is black, is to say that you don’t care if they are black. While you may think it is a compliment to not associate someone with their race, and indeed you may have altruistic intentions, your colour blindness strips not only the negatives consequences of being a certain race, but also all the amazingness and pride that comes from being that race. So you may be trying to say that you disregard their skin colour because you want to judge them on their character, but you are also inadvertently suggesting that their racial identity is irrelevant you. To strip someone of their identity in order to judge them on their character is, in fact, impossible. While character is not dictated by race, a person’s lived experiences (most certainly dictated by race) will shape a person’s character.
Colour blindness, in an effort to eliminate ways in which people are seen as different, ends up stripping people of parts of their identity. Rather than trying to hide these difference, we need to celebrate them. Multiculturalism, the flip side to colour blindness, acknowledges and celebrates ethnic and racial differences. It has hard conversations about the realities of race and views ethnic and racial differences as something we can channel into a positive aspect of society.
- It defaults everyone to white.
You may not realize it, but your default ‘colour’ for sameness is white. “I don’t see colour” is a more nuanced way of saying, “I see everyone as if they’re white.” When you promote colour blindness to regard everyone as ‘the same,’ you project whiteness on people of colour.
Colour blindness also implies that being any race other than white is problematic. The comment “I don’t see colour,” carries the implicit notion that colour is an issue. It is an erasure of the ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘problematic’ part of someone. When you declare, “I don’t see colour,” you essentially say to someone, “I see you despite your race.” You, white person who doesn’t notice race, are actively erasing it so you can pretend everyone is white and feel less uneasy.
- It ignores reality.
If you believe racism died once the US abolished the 3/5 laws, or racism isn’t pervasive today, this article isn’t for you. Racism is alive and thriving. It’s the simple reality that racialized people do not have the same experiences going through life as a white person.
When you “don’t see colour,” you deny people of colour their reality. You deny the unique obstacles that they face as non-white people. For example, we need to constantly be asking ourselves, “Would scenario X have happened to a white person?” These are important questions because the same outcome will not happen to everyone. So, to claim colour blindness and refuse to examine these injustices is unfair and perpetuates racism.
If a person of colour says a bad incident happened to them and you ‘don’t see colour’ then you may say they are overreacting or are hypersensitive, because you have failed to consider the historical context and social realities of minorities. When you ‘don’t see colour’ you may negate the realities of a racialized person. If you refuse to ‘see colour’ and recognize that bad things happen to racialized people because of their race, you can end up invalidating their lived experiences.
For example, take the idea of a meritocracy. If you ‘don’t see race’ you won’t recognize the systemic barriers people of colour must overcome to get to their current social position. The myth of meritocracy is that people can get anywhere in life, regardless of race, so long as they just work hard enough. It suggests that when a person of colour doesn’t get a job or a promotion it’s simply because they are incompetent/lazy. It pretends that everyone is on an even playing field and then admonishes racialized people who are not in the same social position as white people. As a boss or hiring committee, you may have the best intentions of not ‘seeing colour’ to only evaluate people based on their merit, but in doing so, you erase the systemic barriers that automatically come along with a person’s skin colour.
- It suppresses narratives of oppression.
Colour blindness eliminates the need to acknowledge and discuss the uncomfortable realities of racism, which allows our oppressive systems to continue trucking along. If we don’t see race, race becomes obsolete, and then narratives of racism are not important.
For example, the American and Canadian justice systems are built on the notion that blindness equates to fairness. Lady justice is predicated on her own colour blindness; our courts are objective because they take no note of appearances. Yet, when we consider the high rate of incarceration for black men in America, or the disproportionate number of Indigenous people in Canadian prisons, it’s clear that Lady Justice’s approach isn’t leading us to justice.
If we are colour blind, we inevitably bury stories. If we ‘don’t see colour’ then we don’t discuss experiences that happen to racialized people. We need to foster an environment where stories of oppression and discrimination are heard, valued, and addressed. The practice of colour blindness stops the dismantling of racism before it has even started by failing to reach step one of this process: understanding racism.
Bonilla-Silva, a Duke University professor, describes colour blindness like living in a “pretend world” where skin colour is meaningless. He argues that this practice allows people to disregard racism. When we refuse to recognize race, or fail to discuss the cultural differences between us, we lose opportunities to have meaningful discussions on racism. Bonilla-Silva has written extensively about how colour blindness functions to legitimize specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. Colour blindness, by pretending none of this exists, effectively ignores the elephant in the room.
Further, colour blindness narrows our understanding of the world, leading to a disconnect between reality and our rose-tinted glasses. While I’m talking mainly about white people, as this ignorance benefits us the most, this pertains to everyone. To ignore the realities of different ethnic groups and races, we fail to broaden our perspectives and better understand our neighbours.
Our willingness to have a dialogue about racialized people, which is only achieved by ‘seeing colour’ is a critical part of confronting racism. If we don’t talk about it, we don’t learn anything, and then we can’t fix anything. If you are colour blind, you are also blind to the injustice.
Seeing Race Doesn’t Make you a Monster.
When you say you “don’t see colour,” you are inadvertently suggesting to racialized people that you don’t see them. You erase them: you erase their culture, their identity, their uniqueness and their lived experiences. You erase them because their racialized existence makes you uncomfortable and you deal with that unease by ignoring it. Your colour blindness allows you to avoid having the hard conversations about race, which in turn let you off the hook for working to end racism.
If you ‘don’t see colour’ because you want to be a proponent of an egalitarian society, I applaud you, but you don’t have to ignore race to do this. You can still treat someone equally while acknowledging their race. You can meet a person who is black, see this, then be a good human and treat them with respect. Being un-white is not a bad thing, we don’t need to hide it. Saying that you see race doesn’t mean you’re a bad human, it just means you’re human.