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The Problem with Color Blindness

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

three reasons to avoid it

Countless people have claimed to be color blind, thinking that color blindness is a noble goal. A generous interpretation of color blindness advocates is that they “do not see color” in human beings. Yet, is that even accurate? Do you see color when looking at flowers? Do you appreciate the reds, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, indigos and violets? Yes? If so, then you see color. The difference is that, in human beings, seeing color has been historically linked to valuing some people and devaluing other people, and building entire systems (e.g., educational, residential, employment, legislative, judicial, etc.) simply based on their skin color. THAT is what needs to be eradicated. But, simply denying that we see color, will not fix the biases, prejudices and systemic inequities that result from skin color and cultural differences.

More specifically, the notion of color blindness is problematic for at least three key reasons.

results in obnoxious peace

First, color blindness may imply that the very discussion of racioethnicity and racism is problematic, that the discussion itself leads to division. Some people believe that it is better not to discuss such divisive topics.

  1. This perspective ignores that failing to discuss something does not make that something vanish. If your doctor diagnoses you with cancer, does refusing to discuss it make it disappear? Of course not. That is illogical and a fairy tale approach to very real and challenging issues.

  2. The “peace” that results from a lack of discussion (i.e., that color blind advocates may pursue), is what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. calls an “obnoxious” peace, peace that stinks, peace that is bought by silencing righteous voices of conflict (see for more details). This kind of silence perpetuates inequities, in that way, this silence is harmful and cowardly.

Ignores systemic inequity

Second, color blind approaches ignore systemic inequities: if we do not “see” color, then it is impossible to acknowledge that those differences in color may have led to different systemic processes and outcomes. If we don’t see color, how do we explain systemic outcome differences in employment, medicine, education, mass incarceration, etc.? We need help doing more thorough assessment and analysis of societal ills. Color blindness thwarts those efforts.

erases history and identity

Third, it is critical to emphasize that many of us want people to fully see us which means that we want you to see our racioethnicity and other social identity traits. What we do not want is for you to devalue us or our culture because of our racioethnicity. I am proud to be a Black woman. I am proud of my heritage, my culture. If you hold hidden biases or prejudices about Black people, that is an issue for you to redress. That process will be facilitated by a deep discussion about racioethnicity and racism. In contrast, a color-blind approach that precludes a conversation about racioethnicity will not help you and others become fully self-aware individuals who can work through those issues. This article links to many helpful resources about the problem with color blindness:

learn more!

Please listen to the full McKinsey podcase episode with me and Raju Narisetti (Leader and Publisher, Global Publishing for McKinsey & Company) here:

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