In an ever more diverse society, people are faced with the question: what is the best approach to diversity? Among the many well-intentioned beliefs for how to best approach diversity in society, two stand out: color-blindness and multiculturalism. So let’s take a look at what these two approaches to diversity mean and look at the evidence regarding how effective they are.
Color-blindness vs. Multiculturalism
Right off the bat, it’s worth mentioning that both of these approaches to diversity share the goal of achieving positive intergroup relations and social equality. But we’ll see soon how they don’t always live up to those goals.
To start color-blindness is all about ignoring group differences. That is, someone who holds a color-blind approach believes that characteristics like race should not even be taken into account when it comes to making choices and judgments. Instead, color-blindness is about focusing on what unites us–focusing on our similarities instead of our differences. This approach is well captured in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech: “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.“
By contrast, multiculturalism is built on the notion that group differences should be celebrated–not ignored. We should discuss and consider the powerful role that culture and background play in our current lives. To turn to another quotation as an example, consider Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural address: “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth.”
On average, majority group members tend to endorse color-blindness more than minority group members, and minority group members tend to endorse multiculturalism more than majority group members. Nevertheless, some other evidence has shown that when it comes to multiculturalism, majority and minority groups endorse it about equally.
The Drawbacks of Color-Blindness
Although color-blindness is a widely embrace principle of diversity, it’s not without its problems. By masking group differences, it can create a culture of ignoring real group disparities. In some ways, it seems like a convenient bandage that covers up a problem instead of addressing it. Indeed, some research has shown that the more people endorse color-blindness, the more they actually harbor intergroup prejudices.
Consider a study with 4th and 5th grade students. Researchers gave these students a story about a teacher promotion equality, but the teacher used either a color-blind or a multicultural mentality. In the color-blind version, for example, the teacher made statements about how we should focus on the similarities between us and our neighbors. In the multicultural version, on the other hand, the teacher would instead emphasize that we should appreciate differences between people.
Then those kids all heard about various incidents. One incident was totally neutral with no indication of prejudice. Another incident, though, hinted at potential discrimination. It wasn’t clear, but it sure seemed like maybe someone discriminated against a child because of his race. The final incident was a clear-cut case of racial bias in which race was used as justification for different treatment.
The question is: did the kids see those stories has having race-based bias in them? For the totally neutral story, all of the kids agreed that there wasn’t any discrimination going on.
But what about the ambiguous story? In this case, 43% of students who heard about a multicultural approach to diversity saw discrimination in the story, but only 10% of kids in the color-blindness condition saw discrimination.
To me, though, the most compelling finding was that when it came to a clear-cut case of discrimination, 77% of kids who heard a multicultural approach to diversity saw discrimination in the story. But only 50% of kids who heard about a color-blind approach to diversity saw discrimination in the clear case of discriminatory behavior.
Thus, even though color-blindness is intended to promote equality and fair treatment, by overlooking the role of race, it also blinds people to race-related injustices.
Just a Problem for Kids?
Although it’s a vivid case of the possible pitfalls of color-blindness, the previous study focused on elementary school kids. Is it just that kids don’t know how to implement color-blindness effectively?
Let’s quickly look at another study testing the effects of a color-blind mentality. This study examined thousands of adult employees at a large health care organization. The researchers administered surveys to employees in 18 different departments in the companies, asking questions about their personal approach to diversity as well as their experiences working in their department.
If color-blindness actually promoted equality, then departments where majority group (i.e., White) employees were committed to color-blindness should have the best outcomes for minority employees. But that’s not the case.
The more White employees in a department thought color-blindness was the best approach to diversity, the worse the experience was for minority employees in those departments. Specifically, minority employees thought their workplace had more racial bias, and they reported less psychological engagement at work.
By contrast, the more White employees thought multiculturalism was the best approach to diversity, the less minority employees saw racial bias in their workplace. They also reported more psychological engagement.
Approaches to Diversity
We’ve seen here that despite widespread belief in color-blindness as the correct approach to engaging in a diverse society, it’s not great at addressing problems of prejudice and unfair treatment.
It sure seems like multiculturalism is the better solution! But not so fast. Despite the relative benefits of multiculturalism, some other research tempers our excitement. For example, there’s some evidence to show that multiculturalism can lead to more stereotyping even though it’s associated with overall less prejudice. Some also argue that majority groups can actually feel excluded by a multicultural approach and thus resist its implementation.
So, we’ve got to work on it! This is why social science is helpful. It questions our assumptions and aims to uncover what really helps…and not just what makes us feel good.