Skip to navigationSkip to content

Ideas

Our home for bold arguments and big thinkers.

Activists demand justice for Michael Brown
Reuters/Adrees Latif
It is a matter of color.
TRUE COLORS

Let’s be honest, we can’t be colorblind because America is not post-racial

Janee Woods
By Janee Woods

As outrage over the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri further develops—around police brutality, First Amendment rights, and memories of a Civil Rights-era America—one primary criticism is that this isn’t a race issue. Some people believe that Michael Brown wasn’t killed by officer Darren Wilson because he was black and that the militarized police actions toward the predominant African American community didn’t happen because the police force is almost all white.

Rather, some people say that the issues at play are class and poverty, or police brutality more generally. They don’t see race as the epicenter of the killing and subsequent fallout because we don’t yet know all the facts. They seem to believe we live in a post-racial society now that we’ve enthusiastically elected a black president (twice!), most overt racism is banned by law, and the police are supposed to be trained to serve and protect all people, regardless of color. They say there’s a chance that race wasn’t a factor, so why are people looking to race first and pointing a finger at racism? This criticism reflects a growing sentiment that we should be colorblind and never see the color of a person’s skin but only the content of his character.

People who refuse to be colorblind, such as those examining Ferguson through a racialized lens, are accused of playing the race card and of being an obstacle to achieving a post-racial society. However, many of us who walk around every day in black and brown bodies know full well—from personal experience and from warnings handed down by generations about how non-white people need to act in public to survive—that our country is not post-racial and won’t be for a really long time, if ever. We know that colorblindness is a dangerous myth, one that lulls some white people (and some people of color) into thinking that if we ignore race and focus on character, then everything will self-correct. That we can finally start the intense healing our country needs to erase the deep open wounds and scars whipped into us by centuries of slavery, legalized racism, Jim Crow, and deeply embedded institutionalized racism. We know that, unfortunately, colorblindness simply doesn’t work.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because school teachers have lower expectations for the learning potential and academic success of students of color, especially black or African American students, based on nothing more than skin color. Students of color, especially black boys, are disciplined by school administrators more harshly and more frequently than their white counterparts, even at the preschool level. Black students in all grades are suspended and expelled three times more often than white students. Higher suspension and expulsion rates correlate to higher dropout rates, and are a component of the school to prison pipeline in many low income communities of color.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because potential employers discriminate against job applicants with African American-sounding names like Lakisha and Jamal. Applicants with white-sounding names like Emily and Greg receive more callbacks after sending out fewer resumes, and presumably, are hired more often. This is true even when the content of the resumes are identical but only the names are different. Black applicants know that having a name that hints at dark skin carries a giant risk that their resumes will be ignored, even if they hold an advanced degree. So they scrub their resumes of any information that could potentially identify them as being non-white to increase their chances of being offered an interview.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because even when people of color are hired, their work product is perceived negatively compared to work from their white colleagues, based solely on skin color. Even law firms suffer from this bias, despite having an even better understanding than most businesses about what constitutes racial discrimination in the workplace. Law firm partners rated memos as being more poorly written, with weaker legal analysis, and noticed more typos when told that the memo was drafted by an attorney of color. The same memo was regarded much more highly as having stronger legal analysis, with fewer typos noticed, when the partners were told that it was drafted by a white attorney.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because some doctors care for patients differently based on skin color. People of color, women especially, receive less attention and lower quality treatment for pain symptoms than white people. And even if adequate pain medication is prescribed, low income people of color have a much harder time filling prescriptions at pharmacies. Black children are 39% less likely than white children to receive pain medications, even with similar medical situations. The only difference is skin color.

Colorblindness doesn’t work because our society’s ideals of beauty, particularly feminine beauty, hold up whiteness as the standard to be desired. Dark skin and unprocessed ethnic hair are not celebrated the way blue eyes and European features are. Psychology Today even published a “research” article by an evolutionary psychologist that purported to scientifically examine the psychologist’s opinion that black women are less attractive than other women. The same article also stated that black people are less intelligent than other people. The article was deleted from the website after public outcry.

This list of examples, while not exhaustive, does suggest quite strongly that colorblindness simply doesn’t work—at least not yet. People of color cannot expect to be judged solely on merit when everyday interactions are fraught with race based discrimination because some people aren’t, in fact, being colorblind but are instead making decisions and assumptions based primarily on skin color to the detriment of non-white people. Think back to the examples above—doctors and teachers, for example, tend to be people who want to help others (especially children) not hurt them, so it’s clear that racism based on skin color is not always a conscious, explicit choice. We don’t live in a post-racial world because even when people want to act without prejudice and condemn overt racism, the vast majority of people still fall prey to the conditioned implicit bias against blackness that American culture plants and nurtures inside us, especially inside of white people.

Here’s something to ponder: maybe being colorblind is ideal if we all can get there together someday after successfully eradicating the entirety of our conscious and unconscious prejudices. However, we should also consider whether there is far more to be gained by honoring and celebrating our differences instead of being willfully blind to them. When we lift up our various cultures, ethnicities, skin colors and racial identities as being equal and beautiful instead of ignoring them, we are doing far more to see each other’s character because our personalities, our beliefs, our traditions are often reflections of our family heritages and our communities. When we look at people, we should strive to see the whole of who they are, and that might mean noticing race or skin color as being influential on how they experience the world and navigate relationships with others. But until we can actually do that in a way that recognizes the humanity and dignity inherent in each of us, and stop making false judgments based on race and skin color, then we aren’t post-racial. We should also think about whether we truly want to achieve colorblindness. Maybe someday we’ll judge people by the content of their character while simultaneously affirming racial and cultural diversity as gifts that make us stronger as individuals, and more vibrant as a society.