The Psychology of Color-Blindness

When we see people keep on insisting on a viewpoint against all evidence and reason, we can know that they’re holding on for something having to do with something besides rationality.

We all do it. We all pick ideological positions based on our hopes, our fears, our dreams and our nightmares. Sometime we act out of simple ignorance, and a careful explanation can get us on the right track. But sometimes, we’re afraid of what something we don’t want to believe might mean.

I engage with people on the topic of white privilege, gender privilege, and other progressive issues a lot.

My position is pretty simple: I, as a white straight American male of a middle-class background, have a ton of options and advantages. I still have struggles. I still have heartaches. I still face difficulties. (As a millennial in particular, I have seen an opportunity structure shattered because of the greed of previous generations).

So one will often see people ask, “Is the white homeless guy privileged?” Not in absolute terms, of course not. But compared to the black homeless guy? How can anyone deny that the white guy is probably going to be better off? Clean both of them up, send them in to a job interview, and the white guy might just be able to make it. But even the cleaned up black homeless man is going to still make a white employer have just that little bit of niggling subconscious bias, if nothing else.

These are complicated ideas, and people can have all sorts of valid disagreements.

But then there are some ideas that are seemingly asinine, and yet they’re deeply rooted.

One such issue is the idea of color-blindness.

White people, both liberal and conservative, often propose this kind of argument:

“Racism comes as a result of seeing race. If we just stopped talking about it, the problem would go away”.

Now, if one thinks about that position for a few seconds, the obvious problems start to come about.

For one thing, people have their subconscious biases no matter what happens. We might as well tell the depressed person, “Just pretend you’re not depressed”, or the victim of sexual assault, “Just act like there’s not such a thing as rape”. If subconscious bias exists, we can’t cover it up.

But, see, many people do deny that they are depressed, or deny that something bad and traumatic happened to them, because that way they don’t have to face the hurt and the pain of the truth.

This color-blind ideology protects our egos. It makes it so we don’t have to admit that we might have our sight occluded by things we didn’t control. It lets us be rational and loving without any more hard work.

It might be possible for all of us to transcend race. But we wouldn’t do it by pretending we weren’t biased. People have to admit their biases before they can transcend them. A good journalist doesn’t transcend his biases by pretending he’s not a Democrat: A good journalist learns techniques to compensate for the way that his party affiliation may color his reporting. Overcoming bias is active, and it requires admitting it. It also requires castigating and criticizing those who remain biased. Yet people in these discussions often try to say that calling out the actually biased person is part of the problem, when a moment’s thought would indicate that it’d be part of the solution.

Another problem with the color-blind assertion is that it’s a bad causal model. Yes, of course if people didn’t see racial groups at all there would be no racism. But if people saw racial groups and embraced the diversity they saw, there also would be no racism.

Racism, bias and the white privilege that comes about as a result of not being the subject of those biases is about more than just the recognition that people are different. It’s about that recognition becoming about a stereotype, a belief that all black people or all inner-city black males or all Muslims are the same. It’s then about that stereotype becoming used to deny the humanity, the effort and sacrifice, of individuals.

It’s possible for people to live together and know that they’re from a different culture.

But people often struggle to accept a complex causal model. We like to blame others for making us angry, even though it’s obviously the case that it takes two to tango and if we didn’t have something that we were holding onto we wouldn’t be angry.

Color-blindness lets us imagine it as being simple. We just stop talking about race.

Finally, color-blindness can’t rectify the results of past inequalities.

We didn’t just make up racism or nationalism. The whole of the modern world has been decided by the biases of those who had the guns.

There are trillions of dollars that white folks have that black folks couldn’t get access to because of previous inequalities.

So if you look at the net worth of African-American families, their median wealth is $4,900. Whites have a median wealth of $97,000. That’s about twenty times as much. But the difference in income is more like 61%. You see similar disproportions between Caucasian whites and Hispanics (classified as “white” in the Census).


Even if we were to be so good at being color-blind that we started paying people of color exactly as much as whites, this gap would take time to go away.

Hell, even if we gave black workers 10% more on average, it’d still take time for that wealth gap to disappear.

Worse, the wealth gap has actually worsened in the aftermath of the 2008 recession.

But, see, when people face a huge problem, they often search for some kind of cognitive approach that will justify them not having to do something.

The most pernicious part of color-blindness as a theory is that last part: “If we just stopped talking about race, it’d go away”.

No need for marches. No need for letter-writing, or boycotts, or challenging businesses. No need to stop listening to a comedian that we used to like but said some really bigoted things and didn’t apologize. No need to interrogate Paula Deen or Kramer.

Instead, we just stop talking about it.

And this is why this idea has to be rejected so staunchly. Even though it’s high-minded, even though it comes from a real place and has a real point, we have to fight it. Because it’s in fact a very high-minded and noble excuse for inaction, and nothing more.

I struggled to try to figure out where this color-blindness idea came from, and why it’s so hard to get otherwise rational people to abandon it. It’s such an emphatically wrong concept, and I don’t recall it actually being endorsed by any movement. It’s certainly not something people of color generally offer.

Take a similar idea that’s been embraced collectively. Many people say that being gay isn’t a choice but is genetic.

Why has that been embraced?

Because gay advocates made that argument pretty compellingly.

It was a movement that pushed that concept into the mainstream.

So if you have any debate about gay rights, the idea of choice and genetics comes into play, because there was an actual source of that idea.

But I don’t see a similar source for this white color-blindness idea.

It seemed to have taken root on its own.

When that happens, you can be sure that it’s psychologically motivated, to protect our egos and our hopes.

I’ve learned from years of working with people in pain that the thing that they need to hear to conquer bad constructs is something hopeful. The same is true here. People need to hear that embracing an idea beyond color-blindness is worth it.

So, let me try.

Talking about race and stereotypes doesn’t make us a bad person. We’re so afraid sometimes that if we say something wrong people will jump down our throats. But it’s better that air our concerns and do our best than be silent.

Admitting that people are different doesn’t mean that we hate them.

It is possible for us to end white privilege. It’s possible for us to do the work to challenge inequality.

And this is something we’re all in together. No one chose to have slavery and Jim Crow lead to inequality along racial lines. No one alive chose patriarchy, or chose economic inequality. And the fact that a lot of people of color have disadvantages doesn’t mean that no one else has a right to complain or express their hurts. The point is for us to get everyone’s boat higher, not some people’s lower. We want to see everyone doing better and being better.

But we can choose together to not accept it.


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