Colorblindness is a form of racism, a nemesis, and a barrier to dismantling it

David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors
David Whitfield/ 2019 Olympian Board of Contributors sbloom@theolympian.com

When former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz was asked about the two black men arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks, he replied, “As somebody who grew up in a very diverse background as a young boy, in the projects, I didn’t see color as a young boy, and I honestly don’t see color now. …”

And he wants to be the President?

As a staunch social justice advocate, I couldn’t help wanting to talk with Mr. Schultz about colorblindness, or color-denial. Jon Greenberg, an anti-racist educator who lives in Seattle, points out that colorblindness invalidates people’s identities; it nullifies one’s individuality.

I’ve often wondered, if you don’t see my color, then why can’t I buy a home anywhere I choose, without being profiled, or worse? Plus, if my color is invisible to you, why is it that when I entered the gates of world-renowned universities to teach, many students assumed I was either part of security or supervisor of the sanitation department?

And please explain these headlines: “Dear 911 callers — stop phoning the cops every time you see a black person” or “Cops keep getting called on black people for being black.” What about cops called on blacks for barbecuing in parks, sitting near a swimming pool at their apartment complex, dozing in a student lounge at a university? And you don’t see color?

Colorblindness, Greenberg says, constricts white Americans’ global view, leading to disconnection. And I may add, it denies the reality of more than 7/8th of the world’s population, because more than 7/8th of the world is nonwhite. Our skin color is part of our identity, our experience, who we are, what we are, how we are.

Greenberg adds that the colorblindness ideology “equates color with something negative.” That the comment “I don’t see color; I just see people,” implies that color is a problem, quite an implication.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Monnica T. Williams says the colorblind ideology is a form of racism; it allows whites to deny uncomfortable cultural differences. She writes, “Most minorities, who regularly encounter difficulties due to race, experience colorblind ideologies quite differently. Colorblindness creates a society that denies their negative racial experiences, rejects their cultural heritage, and invalidates their unique perspectives.” We recognize that whites will have life’s challenges too; however, skin color will not be one of those.

“Colorblindness is disingenuous,” Greenberg says. He speaks of comparing skin color of those most people know. For example, if I show you photos of Barrack Obama and George W. Bush, or photos of Idi Amin and Charles De Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and Willem de Klerk, and you don’t see their color? Why should anyone believe you, trust you? And if you’re not trusted or believed, why should anyone be led by you, taught by you, or coached by you?

The founder of “Cultural Bridges to Justice,” Jona Olsson says such statements as “People are just people; we’re all just human” or “I don’t think of you as Chinese” are “examples of dismissive, almost willfully ignorant denials of the reality of racial diversity.” Such statements “assume people of color are just like whites, having the exact same dreams, standards, problems, etc.” And she contends that “Colorblindness negates the cultural values, norms, expectations and life experiences of people of color. Even if an individual white person could ignore a person’s color, society does not.”

In “The Costs of Racial Color Blindness,” Michael I. Norton and Evan Apfelbaum add that we say we don’t see color “because we want to reduce our odds of exhibiting prejudice or engaging in discrimination, or of seeming to do either.”

And in her “Colorblindness: The New Racism?” Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs says those who enjoy racial privilege close their eyes to the experiences of others, because “it benefits me not to pay attention. I never have to questions whether or not my race is being held in questions when I apply for a job.” Plus, “It benefits me not to question that (because) it makes it look like I got here on my own, implying that my skin color had nothing whatsoever to do with my being privileged,” she says.

I hope Howard Schultz will think harder about color and realize that colorblindness is not the answer to dismantling racism; it perpetuates it.

If you want to learn more about this topic, read: “The New Jim Crow;” “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America;” and “White Fragility.”

David Whitfield is founder of the veteran-owned Intercultural Leadership Executive Coaching, and a member of The Olympian’s 2019 Board of Contributors. He may be reached at dr.d.whitfield@gmail.com.