Colorblindness is an individual and social idea based upon two primary notions: (1) that to overtly ignore a person’s race alleviates the possible racism that might otherwise operate and (2) that the equal opportunity structure of U.S. society means that failures among various racial groups to achieve can be best explained by deficiencies in individuals rather than by inequities that result from group membership. Notions of colorblindness operate throughout educational policies and in all levels of personnel. Its pervasiveness makes it a critical educational issue, both within individual classrooms and in the interactions between students and teachers, as well as in understanding educational policies such as “zero-tolerance” discipline approaches.
Many people believe that colorblindness—the idea that racial and/or ethnic group affinity ought to be irrelevant to how one is treated in social and interpersonal interactions—is the natural response to racism, which is often defined as the antipathy for or inferiorization of other people based on race. The notion of operating from a colorblind point of view has a long history in the United States, the rhetoric for which can be found embedded in several important American ideals such as universal meritocracy and the idea that “all men are created equal.”
These ideas are manifest in the Thirteenth Amendment ending slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment offering equal protection under the law to all U.S. citizens. Colorblindness is an ideology frequently held by individuals but one that also works at the level of social policy due in large part to this historical legacy and rhetorical confirmation.
Historical Origins Of Social Applications
During slavery, racism was overt and emerged from the notion of genetic inferiority of Blacks and other non-White races. Also known as “evolutionary” racism, slavery-era racism grew and was legalized during the Jim Crow era, which saw the undoing of much of the progressive social policy found in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments to the Constitution. With legalized segregation supported by the Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court decision, Blacks and other racial minorities began to protest and initiated court cases that challenged legalized segregation in various arenas of public life. These cases culminated in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which found that the separation was inherently unequal. The civil rights era continued, breaking down the practices of evolutionary racism and promoting Black empowerment.
Racism in the twentieth century did not ebb, however; rather, a new incarnation of racism emerged. Colorblind racism, or aversive racism, led to the public’s rejection of overtly racist statements. Political movements of the late twentieth century, countering outright racist acts and beliefs, used as their foundation the liberal notion of impartial and equal treatment of individuals and led to the pervasive idea of individual merit as the primary determining factor in one’s success. Contemporary views of colorblindness arise from this set of beliefs. The dominant idea here was that if one could squelch racist laws by eliminating racist talk and the belief systems that underlie such ideas, then race would no longer matter and individuals could be judged as individuals separate from their racial category.
These hopes, however, did not become reality. In fact, some argue that colorblindness as a social policy has maintained and exacerbated racism to epidemic levels. With regard to educational practice, Michelle Moses argues that while the civil rights era initiated important programs in bilingual education, multicultural curricula, affirmative action in higher education admissions, and remedial education, colorblindness is an insufficient philosophical foundation upon which to maintain one’s support of these important programs. Instead, she and other authors argue that the present problems with racism and racial discrimination in the United States, particularly those affecting education, require race consciousness, if social justice is to remain the ultimate aim.
Colorblindness At The Individual Level
Colorblindness is also a philosophical and attitudinal position held by individuals. People working from a colorblind point of view generally believe that the safest interpersonal policy is not to notice or acknowledge someone’s race; they claim that operating from a “colorblind” point of view inoculates them from possibly enacting deep-seeded racism. Essentially, a colorblind point of view purports to be an antiracist point of view. Thus, people working from this perspective may say to someone of color, “You’re just my friend, I don’t even notice that you’re (fill in race).”
Rather than reflecting an authentic, cultivated antiracist stance, Beverly Daniel Tatum argues that a colorblind perspective is more about civility and manners. She suggests that colorblind individuals have primarily learned that it is impolite to mention or discuss race, thus avoiding talk about race altogether. Such an outcome is only one of several detrimental results that multiculturalists commonly argue arises from harboring a “colorblind” perspective.
In addition to the taboo that is placed upon race and racial talk and dramatically limiting individuals’ ability to explore this pressing educational and personal issue, colorblindness denies that race as a social construct (versus a biological one) influences the quality of one’s life experience. If social conditions such as race no longer exist in a qualitative way, then colorblindness holds that essentially “we are all just individuals.” Arising from this perspective is the idea that when people of color do not succeed, it must be due to individual deficits rather than the differential quality of educational, social, political, and economic resources and experiences that people of color endure. It purports that racial discrimination has ended and that racism is no longer problematic in U.S. society.
In addition, in this point of view intent, rather than effects, is emphasized, which puts enormous burden on the victims of racism to prove their case, while offering near immunity to transgressors because of a built-in benefit of the doubt. If, for instance, a colorblind individual says something a person of color finds racist, the colorblind person simply says “I couldn’t possibly have meant that statement in that way, I’m colorblind to racial differences. We’re all just human.” Thus the victim of the racial epithet is left with the responsibility of defending the position in a nearly impossible situation.
Equally problematic is that colorblindness tends to “see” other racial groups while remaining blind to White as a racial category, effectively limiting the type of intense self-examination that most multiculturalists agree is key for White people in order to unlearn racism. Consequently, when mainstream Whiteness is not interrogated, mainstream culture is reified and assimilation becomes the key practice in creating racial integration, an idea that most multiculturalists would find deeply problematic.
Perhaps most damaging is the concomitant claim in colorblindness that color consciousness and race consciousness are inherently racist. Using the White supremacist as their example of an individual who is racially conscious, colorblind individuals suggest that to acknowledge race means to operate with antipathy and inferiorization as primary principles. Multiculturalists calling for race consciousness argue that instead of replacing “evolutionary” or overt racism with the equally powerful yet more subtle form of colorblindness, U.S. society should move toward acknowledging the ways in which race influences the lives people lead and promote the ability to discuss openly these effects so that authentic solutions to the problem of racial segregation, discrimination, and hatred can be found.
Understood by some as progressive social policy, the notion of colorblindness is a historically charged, individually and socially detrimental ideology that is often used to frame educational policy. Ostensibly, colorblindness argues for omitting race as one among many factors when allocating educational resources. Such a position may appear like good policy for educational decision making. However, in a society where racism exists in countless ways and is prevalent throughout all public spheres, the notion of retreating from using race is completely implausible, if not impossible. Color consciousness, rather than colorblindness, is the educational policy that actually contains the greatest power in addressing the most pressing issues of educational equity that continue to worsen over time.
- Blau, J. (2003). Race in the schools: Perpetuating White dominance? Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner.
- Blum, L. (2002). I’m not a racist, but. . . . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Carr, L. (1997). Color-blind racism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Cose, E. (1997). Color-blind: Seeing beyond race in a raceobsessed world. New York: HarperCollins.
- Hitchcock, J. (2002). Lifting the White veil. Roselle, NJ: Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books.
- Moses, M. (2002). Embracing race: Why we need race: Conscious education policy. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Tarca, K. (2005). Colorblind in control: The risks of resisting difference amid demographic change. Educational Studies, 38(2), 99–120.
- Tatum, B. D. (1997). Why are all the Black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? New York: Basic Book
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