Colorblindness Is Not a Virtue

“I don’t see race. I’m colorblind.” I’ve heard it said many times, and I’m confident the speaker always meant well. However, those words have never made me feel better. The intention is well meaning, but the words, at best, are misleading—suggesting that the impossible is feasible. Because unless you are actually colorblind (as in unable to differentiate between blue and green), you see color. What you’re really trying to say (I hope) is that what you see doesn’t cause you to engage in discriminatory behavior. That’s the best-case scenario, in my opinion.

However, there’s a worst-case scenario as well. Someone whose goal is to be colorblind might not actually be seeking equality but uniformity. Colorblindness can be a means of whitewashing—removing individuality and variety. Homogeny is not a noble goal. It is through variation that we best experience humanity. If all of us were poets, where would the painters be? If all of us were dancers, who would compose the symphonies? Imagine a world in which every voice sounded the same and every flower, animal, and sunset was the same shade. Sure, there might be less conflict if we all shared the same beliefs and perspectives, but at what cost? There is beauty in individuality. There are far-reaching benefits to diversity.

Pretend you’ve been presented with a problem—a difficult problem that needs to be solved and has serious consequences. Would you rather face that challenge with ten other people who are exactly like you (strengths, shortcomings, and all), or with a diverse group? Imagine the depth and wisdom that might come out of someone whose experiences and talents are different from yours. Colorblindness doesn’t allow for the creation of intentionally diverse sources.

Colorblindness erases the beautiful rainbow of diversity in the world. It is not an altruistic goal. At best it is misguided. At worst it is a covert fuel for racist agendas.

Racism has evolved. It isn’t just overt acts of aggression or malicious slurs. There are racist undercurrents even when things at the surface appear innocuous. Additionally, there is a legacy effect to racism. Many of America’s past transgressions are still affecting people of color today. For example, I recently learned of a ProPublica story that reported on how black families in at least three metropolitan neighborhoods were twice as likely to have debt collection judgments against them as their white neighbors of the same socioeconomic standing. Colorblindness would miss that trend and fail to understand the causes. It’s not just as simple as collection agencies targeting black families. Part of the problem is that black families tended to have fewer resources they could draw on to prevent a suit than their white counterparts. And the reason for that is the disparity between economic opportunities for blacks going back generations.

Colorblindness isn’t a virtue because there are still problems in this country (in this world) that racism created. We can’t expect to unravel the legacy of racism without seeing color. If you want to be sure a group isn’t being discriminated against, first you have to see them.

Colorblindness is not a virtue because it doesn’t question the collective. Society has a current. We all contribute to its flow. Some of us are in agreement. Others of us are at odds. We, as individuals, come together to create the collective. And that collective, even while being comprised of some dissenters, has a hegemonic aesthetic, priority, and opinion regarding everything. For instance, while your personal preferences may differ, there is a collective idea of what is beautiful, and it doesn’t currently include every shade of skin or every type of body. When we exclude a group, colorblindness doesn’t keep us accountable. It doesn’t ask why no black actors were nominated for Oscars two years in a row. It doesn’t question who gets to be on magazine covers. It doesn’t investigate the casting practices of popular sitcoms or take a critical look at whose stories aren’t being told.

Colorblindness isn’t a virtue because it shirks responsibility. Who’s to blame? The tricky truth is that we all are. And because of this, it’s hard to feel personally accountable. We blame society, but rarely include ourselves. We’re quick to say “they” have done this or that. We rarely stop to wonder, “Do I contribute as well?” Unfortunately, no one’s hands are completely clean, even those that are well meaning. To quote Ta-Nehisi Coates, “In America, racism is a default setting. To do nothing, to go along with the market, to claim innocence or neutrality, is to inevitably be a cog in the machine of racist hierarchy.”

Example: I was recently watching a documentary about modeling. It included interviews with models from various decades. One woman, who later worked as an agent, described how often (in the spirit of being inclusive) someone planning to use dozens of women for a fashion show would call and ask her to send one exceptional black model—one. A perfect example of how better than nothing is not good enough.

Under the guise of colorblindness, Hollywood can cast white actors to play historical figures of color. And, hypothetically, a colorblind college could fail to accept any students who aren’t Caucasian. If we agree that all of us are equal, yet unique, then we see the flaw in colorblindness as an ideal.

The thing is, at least on the surface, the idea of colorblindness is comforting. At it’s best, it is based on the hope that a person can be judged as Martin Luther King, Jr. once dreamed. That each person would be allotted opportunities based solely on substance versus malicious labels or superficialities. However, we haven’t earned the right to be colorblind. The field hasn’t been leveled enough. Considering the current state of our country, colorblindness isn’t a virtue; it’s a weapon.

Given the pitfalls of putting colorblindness on a pedestal, my goal isn’t to be blind to color but to celebrate it. Every hue of humanity has value. We’re all parts of a beautiful rainbow. Now that we have progressed beyond black and white and can depict images in full color, let’s make sure that we’re including humankind’s every hue everywhere possible.

Colorblindness is not a virtue.

Humanity is too complicated for just black and white.

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