Racial “Colorblindness” and an Uncomfortable Game of “Guess Who”

“I’m not racist. I don’t even see color.”

Imagine you work on a team with these three people. Your boss calls you up and asks which person on your team is responsible for managing the monthly finance report. You tell her, “Thomas is.” “Which one is Thomas?” she asks (she’s new to the company and hasn’t gotten to know everyone’s name yet). How would you describe him so that your boss would know who Thomas is?

Although using Thomas’s race as a descriptor would be a quick and simple way to communicate the desired information, research suggests that many people are hesitant to do so. People are especially hesitant to use race as a descriptor when the person doing the talking is White and the person doing the listening is Black.

It seems as though some people are afraid that mentioning race at all will make them appear racist, and as you may have surmised, people don’t want to appear racist.

The solution? Don’t mention race at all. This particular belief of what constitutes best practices in promoting diversity is called colorblindness. People who adopt a “colorblind” ideology feel especially motivated to deny the notion that racial distinctions exist at all, and as a result, actively prevent themselves from talking about race at all.

Guess Who’s Racist

In a clever study on the psychology of prejudice and racism, Michael Norton and his colleagues designed a simple game intended to make White college students feel uncomfortable.

The game was essentially a game of “Guess Who,” the classic game in which someone picks a character from a set and the other person has to guess who it is. In the game, you get a range of characters that differ in many ways, and the player asks yes-or-no questions to narrow down the set of possibilities to reach the chosen character.

“Is your character a woman?” “Is she wearing a hat?” and so on. It’s great fun.

game-554506_1920In Norton et al.’s version of the game, the set of characters included men and women, characters on red backgrounds and blue backgrounds, and most importantly, characters who were Black and characters who were White. The big question was: would people use race as a way to narrow down the set of people?

The point of the game, of course, is to use as few questions as possible to get to the right answer, and strategically speaking, asking about the character’s race would be a relatively effective way to play the game. So do people do that?

The answer is: it depends. It depends on who the people were playing the game with. All of the actual participants were White college students who thought they were playing a game with another participant, but in reality, they were playing with a trained research assistant. Half of the participants were randomly assigned to play with a White research assistant and half of them were randomly assigned to play with a Black research assistant.

When the participants played the game with another White student, they used race as a descriptor about 93% of the time, but when they played with a Black partner, they mentioned race only about 64% of the time.

If you look more closely at how they used race to distinguish between characters, they used “Black” or “African American” (e.g., “Is your character African American?”) 57% of the time when playing with another White student, but they did so only 21% of the time, on average, when playing with a Black partner. Otherwise, if they used race to distinguish between characters, they framed their question like “Is your character White?”

The researchers also videotaped these interactions, and a group of independent coders later watched a few minutes of each interaction and recorded how much eye contact there was during the game. Among participants who were playing with a Black partner, asking about race was associated with less eye contact, but there wasn’t any such relationship among participants playing with a White partner.

Colorblindness as a Strategy

Is the lesson in all of this just that “colorblindness” makes people bad at children’s games? Well, sort of, I guess. But the real take-away is that a colorblind approach to diversity can backfire sometimes. Other research has shown how ignoring race can diminish the quality of interracial interactions.

Effective communication often involves understanding the other person’s perspective, and by simply ignoring race, people can end up with the false belief that everyone’s issues are identical. A more optimal approach, according to the research, is to embrace group differences rather than pretend they don’t exist.

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