In my work and travels I’ve met some really incredible people doing amazing stuff. Every meeting, every trip restores my faith in our sector, as well as replenishes my office’s supply of pens and chapsticks from various exhibitors at conferences.
But once a while, I encounter people who are “color-blind,” who say things like:
- “Vu, I love what you say about nonprofits needing to be more inclusive. You know, I have a grown son who has diverse friends. And he has never once referred to his friends by their skin color characteristics. Not once. I think it’s wonderful that he just doesn’t see color.”
- “XYZ foundation decided to focus on organizations doing work with minorities. That’s great for organizations like yours, but what about the rest of us? I just don’t understand. I just don’t get why we need to keep focusing on race.”
- “Can we talk about income? We keep talking about race, when really it’s about income. It’s not about race. Poor people are of all colors.”
- “Why do you keep using the term ‘people of color’? Isn’t that just dividing us further? Where did that term even come from?”
- “Why does it matter that they [leaders of organizations focused on specific diverse communities] be from those communities? Shouldn’t the most important factor be whether they have the qualifications to run the organization?”
- “Maybe you should release a statement saying that you prioritize skills and experience above everything. That may help calm people down.” This was said by a board development consultant after I said my organization has been trying to be thoughtful about ensuring we have a diverse board that’s representative of the communities we serve, but that it was complex and we were getting pushback on the fact that though our board is 90% people of color, we still are not representative.
These are just a sample of things I’ve heard, and when I hear them, it makes me sad. So I do what I sometimes do under stress: Listen to the soulful ballads of Kenny Loggins. Especially “Return to Pooh Corner,” which recalls the innocence of childhood, counting bees and chasing clouds with a yellow bear whose nose is stuck in a jar of honey (Kenny Loggins, you sexy mulletted genius, you!).
What’s really alarming is that these statements above come from nonprofit professionals, people in our sector, the sector tasked with addressing inequity and injustice. Sometimes, doing education equity work, I hear them from teachers. I’ve been ignoring them as isolated incidences, but these comments have been cropping up more and more. So, I want to address the rest of this post to all my nonprofit colleagues who consider themselves “color-blind.” If you don’t see what’s wrong with the above comments—or perhaps you were nodding in agreement—let’s have a conversation.
First of all, I love you. I have met so many wonderful people while doing this work, and everyone I’ve encountered is trying hard to make the world better. The issues we tackle are so challenging and complex. We don’t all have the same backgrounds or upbringings or conversations, so we are on different points along the continuum. Some people are at the beginner end, some at the more experienced end.
And there are multiple continua: race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, etc., and it’s almost impossible to be at the expert end of all the continua all the time. I myself am a beginner when it comes to many of these areas. We all learn, and we all make mistakes, and it’s OK. You’re not a bad person if you are “color-blind,” if you don’t see race, if you believe you treat everyone equally regardless of their race or gender or class. In fact, you’re probably an amazing person, like Kenny Loggins.
But we need to have a heart-to-heart, all right? I know this can be tough, but meet me halfway.
COLOR-BLINDNESS IS NOT GOOD
It is not good to be color-blind. There’s been plenty written on why. Psychology Today calls it a form of racism. And here’s a piece on Everyday Feminism detailing how colorblindness perpetuates injustice (the article also acknowledges that “color-blind” as a term is ableist). And here’s an article in the Atlantic debunking the argument that focusing on race actually causes the nationalist movement we’ve been seeing more of recently. And here’s a thought-provoking TED Talk on how we need to move from being color-blind to “color-brave.”
I’m reiterating a few arguments that the authors and speaker above bring up, along with some points I’ve thought of, as to why color-blindness is harmful. It is generally destructive, but it is even more so when wielded by those of us in nonprofit, education, and other professions focused on helping people and addressing injustice:
It invalidates people’s identities
Whether we like it or not, so much of our identity has been shaped around our race. Sometimes this is against our will. I remember walking home from school once, and some kids across the street turned to me and yelled out, “Ching chong ching chong!” It takes many of us a while to navigate this part of our identity, often working through fear and rage and confusion. To say that you don’t “see color” is to deny us the struggle and the beauty of a significant part of our identity. I’ve known of teachers who say, “I don’t see my students’ race or color.” Well, then you don’t see them. This is the same for counselors, after-school program coordinators, senior center staff, mentors, and other professionals in our field.
It perpetuates the notion that diversity is bad for some reason
One of my colleagues of color, when told by another person that they don’t see her color, said, “Why not? Is there something bad about my color?” The other person stumbled to find a response. “If you don’t think there’s anything bad about my color,” continued my colleague, “then why do you need to say you don’t see it?” There’s nothing yucky or bad about being of color. By denying the existence of color, you turn it from something positive into something negative. Diversity is good. There are now lots of studies that show that diversity leads to stronger business performance, increased board effectiveness, higher customer satisfaction, etc. Diversity and inclusion are not scary. We don’t need to be afraid of them. They’re actually good things. You want to see good things in the world, right?
It ignores the impact of implicit biases
Whether you “see” color or not, all of us are affected by it, mostly in ways we are not even conscious of. Countless studies—some mentioned in this article—have shown that job candidates with less “white-sounding” names get fewer callbacks for job interviews. This piece describes a study where participants were given a document to find typos in, with some participants being told the document’s author was white, while others were told the author was black. This is the same document, mind you, with the same errors. And yet, participants who thought their memo was written by a black person found more mistakes and also rated it lower. No one deliberately thought “Hm, this person is black, so I’m going to try extra hard to find their mistakes.” This is why implicit biases are so insidious. It’s a danger zone. Just because we don’t “see” color does not mean we are not unconsciously affected by it.
It denies the existence of systemic oppression
So much of the injustice and inequity we are trying to address in this sector stems from histories and systems of racism and oppression. Just because you’re a nice person does not negate hundreds of years of injustice that carry on to this day, perpetuated by implicit biases and other factors. If you don’t see color, then you cannot help to counter systemic injustice. How can you fight against something you refuse to see? This point is really critical, because our sector’s overarching mission is to address inequity and injustice in the world, and we can’t do that if we don’t see the factors that are interconnected with systemic oppression.
I know it is simplistic and risky to equate different forms of injustice to one another, but I find it can be helpful to draw parallels. Disability, for instance. Imagine if you decided that you didn’t see disability. I know from speaking with colleagues with disabilities that one of the most hurtful and irritating things is hearing someone say something like, “I don’t even see you as a person with a disability. You’re just like everyone else to me.” Besides denying people their identity, if we are “disability-blind,” then we are less likely to see that buildings are inaccessible, that bathrooms are not friendly to wheelchair-enabled clients and colleagues, that videos and images are not captioned or described, that we use hurtful or thoughtless words like using “lame” to describe something corny. (See “25 simple ways we can all be more disability-inclusive.”)
If we are gender-blind, then we can’t address systemic sexism and misogyny that lead to, for example, women being paid less for the same or higher-quality work. If we are transgender-blind, then we can’t address the ingrained cissexism in society that leads to high violence rates against transgender individuals. If we are sexual-orientation-blind, we can’t effectively tackle the barriers facing many people not just in marriage equality but across a range of issues such as adoption and discrimination in housing. If we are age-blind, we can’t fight the implicit and explicit biases against older adults, such as when applying for jobs, or the challenges youth and younger adults face in the workplace. If we are rural-urban-dynamics blind, we can’t solve the inequitable distribution of resources and influence among geographic areas. If we are faith-blind, we cannot fight the persecution and discrimination people face for their beliefs. If we are intersectionality-blind, we can’t address the compounding challenges of multiple identities affected by implicit biases and systemic injustice.
So, let’s agree not to be “color-blind” or any sort of “blind” anymore. It does nothing but invalidate people’s identities, turns something positive (diversity) into something negative, denies and thus perpetuates implicit biases, and stymies our ability to address systemic racism and other forms of injustice.
In a perfect world, everyone would be treated equally and we don’t need to think so much about skin color and other identity traits, which is why it is so tempting to fall for color-blindness. But the ideal world does not exist yet, and the more that we believe that it does, the less likely we can bring it into being. We do not yet live in a racially just Pooh Corner’s. We never have. There is no equitable Pooh’s Corner to return to!
So, next time you think about being “color-blind,” just remember the words sung by the angel-voiced and handsome Kenny Loggins in his song “For the First Time,” before he changed the lyrics to be more commercial:
Are those your eyes, is that your smile
I’ve been lookin’ at you forever
But I never saw you before
Are these your hands holdin’ mine
Now I wonder how I could of been so color-blind
For the first time I am looking in your eyes
For the first time I’m seein’ who you are
I can’t believe how much I see
When I acknowledge diversity
Now I understand why being color-blind is
counterproductive to fighting injustice, for the first time…
Vu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears montly in the GuideStar Blog. The preceding is a cross-post of an April 24, 2017, article from his blog, Nonprofit with Balls. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.