New Study: “Colorblindness” Reduces Kids’ Ability to See, Challenge Racism

There is an incredible new study out, which confirms the inherent weakness and actual dangers of colorblindness as a way to challenge racism. According to the researchers from Northwestern, Stanford and Tufts, taking a colorblind approach with young children — such as instructing them to “focus on what makes us similar” rather than dealing constructively with difference and challenging bias directly — actually reduces the likelihood that those young people will recognize discriminatory behavior when it occurs, or seek to do something about it.

From the article:

In their experiment, the researchers explored the effects of promoting a colorblind approach to diversity among 8- to 11-year-old students. First, students reviewed different versions of a multimedia storybook, half received a colorblind version and the other half received a value-diversity version. In both stories, the narrator championed racial justice, but the colorblind version encouraged minimizing race-based distinctions, whereas the value-diversity version encouraged embracing these differences. (“We need to focus on how we are similar to our neighbors rather than how we are different” vs. “We want to show everyone that race is important because our racial differences make us special.”)

After the storybooks were read, the students listened to three stories featuring varying degrees of racial bias: a control story in which a White child was marginalized by his White schoolmate’s contribution to a school science project; an ambiguous story regarding a White student’s exclusion of a Black student from his birthday party; and an explicitly biased story describing a White student’s unprovoked assault of a Black student in a soccer game. After the stories, students were asked to describe the three events and their responses were video recorded.

The results found that students who had read the value-diversity version of the storybook were more likely to detect evidence of racial discrimination: 43 percent of students perceived discrimination in the ambiguous story and 77 percent perceived discrimination in the explicitly biased story.

In the colorblind condition, on the other hand, the frequency with which students detected discrimination dropped significantly, to 10 percent of children for the ambiguous story, and to only 50 percent in the explicit story—a scenario that portrayed overt evidence of racially biased behavior.

This decline in sensitivity has potentially severe consequences, according to the researchers. The students were later asked to recall the three stories presented to them via the storybook, and their video recorded descriptions were then presented to real schoolteachers. The students initially primed with a colorblind mindset described the stories in a manner significantly less likely to trigger adult intervention than students exposed to the value-diversity mindset.

“These diversity mindsets did not only impact how children perceived racial bias, but also how they conveyed these acts to others,” said Apfelbaum. “Teachers were less likely to see the need for intervention because the students’ descriptions in the colorblind condition played down the race-related nature of the transgressions,” said Apfelbaum. “In a real world situation, bullying on the basis of race could go unnoticed by onlookers or be mistaken for ordinary misconduct by teachers who receive insufficient information to recognize it as discrimination.”

The researchers conclude that the study underscores the need to explore the effectiveness of value-diversity efforts in addressing inequity. “Despite good intentions to promote egalitarianism through colorblindness, our findings show that doing so sometimes elicits the exact opposite outcome, permitting even explicit forms of racial discrimination to go undetected and unaddressed,” said Apfelbaum. “Perhaps most alarming, on the surface, colorblindness appears to work quite well—reported incidents of bias do decrease. In spite of such encouraging signs, however, our study suggests that colorblindness may not reduce bias as much as it adjusts the lens through which bias is perceived.”

Just more evidence that the common way in which schools try and gloss over these issues (especially with younger kids) is precisely the wrong thing to do. And one more reason why progressive color-consciousness, or what I call in my latest book, “Illuminated Individualism” is so important as an antidote to this colorblind, colormute approach.

19 Responses to “New Study: “Colorblindness” Reduces Kids’ Ability to See, Challenge Racism”

  1. I wonder, who came up with this idea “colorblindness.” Yes, there are blacks and others of color who subscribe to it. My guess, though, is that there are even more blacks (and others of color) who don’t. For those who would question my supposition (and you know who you are), the easiest way to test this would be find some people of color you know (not just the ones you call “friends”), and ask how they’d feel if you were to tell them, or when you did tell them, you don’t see them as black/Latin(a/o)/Asian/all of the above.

    Now that that’s out of the way, colorblind ideology seems awfully self-serving to the status quo. I guess I can understand how initially, the point would be that if race is ignored, the stereotypes that go along with it are ignored. Okay. I get that. Like Baldwin said, the impact of race is ignored as well, which is why I find the ideology self-serving.

    But even setting that aside, it just seems strange not to see what’s right in front of your face. The authors of the study Newsweek did that article, “Is Your Baby Racist?” (or something like that) pointed out that we don’t adopt the same strategy when it comes to gender. Can you imagine, “Let’s all adopt a gender-blind policy?”

    “Not…the color of their skin by the content of their character.” For those who site that one quote out of a movement that spanned 4 decades, let’s first acknowledge that the desire for alliteration influenced word choice as much as anything else. That said, I’m not sure I recall any strong desire within the movement to ignore race. In fact, Fannie Lou Hamer, who deserves to be quoted as much as MLK, said she didn’t want to be “equal” to murderers and thieves. Point of fact, in his quote, MLK doesn’t ask that his children’s color be ignored, just that people judge them by their character.

    I hope this study gets to the conservatives on the Supreme Court who argue rather sophistically when they turn over long standing integration and affirmative action law, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” How convenient for whites and the status quo.


    Frederic Christie Reply:

    Also, King was looking FORWARD to that day. “I have a DREAM!”, he bellowed. He sure as shit didn’t think that day was now. I don’t get how people can confuse pretending oppression doesn’t exist with actually wiping out oppression.


  2. Fantastic synopsis of this exceedingly useful, and productive study!

    You’ve written extensively on the colorblind values/policies ineffectiveness at addressing, challenging, and eradicating institutional racism, so I won’t say too much at this point.

    I will say that “colorblindness” ideology/practices are symptomatic of the U.S. tradition of white denial.

    Accepting white privilege, institutionalized racism and white supremacy as realities that require white folks to self-evaluate — intentionally, intensively, consciously, daily — is so psychically and emotionally uncomfortable (precisely because they are accustomed to being the beneficiaries of racial oppression, and not its targets/victims) that it takes a measure of ambition, courage, self-esteem to face that reality that plenty of white folks (thankfully, not all) would simply rather not summon up/access in themselves.

    The psychological “cost” of making movements to shatter one’s own racial denial is simply too high. It’s far easier for a middle and upper class whte person to believe that their economic success, for example, is the result of their own hard toil, and that those who “complain” about barriers erected by oppression are merely morally weak, uninterested, unmotivated, and incapable of success (outside the realm of athletics, music, and drug dealing, that is, as prevailing racist stereotypes lead many to believe).

    The white person who even entertains the idea of examining the psychological and concrete “wages of whiteness” (as DuBois so brilliantly termed it), risks, not only becoming completely disillusioned (what do you do when you learn that your most cherished heroes were/are also villains?), they also risk putting themselves in the complicated, painful position of having to reject/refuse the concrete gains of racial privilege — the job, the money, the friends, the status goods, etc.,.

    What then?

    Hey, I say, “Do it anyway white person!” However, I’d be lying, if I then said, “you ain’t got nothin’ to lose.”

    But, then, I have no idea what it’s like to be so drunk and high on the privileges of whiteness that I think I’m completely sober.

    It’s gotta feel pretty good to drive everyday not worrying constantly about drawing police attention. It must feel pretty good to not worry constantly that your child may not make it home because a cop locked them up or shot them dead because they thought your child committed a crime or posed a threat, when they, in fact, did not. Yeah, it feels good to get that bank loan. And shoot, a white person’s chances of being born middle class or leaving their poor/working class status is far greater than that of an African American or Latino/a (most poor and working-class whites won’t change class status either, but the whiteness-kool-aid — myth of meritocracy, “American” dream, individualist ethos — has many of them thinking otherwise).

    Anyway…I’m trying to make sense of the white folks who worship Christine O’Donnell and FOX News, never miss a Tea Party, and mainline the GOP party line, even though structural racism, and structural oppression more broadly, hurts them too (albeit, in different ways, and it’s tough for most to see how and why that is the case).


  3. OK, if we accept the study’s results, then it shows that small children are more likely to detect racism in others if taught to focus on race.
    This doesn’t tell us that THEY are any more or less likely to be racist.
    In my experience, a strategy other then “colorblindness” can lead to an over-focus on race that is itself racist.


    No1KState Reply:

    I think the assumption, at least the one I made, is that they are less likely to be racist. Especially in the context of learning right from wrong in the first place. If they’re taught that racism is wrong, and are taught what racism is, then I think it’s safe to assume that they’re probably less likely to be racist. And in the event that they aren’t less racist, at least the other students will have the tools to combat their racism.

    Could you comment more on the over-focus on race that is itself racist? What does that look like? How does that work? (Full disclosure, I do already have in mind what you’re refering to and how I feel about it. I just wanna be sure before I jump to any conclusions.)


    Frederic Christie Reply:

    But the study indicated INCREASED racial sensitivity, not DECREASED racial sensitivity, which is what one would expect from your hypothesis.

    An over-focus on race can be racist? In and of itself, how? If I were to say that the wage gap between white and black folks was three times larger than it actually was, that in and of itself wouldn’t be a racist claim per se. It astounds me how, when it comes to color-blindness, people are willing to accept the smallest things as racist, then ignore truly racist things going on that color-blindness requires them to ignore.

    This is part of a series of research that indicates that not talking about race is what lets people actually sublimate racist attitudes. That’s pretty bad, isn’t it?


  4. Oh my god. If Racism dies. then what will race baiters such as you do for a living? Interesting the subject of examples listed on the test. They don’t seem based on todays reality. Not one example of flash mobbing.


    Frederic Christie Reply:

    Yeah, flash mobbing. THAT’S the face of racism nowadays. Not the daily discrimination blacks routinely express that they feel, which the study concerned. How odd that you dismiss the experience of black folks and how they describe racism.

    I’m glad that you concede that racism still exists. I’m just concerned that you think it’s against white people…


  5. Even if this study is an accurate representation of children recognizing racial discrimination, I still do not agree with the “racial bias education” of children or other individuals. Yes, perhaps a few more instances of discrimination might be recognized for what they are, but at what cost? All it does is fill people’s heads with the racial politics of the past, ensuring that they’ll be enshrined in, and perpetuated by, the next generation. (We’ll find ourselves locked in the same repeating pattern we’ve been in for generations.) Not to mention the fact that this kind of training could and does just as easily lead people to see racial bias in situations in which it doesn’t really exist, which again perpetuates the racial divisions in society. Our liberal guilt should be assuaged in other ways that aren’t harmful. While racial injustices of the past shouldn’t be ignored, IMO, it’s still best that our laws and education system should be geared towards a colorblind society.


    Tim Reply:

    the research on child development all says that your beliefs here are wrong..if you really care about the subject you’ll read the research because it is quite clear on this point


    Winn Reply:

    How interesting that you keep using the phrase “of the past”. There is nothing “past” about racial injustice and discrimination; it plays out in the daily lives of people of color and is lived reality for us. To be able to be so insulated by your privilege that you really believe racism is “of the past”…you need to spend a lot more time with Tim’s writings and lectures. If it makes you feel any better, you’ve surely already won “Racism Bingo”, as your response hit almost all the highlights, including blaming acknowledgement and awareness of racial bias for the perpetuation of racism, as well as suggesting that there is some objective criteria that a situation must meet in order for it to qualify as “real racism”. And I wonder who will set that criteria; who will be the arbiter of what constitutes “real racism”? For a member of the dominant group (yes Human, I’m making assumptions about your race, but I’m basing that assumption on your own words) to presume to tell members of oppressed groups where racial bias does or “doesn’t really exist” has got to be the height of arrogance and privilege. How the hell would you know where bias does or does not exist, especially since you apparently think racism is a thing “of the past”? Your response ignores the salience of race in the daily lives of people of color. What you refer to as “racial bias education” is necessary and life-saving, especially for young males of color. I know the default position is to assume you know better, but this is a situation in which it would behoove you to be quiet and educate yourself more before worrying about the “cost” to us. The ugly vitriol that has erupted in this country’s personal and political discourse since the last Presidential election very accurately reflects the “cost” of adherence to colorblindness.


    No1KState Reply:

    I’m puzzled:

    Not to mention the fact that this kind of training could and does just as easily lead people to see racial bias in situations in which it doesn’t really exist

    That’s a fact? Does this mean that the number of false sitings will outway the number of real sitings of racism?


    Frederic Christie Reply:

    But they HAVE been enshrined in, Human. Look at the results of IAT Tests: Even very liberal people working in race issues constantly found, to their astonishment, that they were biased! We all carry that load, Human. Leftists didn’t start with it. And we know that by a simple thought experiment.

    What if racism didn’t exist? What if we had, by and large, conquered it?

    Then talking about it couldn’t POSSIBLY make us more racist! Talking about how ancient Athenians discriminated against ethnic groups that don’t even exist anymore doesn’t make me racist to those groups. Reading about the Holocaust doesn’t make me any more anti-Semitic. (And anti-Semitism hasn’t even been eliminated!)

    It’s only the racism that really IS still out there.

    Remember that Jews, victims of some of the worst racism in the world, have NOT adopted a color-blind philosophy. Rather, they have made it very specific that they will ALWAYS remember, and enshrine their victimization as well as the heroes who fought back against it. I’ve never heard one person who is ostensibly color-blind criticize this approach. Why?


  6. Any recommendations for children’s materials? From toddler and up? Or books for adults on raising white children with strong values towards racial justice and other forms of equity.


  7. I often have conversations with folks at bus stops. Expressing their frustrations, the n-word emerges as a scapegoat for what they believe is wrong with America today. They don’t hold back with me, White Connecticut Grandmother. I’ve learned to respect folk’s ability to come out with their attitudes however unfortunately racially oriented that may be. I try to carry on beyond the n-word name-calling to talk about what are their fears concerning people of color.


  8. Tim, Thank you for bringing us this fascinating study. It would be good to know how many students were involved. Isn’t it accepted that the more subjects, the more significant the outcome?


  9. Is it just mean, or does it seem like anytime something is presented that will disrupted the established order, ie present day racial discrimination and oppression, even white liberals complain that we should leave well enough alone.

    Note to those who really care: the status quo is not okay for people of color. Maybe in white skin and through white eyes, being blind to color seems wise. But it hasn’t worked so far, colorblind ideology. In my brown skin and brown eyes, it’s impossible not to see what’s in front of my face: race and racial division. We are different. And it’s best to celebrate those differences than pretend they don’t exist.


  10. […] Another study shows that teaching kids to be colorblind instead of to value racial diversity just results in kids not recognizing racism when it’s spitting in their face. A University of Illinois study of college kids showed much the same thing. […]

  11. This is great information. I’m glad you can share it with so many here. I’ve personally taken a colorblind approach and wondered if it was the correct one, because it did seem to overlook positive things. I think a balanced approach would be great too, a bit of both. Awareness and sensitivity to discrimination along with similarities and people just being people. After all, a great dancer isn’t a great dancer because of the color of his or her skin or type of hair they have.


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