Sunday, October 10, 2010

Why Can't We Just be Colorblind?

Wouldn't that solve all our problems concerning race? Isn't that what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. meant when he dreamed of a nation where his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character"?

An interesting study from Northwestern University made the news this week. Here's the link --

The researchers found that 8 - 11 year old kids who were primed to be colorblind (told that we shouldn't focus on race) through a multimedia storybook were less likely to recognize obvious racial discrimination in a subsequent story than kids who were told that "racial differences make us special." In other words, trying to be colorblind makes it harder to recognize real discrimination when it occurs. This is not new news to people who study race; field researchers have found that the same happens in schools who adopt a colorblind philosophy among their student and adult populations.

The folks at Northwestern note that although the colorblind approach is well intended (coming from a desire to promote equality), it can actually have the opposite effect. I agree that most people who argue for colorblindness do have good intentions -- in my experience, when teachers say "I'm colorblind" they mean they try their best to be fair and unprejudiced. However, I have heard the word used in another way, too. "Why should those scholarships go to minority students? That's racist! Aren't we supposed to be colorblind?!" This argument strikes me as ironic -- ah, now, after centuries of oppression, we want to be colorblind. Seems a bit self-serving to me.


  1. in the example you cited in the last paragraph regarding scholarships not going to minorities, is it self-serving to insist that merit and not quotas be used?

  2. we shouldn't teach children NOT to be colorblind because then they won't recognize discrimination when it occurs? It seems to me we will NEVER fix the problem if that is the case.

  3. 1. The intent of offering scholarships to students who are members of historically marginalized groups is to undo some of the wrongs I've mentioned in other posts. This is different from quotas. Merit is involved because a scholarship may get you there, but it's your grades that keep you there.

    2. The alternative is to teach kids (and adults) to recognize and appreciate difference, while still maintaining egalitarian goals.