Here’s Why Refusing to ‘See Color’ Doesn’t Actually Mean You’re Not Racist

A person from the neck up, facing straight ahead with a blindfold on.

A person from the neck up, facing straight ahead with a blindfold on.

Whenever someone says “I don’t see color,” I think back to a time when I didn’t notice it either.

I was a little girl, excited to open Christmas gifts. One Christmas Eve, my parents were wrapping presents while I pretended to be asleep. I peeked through their cracked door as they pulled a life-size Kelly doll out of a box that had shipped earlier that day.

It was exactly what I’d asked for, and I was ecstatic but my parents weren’t pleased. Apparently, this wasn’t the doll they’d meant to order.

This doll was white.

I’d never noticed before that my dolls were a different color from the ones shown in commercials. I understand now that my parents only bought me dolls of color so that I could play with something that looked like me. I understand that they wanted to raise me in a pro-black household where I could love my complexion. But back then, I didn’t care about any of that – I simply wanted the Kelly doll, no matter what color.

Some may call the little girl who doesn’t care what complexion her doll is “colorblind.” They might say she is innocent and fair because he hasn’t yet learned about race. But this idea of colorblindness isn’t applied solely to children. Adults claim a similar, less-innocent form of colorblindness, too.

These adults may say with something like, “Oh, I don’t see color,” “I don’t see race,” or “I’m colorblind,” which, usually means that they see a person as a human being, and not a person’s race or ethnic background.

They believe that not seeing race is the best approach for treating people equally. They think that seeing color or race causes racism and other forms of injustice, and being totally unaware of these differences is a way to eliminate these problems in our society.

Yet it’s possible to believe that you don’t see color – and still be racist.

In fact, because colorblindness silences voices of people of color, disregards culture and history, neglects privilege, and makes whiteness the default, the well-meaning colorblind approach is actually counterproductive to solving racism.

Here are four examples of how not seeing color doesn’t prevent racism.

1. It Ends Conversations About Race That Can Be Beneficial

Every once in awhile, when I hear people bring up race in a conversation, the discussion is abruptly ended when someone replies “Oh, I don’t see color.”

Though it’s meant to be a positive and supportive statement, it can sometimes come off sounding like “Sshhhh!” Sometimes this statement silences the voices of people of color.

Conversation is key to having a better understanding various cultures, religions, and racial issues in America. Many of us can benefit from discussion on how the justice system disenfranchises black and Latinx voters, the problems with the Asian model minority myth, or the discrimination hijabi women face.

These conversations teach us about other people’s experiences – and allow us to see from alternative perspectives. 

Conversations incite action that can lead to progress. After two years of discussion about #OscarsSoWhite, the Academy announced a plan to diversify its voting members. #BlackLivesMatter and similar organizations continued conversations about police brutality that lead to marches, protests, change at the ballot box, and several other victories for the cause.

Change sometimes starts with a conversation. 

Yes, conversations about race can feel uncomfortable at times, especially when someone is calling you out for something you’re guilty of doing. But conversations like these can make us better people and make our society more tolerant.

You might think that colorblindness leads to open-mindedness, but real open-mindedness occurs when people are receptive to other ideas and perspectives – not when they refuse to acknowledge and explore them.

So instead of squelching conversations because of colorblindness, we should embrace discussions on race and culture.

2. It Disregards Culture and History

Colorblindness is the idea that we’re all equal human beings, and that’s a wonderful idea. But sometimes it doesn’t acknowledge our uniqueness.

Not recognizing culture due to colorblindness can ignore part of what makes a person who they are.

Embracing differences in culture can teach us a few things. In doing so, you may learn the cultural significance of your black friend’s favorite church spirituals. Maybe your coworker can dispel a few myths about Islam that you previously believed. Maybe you’ll get a chance to try authentic Mexican food after being invited over a classmates’ house, as opposed to the cheap stuff you snarf down on Taco Tuesdays. Maybe you’ll learn a few things about Kānaka maoli that you might not hear about on your Hawaiian vacation. You might even pick up a few words in another language.

Either way, you’ll have to be open to seeing race and recognizing culture in order to really partake in it and celebrate it with your friends of different backgrounds. And understanding their background can help you get to know someone on a more personal level.

Our varying heritages are what makes us unique and can be fun to learn about, but sometimes, our backgrounds are also linked to our nation’s current racial issues. Internment camps, reservations, slavery, and segregation all point to our nation’s current issues with race and culture. And these things didn’t happen that long ago.

A few of my Japanese friends’ grandparents can tell you about their experience leaving everything they knew behind to be rounded up and imprisoned in internment camps. My own grandmother and many others in her retirement community can remember not being able to vote because of their skin color. And though my father was born in the North and attended high school after Brown v. Board of Education, he can talk about how the white students in his school were encouraged to attend college, while he and the other black students were encouraged to find jobs.

And even in recent years, I’ve walked passed people collecting signatures for future legislation on what neighboring Native American communities are allowed to do on their own reservations.

Our nation’s race-based blunders are not events of the past. They have lasting socioeconomic and psychological effects on communities of color. Any attempt to not see race can deter progress.

To try to address these issues, we have to first take off any colorblind lenses and acknowledge that they exist.

3. It Equates Colorblindness with Fairness, When It’s Actually Far From It

People like to lean on colorblindness as a means for treating everyone fairly. They believe that if we didn’t see color, we could treat everyone justly. That’s a great goal, but the execution is flawed.

Some “colorblind” people don’t realize that racism is only one form of oppression. Sometimes racial oppression comes mixed in with other types of oppression. Once such example involves college admissions.

Our nation has constant battle with affirmative action versus colorblind admissions (though affirmative action isn’t necessarily always focused on race). While some colleges still use race as a factor in admissions, some states and schools have banned it because it’s viewed as unfair. However, in states with bans show a decrease in underrepresented races in their schools.

Some people argue that this colorblind admission process is fairer. But they don’t realize that other non-merit-based factors bolster students’ chances of getting into school. Factors including legacy status (if the student has family alumni), parent donations, location of residence, and well-connectedness all help students receive their letters of acceptances. 

Privilege plays a huge role in how students are admitted into colleges.

Because many people of color have historically battled racial glass ceilings, less access to quality education, and socioeconomic hardship from these factors, the students who are more likely to benefit from privileges that increase chances of getting into college are white.

Is that fair?

When in positions of power, people should look around to see who isn’t present, figure out why that is, and explore ways they can create a more diverse atmosphere through changes.

For example, my sister’s engineering program at her university established a students of color mentoring and advisory program to encourage high school seniors who are women and people of color  to pursue careers in engineering.

In the employment sector, certain companies have leadership programs for employees of color to give them the tools needed to move into management positions.

Because of various systems of oppression, diversity usually doesn’t happen naturally. Sometimes, institutions must make an effort to be inclusive.

On a personal level, white people who claim they don’t see color should look at how colorful or not so colorful their lives are.

Who is or isn’t included in their lives, and why? Do they have friends of diverse backgrounds? Do they go see movies like The Perfect Guy or Race, where the cast is predominantly black? Do they feel comfortable in situations or environments where they are the minority?

Sometimes, we have to take a look at our own lives to see who we include or accidentally exclude – and examine why that is.

This inclusion isn’t just for the benefit of marginalized people. Classrooms, companies, and friends can benefit from a variety of perspectives and alternative solutions to problems from diverse experiences.

4. It Makes Whiteness the Default

Without even realizing it or meaning to, a lot of people who “don’t see color” tend to think of a white person as the default person.

When you think of the main character in a book, what do they look like? When you think of the leading role in a movie, what race are they typically?

If the people you pictured were white, don’t feel bad. Your imagination is pretty much on-par with the demographics in Hollywood.

Filmmakers are constantly criticized for whitewashing and having mostly-white casts. Directors and producers give a range of explanations about why their casts are so white, including the need to cast white actors for financial reasons, because they weren’t thinking about race, or because they wanted their actors to represent the “everyman.”

I don’t think these producers had any malicious intent for whitewashing or selecting white-only casts. I don’t even think some of these producers realized that they had an all-white cast before someone pointed it out.

For many people, whiteness is normal. They’re accustomed to seeing casts like those found on hit TV shows like Friends, Sex and the City, and the first season of Girls. This default whiteness is the reason why characters of color, especially non-black characters, are few and far between.

But the insult and injury of the white-as-default theme doesn’t stop in Hollywood. The effects ripple into the beliefs of our society.

Representation often influences perceptions of race. When white characters are primarily depicted as the protagonists, while people of color take secondary, often typecast roles, our society learns Eurocentric, white supremacist ways of thinking from novels, TV shows, magazines, movies, video games, and other forms of entertainment. And these lessons are often learned at very young ages.

In the 1940s, black psychologists created what’s called “The Dolls Test ” to assess the self-esteem of black children in racially segregated America. The experiments asked black children ages three to seven how they felt about certain color dolls. The majority of the children gave white dolls positive attributes and dark skin dolls negative ones.

Since then, the Dolls Test has been recreated many times in recent years and has had similar results.

Without even realizing it, children can pick up racial biases from the media they’re exposed to. If the adults who are writing the books the children read, producing the movies they watch, casting models for the magazines the children see as they move through the grocery store with their parents, are focusing on mostly-white characters because they “don’t see color,” it can influence the child’s perceptions of race. 

And this can damage children of colors’ feelings about themselves and their peers.

Diversity is healthy for the self-esteem of the people in our society and necessary for accurate representations for people of color. Real diversity is empowering. But it can’t happen if people don’t see color. We need our writers, journalists, publishers, producers, and everyone else to see color, so they can make the effort to be inclusive.

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So go ahead and see race. I didn’t spend hours practicing braiding my Kelly doll’s hair to eventually learn how to spend hours braiding my own hair for you to not even notice it. I’m proud of my blackness and all the cool complexities that come with it.

And I want you to recognize it. 

Recognize race in our media, so that one day, Asians can play their own characters on screen, rather than white actors in yellowface. See color so that our college classrooms, newsrooms, Fortune 500 company board rooms, government offices and other powerful institutions can become more colorful.

See race so that our nation can experience real progress on racial issues.

And, while we’re on the topic of progress, let’s take the concept of racial colorblindness our vocabulary. The concept uses ableist language to make a social statement. Colorblindness is a condition related to vision and blindness, not an outlook on life. In striving for inclusion, we have to make sure our language is also inclusive.

Shae Collins is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She enjoys educating and uplifting by aiming a black feminist lens at pop culture on her blog, awomynsworth.com. She’s been published in Ms. Magazine, For Harriet, and Blavity. Laugh with her on Twitter @awomynsworth.