“I don’t see color” is a phrase that is often uttered innocently for some people thinking they are doing the right thing. Yet it can be frustrating for others. What does colorblindness mean? How does racial colorblindness manifest itself?”

What does “colorblindness” mean in a racial context?

And where does it come from?

Colorblindness is a racial ideology that asserts that in order to stamp out inequality, people’s skin color and ethnic origin should be considered insignificant. In other words, it is a school of thought that aims to end discrimination, bias and racial inequality by treating all individuals fairly, irrespective of factors such as ethnicity, culture or skin color.

A color-blind society is one in which we are all equal in dignity and rights, where neither our ethnicity, culture nor skin color can negatively impact any opportunities that might present themselves to us.

The concept emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, coined during the Civil Rights Movement and International Anti-Racist Movements of that period. Martin Luther King Jr., a major leader of the Civil Rights Movement, brought up the idea in an authentic and well-intentioned context in one of his famous speeches in 1963, saying:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington, August 28, 1963.

How does racial colorblindness manifest itself?

Racial colorblindness can manifest itself in four different ways, according to a classification system developed at length by Phil Mazzocco, a Professor of Social Psychology, in his book on racial ideology entitled The Psychology of Racial Colorblindness (2017).

The four categories of colorblindness defined by Mazzocco are protectionist, egalitarian, antagonistic and visionary. The repercussions of some groups are more serious than others.

Some people think that we live in a world where everyone is equal no matter what their background is. This way of thinking borrows from the words of Martin Luther King Jr., echoing the changes observed as a result of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States mentioned above. This type of reasoning can lead to one of two outcomes.

1- Egalitarian: This category of colorblindness causes little direct harm. The people in this group believe that balance has been achieved in the society — or group — we live in and that everyone is doing well. Based on such an assessment of the situation, they support the idea of maintaining the status quo, believing further change to be unnecessary.

2- Protectionist: This way of thinking is highly impactful because it appeals to protectionism — a set of actions reflecting the desire to protect oneself by triggering a mechanism of defense and withdrawal. People that adopt this approach are able to convince themselves that an individual has enjoyed undeserved advantages or swayed certain opinions as a result of their skin color. The people in this group tend to feel aggrieved when such observations fail to reflect reality.

Such people and organizations have little awareness of racial inequality, believing such injustices to be rare or even non-existent. They may, therefore, seek to justify themselves publicly — in ways that can be more or less acceptable to those around them.

· High awareness of racial inequality

3- Visionary: People falling into this category are aware that racial inequality, discrimination and bias exist, and see colorblindness as the way to overcome such problems. Identifying skin color and differences in ethnicity as the sources of such problems and misunderstandings, some people consider setting these factors aside to be the best solution. As Prof. Phil Mazzocco points out, this category is associated with low levels of prejudice. In my opinion, however, such levels may only seem low on the surface, which I believe may also be because people do not suffer physically from their consequences, as is sometimes the case in the next category.

4- Antagonistic: This is a more twisted manifestation of colorblindness, with more serious repercussions. In this category, the ability to see another person’s color is denied, with the clear intention of harming others. This type of approach is generally adopted by members of extreme movements such as the Klu Klux Klan. Members of this group deny any kind of discrimination against people of color, even when confronted with hard evidence.

Black Lives Matters image by LOIC VENANCE — GETTY IMAGES — ELLE.com

We all saw the emergence of the “All Lives Matter” slogan, which was introduced by such antagonistic groups in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. It is important to remember that the wording of the latter is “Black Lives Matter” and not “Only Black Lives Matter”. For a better understanding of the inequalities that exist between black and white people in the United States, you can refer to a study from June 2020 published by the New York Times. While the study shows that child mortality, poverty and imprisonment rates are much higher for black people, it also demonstrates that their average life expectancies, median household incomes and home-ownership rates are lower than their white compatriots. I do not have access to the same figures for France because ethnic-based statistics are banned by the French law of January 6, 1978, on Data Processing, Data Files and Individual Liberties but make no mistake, many indicators lean towards the same conclusions as those made in the United States.

According to a 2019 progress report published by the French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission (French: Haute autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité or HALDE) an individual’s origin represents one of the main grounds for discrimination, ranking second at 14.5% behind disability, which was ranked first at 22.7%.
According to “The Other-Race Effect Develops During Infancy, Evidence of Perceptual Narrowing” study carried out by David J. Kelly, Paul C. Quinn, Alan M. Slater, Kang Lee, Liezhong Ge and Olivier Pascalis, which was first published on December 1, 2007, the Other-Race Effect or ORE — a tendency among people to recognize and remember faces from their own racial group more easily than faces from other racial groups — emerges at the age of 6 months and is fully present at the age of 9 months. It is a very fast mechanism, requiring less than one-seventh of a second.

This means that from the very early stages of human development, we have the ability to differentiate between different ethnicities and skin colors. In particular, we know how to react to and identify people who have skin colors or physical features that are different from our own. Taking these results into account, it is interesting to reflect on the fact that so many people tend to say that they don’t notice the skin color of their interlocutor. Isn’t it strange that so many people say that they don’t see racial differences?

Colorblindness in companies, groups and organizations

Some organizations and companies have also adopted a culture of colorblindness. When approaching the task of recruitment, such groups may encounter one of two possible outcomes.

In the first case — if there is no real policy of diversity, belonging and inclusion in place — a company will generally recruit candidates that resemble the people already present in its ranks. This level of similarity, or lack of diversity, reveals itself in the background, gender, culture, sexual orientation, origin, skin color, etc. of the employees.

By employing similar profiles cast in the same mold, the company ensures that its results are always the same. But we live in a world where things are changing at an incredible pace. You have to be agile and flexible, or you will stagnate — and nowadays, standing still really means lagging behind. This is representative of the situation in both local and international companies. If you always use the same ingredients, you will always make the same dish. It is clear that such an approach can only lead to a lack of innovation because thinking tends to remain the same when a company consistently hires the same type of profile to fill its ranks.

As Wayne Dyer said, “Progress and growth are impossible if you always do things the way you’ve always done things.” In other words, if you always employ the same type of profile, you will always achieve the same results. If such an outcome (for example your turnover) leaves something to be desired and you would like to change and improve it, then you must change your way of doing things. Of course, that is easier said than done — so make sure to surround yourself with competent people. Above all, keep in mind that real change can take time when you want to build a solid foundation for the future.

The second expected outcome of such a color-blind approach is more positive than the first if the organization, group or company seeking to recruit new employees has a diverse range of people from historical minority groups (in terms of culture, skin color, ethnicity, etc.) in its teams in charge of recruitment. In this case, we can then expect it to be possible to short-circuit the policy of colorblindness entirely.

The dangers of the “I don’t see color” by artist Danielle Coke

What is the problem with saying that you are “color-blind”?

Claiming to be color-blind can be detrimental because it is sometimes used with negative intentions. Some people even use claims of colorblindness as an excuse not to face reality and to make life easier for themselves in a way that appears morally acceptable to others. As such, the “color-blind” card is played when it suits them. For example, someone could at times say that they are friends with a person from a different racial group and on other occasions say that they do not see the ethnicity or skin color of the people around them. Evidently, this mechanism prevents us from addressing the problems of racial inequality and discrimination, which are visible and real.

It is clear that a policy of colorblindness is in place in some companies, because we do not see people of color in key positions in those companies. The excuse is often that it is not intentional — that the company only recruits the best people for each position. Aren’t there any foreign candidates or people of color with degrees from prestigious schools or other relevant academic accomplishments? Haven’t they been able to develop their skills and experience in a business environment like those currently hired by the companies that have adopted this way of thinking?

Here is a quick exercise for you to try. Tell me if you have a black manager — in your company, for example — or if you know one or more Chief Executive Officers (CEO), Chief Technology Officers (CTO) or Chief Financial Officers (CFO) in your company who are people of color or members of an ethnic group that is historically under-represented? Have you read any articles about one or more managers (of listed or unlisted companies) that are people of color or from ethnic minority backgrounds this week? Have you seen more than two such managers in the news today or in the past week?

Ethnic diversity in a corporate context matters on both an individual and collective level because, according to a study carried out by McKinsey, companies with high levels of diversity in terms of ethnicity and gender have higher financial returns — 35% and 15% respectively — than companies in their category that are not dedicated to these issues. In the study, McKinsey observes a relationship between financial performance and ethnic diversity in companies in the USA, where: “for every 10% increase in racial and ethnic diversity on the senior-executive team, earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) rise 0.8%.”

By being color-blind, we are in fact participating in the disappearance of minority groups from companies and other fields.

It doesn’t stop there, however. The culture of racial colorblindness also has societal implications and is a source of inequality in the fields of education, the law and other areas.

Claiming to be color-blind is also a way of not addressing or dealing with racial issues. As a result, we are able to witness injustices without deigning to react because such happenings have become normalized. All of this demonstrates how and why colorblindness fails as an approach to end discrimination, bias and racial inequality.

At first glance, colorblindness seems like a good idea. But make no mistake about it, the color-blind approach is not an effective way to address racial inequality. If anything, it conceals the existence of any such problems and worse, allows them to persist. The society we live in has a highly charged history — that fact is undeniable. This very history shows that white people have systematically benefited from a comparative advantage in society. The aim, here, is not to divide people, but to look at the facts to enable us to move forward and create a healthy foundation for the future. Being color-blind does not mean being open to others.

In a business setting, this is characterized by an overall lack of diversity in some companies and a more focused approach in others, where new strategic positions that have a direct impact on the development of the company are targeted. We all want to be treated equally and, as a consequence, we treat the people around us and the people we meet equally. The truth is that one person’s origins and historical background are not the same as another’s. Simply proclaiming that everyone is equal will not make it a reality overnight.

We must improve our awareness of how certain mechanisms can have negative consequences and be better informed in order to initiate changes in our behavior and the behavior of others.

In the words of Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

We should all truly appreciate each other and what makes us who we are; secondly, we should recognize that we are all unique and that the value of each individual lies in what makes them different. This is why it is so important for such differences to be seen and not ignored.

I encourage everyone to be color-conscious, not color-blind!


Dolores Crazover is the founder and CEO of DEI & You Consulting.

She has a passion for microbiology and is on a mission to complete a Rubik’s Cube within four years.