Strategic colorblindness–Is it racist?

Posted by Ria, 23 Oct 08

White Americans apparently don’t like to talk about race. They either go silent or act ‘colorblind’ on the topic so as not to appear prejudiced. According to new research, by Tufts University and Harvard Business School this tendency could do more harm than good.

Researcher Evan Apfelbaum, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts University says, "Efforts to talk about race are fraught with the potential for misunderstandings … One way that whites try to appear unbiased is to avoid talking about race altogether, a tendency we refer to as strategic colorblindness."

Much as we have had a lot of progress in the past 20 years or so, and the idea of interracial dating among Blacks and Whites is now broadly accepted, Apfelbaum's research shows that on the topic of race, Whites are still socially awkward around blacks.

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The pairs were presented with 30 photographs of faces that varied in race, gender and background color. Each white participant’s objective was to guess which of the photographs the partner was holding by asking as few yes-or-no questions as possible.

Even though asking about the race of the person in the photograph was a sound strategy for completing the task, white participants were far less likely to do so with a black versus a white partner. Moreover, when the black partner was the first one to have a turn asking questions, whether she mentioned race had a dramatic effect.

White participants whose black partner asked about race mentioned race on their own turn 95 percent of the time. When the black partner never asked about race, white participants only did so 10 percent of the time.

Samuel Sommers, assistant professor at Tutts said, "There was clear evidence the white participants’ behavior was influenced by the precedent set by their partner, but especially when that partner was black. Whites are strategically avoiding the topic of race because they’re worried that they’ll look bad if they admit they notice it in other people."

To see how outsiders reacted to the above interactions, the researchers conducted another experiment. 74 Black and White college students were asked to evaluate the videos of the 101 white undergraduate students who engaged in the photo task.

Going by the results, the efforts of Whites to appear colorblind backfired. This avoidance of asking about race was rated by the Black observers as being evidence of prejudice.

When silent video clips of whites from the study were shown to another group of individuals, the white students who avoided asking about race appeared to be less friendly, based on their nonverbal behavior.

"The findings suggest that when race is clearly relevant, whites who think that it is a wise social strategy to avoid talking about race should think again," Apfelbaum said.

According to Apfelbaum, this strategic colorblindness is adopted by children too. A similar photo task was conducted on White children between 8 and 11 years of age. They were even told that asking as few ‘yes-or-no’ questions as possible would getting a higher score on the task.

The older children of ages 10 and 11 shied away from asking about race more than their younger counterparts regardless of knowing that they were performing less efficiently on the task. In a control photo task where all the faces in the photos were white, the older children outperformed the younger children, as expected.

Kristin Pauker, a Ph.D. candidate at Tufts said, "This result is fascinating because it shows that children as young as 10 feel the need to try to avoid appearing prejudiced, even if doing so leads them to perform poorly on a basic cognitive test."

So what are the implications of this new research?

"Our findings don’t suggest that individuals who avoid talking about race are racists," Apfelbaum explained. "On the contrary, most are well-intentioned people who earnestly believe that colorblindness is the culturally sensitive way to interact. But, as we’ve shown, bending over backward to avoid even mentioning race sometimes creates more interpersonal problems than it solves."

What do you feel about strategic colorblindness? Is it racist? In cases of an interracial relationship, does it affect the relationship positively or negatively?

27 responses to "Strategic colorblindness–Is it racist?"

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  1.   Lislie says:
    Posted: 16 Mar 10

    I am amazed at the white people on here...its amazing how people can read it and STILL be racist! Why even date interracially when you obviously have no respect for the very black people you are supposed to be dating?

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  2. Posted: 15 Dec 08

    I respect all of your opinions. As I read though it seems whites and blacks or any ethinicity is still segregated with the topic of race. I know (being white) I have become colorblind but I feel in a different sence than what the topic is about. It is not a colorblind to ignore the topic nor is it a colorblind to shy away from voicing my opinion. No matter how many studies are done each are going to show differently. Each generation is going to see the world differently. I personally grew up in a predominately white community, my parents are racists hypocrites, though my entire family is a mix of Irish, German, Scottish, Hispanic, African American, American Indian, and English. I fall into the "White" category because my skin color is lighter pigmented. However, I have never viewed myself as one or the other. I have viewed myself as a Homo-sapien. where is that option on forms? I get looked at all wierd when i check all that apply to me. i get told to choose one or the other. what are people labled as when you see the world as one? why is the topic of racism always a black and white topic? why does the color of someones skin matter when discussing a negative subject? I dont neccessarily see the black and white issue as a race issue anymore. it should be re-named to "skin pigment segregation" or "skin pigment discrimination" or how about "outer appearance discrimination/stereotyping".... just to be politically correct i mean. i can never determine what to choose on forms so I always ask the people handing out the forms "My skin color at the moment is yellowish but its kinda blotchy pink because I am cold... what would call me?"

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  3.   ante59 says:
    Posted: 04 Dec 08

    I agree that blacks are not much or at all awkward around whites or then i'm too blind to notice it. However i'm the one who surely addmit to be awkward around blacks. But mostly it's because i'm shamed that other whites start to stare. I easily lost my confidence. I'm shy, easily hurt but sensitive. But when i've been the only white around blacks like ( in some cases :France, Holland, Dom.Republic, Haite, Portugal...) it has been OK. I see this "awkwardness" as a social and personal question. Not much to do with racism.

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  4.   Salsassin says:
    Posted: 02 Dec 08

    Uh, traveler? Ethnic White just means you have been absorbed into the generic White ethnicity. For your information the largest percentage of that ethnicity in the US is Germanic. Not Scottish or Irish. And the largest religion? Catholic, unless you put all protestant churches together. Italian Americans are very much a part of White Americana unless they were raised otherwise. I am a mixed creole from Peru, but if I had been raised by my White mother in the US, I would have been White as well. And no, it is not whining to claim there is racism in minority groups as well. Racism occurs in all groups. As a person of mixed ancestry, I have experienced that racism from multiple sides.

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  5.   Jabali says:
    Posted: 29 Nov 08

    My two cents says there is absolutely no difference between the races. History is interesting that way. At one time Africans were the most advanced group of people, i.e. Ancient Egypt, Put and Abyssinia then the Asians became the most advanced group of people, i.e. the Chinese and the Mongols and for the last five hundred years the Europeans (and those descended from them) have been the most advanced group (and by the look of things this will come to an end by the first quarter of this century). So it really is, in my view, irrelevant to keep discussing race. We are all in this together, whether we like it or not. Who carried out this "research" anyway? Was it a black guy, a white guy or an Asian? Does it really matter, anyway? Are some white people racist? Hell yes! Are some black people racist? You better believe it! Are some Asians racist? Of course. Being racist is a negative just like sh..... in your pants or killing. It should be avoided. That's my view on that.

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  6.   Glock says:
    Posted: 29 Nov 08

    SweetBBW, I agree that whites avoid talking about race (except for me!) I am one of the few whites who have no problem talking about this topic. The reason whites avoid it is that they've been conditioned in our society to stay away from anything that could possibly be interpreted as "racist", "prejudice", "bigoted", "stereotypical"or anything else remotely offensive to anyone not white. While at the same time we have been conditioned to EXCEPT and and all comments and insinuations that reflect negatively about whites. It has nothing to do with slavery. None of us were around when slavery existed and further more, I have no idea if my "ancestors" participated in slavery. Or am I just guilt through association? So that would be quite a LEAP for you to say that. Furthermore, that comment of yours does not address the issue of slaves owned and caught by blacks. But that is for another day.

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  7.   Glock says:
    Posted: 29 Nov 08

    Ironwood63, I couldn't agree with you more. What exactly does this "study" (I use that term very loosely) prove? Another so called "study" that shows whites are prejudice, racist, bigoted, etc.,etc., blah blah blah... Why does this website have so many "studies", and so called "research" that continues to point the proverbial finger at whites as being the only ones capable of having racist, prejudicial or a biased opinion?? Whites generally don't want to talk about race because often times they have different opinons about race than do their black counterparts. And of course having an opinion that is not "politically correct" is a no-no. So instead of stirring the pot and giving an HONEST opinion, they keep there mouth shut. In our country blacks are the only ones who are allowed to voice their opinions and not catch any flack when it comes to race. Everyone knows it. But everyone is afraid to acknowledge it openly.

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  8.   Jabali says:
    Posted: 28 Nov 08

    Race, in America, is a complicated issue, that I acknowledge. In my experience, people have a tendency to act negatively, e.g. lie, steal, cheat on their spouses and yes be racist just to name a few negative tendencies. Those of us who choose to be positive make an active effort to block these negative reactions/emotions. So if, as suggested in the article, "white Americans apparently dont like to talk about race" then I'd say that's positive and they deserve my total respect!

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  9.   Eric_t says:
    Posted: 10 Nov 08

    Oh, and actually, that's the exact question I was alluding to earlier Lovelybbw. I think it's a really really good question to ask. Why do white people in this study ignore the obvious?

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  10.   Eric_t says:
    Posted: 10 Nov 08

    As for me and my house, we'll stick with Constructive criticism. Huh? What's that? I guess it might have been the missed point I was trying to stress this whole time. And admittedly, I haven't stuck with it but rampant hostility is rather hard to handle. I think. For all others reading please forgive my wavering moral courage. However, Constructive, I stess, constructive, did I say constructive, maybe you heard..., CONSTRUCTIVE criticism on race issues across "ETHNIC" lines is absolutely necessary to kill the issue. I honestly think it's possible to achieve this goal by the end of my lifetime and our new president elect sure will help in that process. In the mean time, one last justification on my part..., I've been a missionary in Africa for the last three years. So funny thing about most of my friends being black..., they are. I know, I know, a little to convenient and maybe too hard for most of the cynical internet culture to believe but take it or leave it, that's my life. And as soon as I finish up my schooling to be an RN I'm going back. Maybe for a couple more years, maybe one. But please people, lets cut back on the white bashing. It's not CONSTRUCTIVE.

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  11.   Eric_t says:
    Posted: 10 Nov 08

    I honestly think you like to talk down to people in general. It's a great personality quality. You should stick with that. Keep hiding behind that intellectual schtick too. I hear it gets all the ladies.

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  12.   lovelybbw says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    ...great discussion points Eric_t and traveler76! The research intent was to bring forward this type of close examination of racial attitudes, black or white! The article is clear, there is a tendency among many Whites to avoid acknowledging race during social interaction in the effort to appear unbiased. Why ignore the obvious would have been a better question. Do you agree?

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  13.   traveler76 says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    Wow dude, that was some serious whining you just did there. You need a glass of water or something? I love the "I have no white friends." bit, that's an interesting new take on "I have black friends." And of course, there is the requisite "I grew up around minorities." comment. Which is true of pretty much everyone who didn't grow up in a small town in Montana. And if you're German-American then you aren't ethnically white, you're just white. Just like I'm white (race), but Italian-American (ethnicity). Race and ethnicity are two different things. Ethnicity is actually based on cultural heritage, while race is a fiction created by bad scientists in the 17th century. Seriously dude, pick up a book some time. You'd think someone intimately knowledgeable on issues of race in America would know this...

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  14.   Eric_t says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    And I grew up in Pleasantville, NJ. I grew up in poverty and in the ghetto. I grew up with minorities and my college roomates were all minorities. Oh, and by choice. I guess I would talk about these things with my white friends except I don't have many. So thank you again for proving my point Traveler. And thank you for segregating yourself (you poor not white person) and slinging mud in the eye of people you neither know nor have taken the time to understand. I'm sure I would have been shocked had I grown up in the suburbs somewhere, but as I'm intimately knowledgeable on issues of race in America I'll thank you kindly to keep your racist comments to yourself. You don't know me and yet you assumed me to have a priviledged segregated life. And let me point out that I don't have Scotts Irish heritage. I'm a german american. And furthermore are you indirectly accusing White Anglo-Saxon Americans of being associated with the Klan? Clean up your act man. What I said in the post previously stands. I believe that "CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM" is NECESSARY for racism to be dealt its final blow.

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  15.   traveler76 says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    There really needs to be a law against white people whining about how victimized we are. Here's what I think: I think white people like Eric up there are shocked -- absolutely shocked I tell ya -- to discover that people of color think their opinions on racism and who it hurts most are a bunch of privileged nonsense. They're shocked because when they talk about these things with their white friends, everyone agrees and sees the wisdom of their words. And dude, I'm Italian. I'm not your ethnicity. Ethnic white means you have Irish-Scottish heritage. Italians are only white because white people let us in the club 60 years ago. The Klan burned crosses on my Catholic Italian-speaking grandmother's lawn when she lived in Mississippi. So don't act like I'm in your club.

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  16.   Eric_t says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    DING! And there you have it guys. That last comment posted by Traveler76 is the exact reason avoidance becomes the norm. Note the back biting and ascerbic critism of the "white people I know" that he refers to. Apparently we're whiners if we get upset when the race card is played against us. But, we're clearly fools to claim that there is no racism. So basically the message is damned if you do and damned if you don't. This heap of mess handed to us from members of our own ethnicity no less. The reason there is no open dialogue is because white people in general are not allowed to mention inconsistencies, errors or flat out unacceptable behavior without being demeaned. Case in point on note above. And I'm definitely not whining because I'd rather take the heat for calling things how they are than let it go and become part of the problem. I believe that we all have to come to a point where we can allow ourselves and others to apply constructive and mature criticism to each other across racial boundaries. When that happens I truly believe that racism will have died. But that can't happen if we try to heal wounds by jumping on the bandwagon that happens to be on the other side. So what if you're a white advocating for african americans. If you're advocating a counterproductive behavior you're still a part of the problem. By the way Gundo, you picked up what I was putting down.

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  17.   traveler76 says:
    Posted: 09 Nov 08

    I've noticed this behavior amongst liberal white people who don't know anyone who is black, and don't know anything about black culture. All they know is black people get offended by racist comments, so they avoid making any comments that refer to race. But I also know that the white people I know who are most ardent about being "colorblind" are the one's most likely to deny the existence of racism, or to whine about reverse racism, and other nonsense like that.

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  18.   L.O.V.E says:
    Posted: 29 Oct 08

    It's the stereotypes that keeps messing things up. And where are the stereotypes exposed? The media of course! And when you don't have the opportunity (for an example if you live in a smalltown or closed societies) to meet blacks, whites, asians, middle easterns etc, then it's quite obvious that you will refer to these groups in most likely a negative way.

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  19.   SweetBBW4u says:
    Posted: 28 Oct 08

    I don't agree totally with the findings of the research. In my experience and I am only speaking from my experience. The white men that I have dated have been comfortable talking about race and vice versa. I do believe that white people more than any other race are more self-conscience about not appearing racist because of slavery and other injustices against other races by their ancestors. I think Americans still have a tough time dealing with race because there is not enough open dialogue. People feed mostly on stereo types rather than being open to finding out about a person. I have taken 2 ethnic and cultural diversity classes which goes in to great details about racial differences and stereo types. It was very helpful to me because it opened my eyes to my own behavior towards other races and how to overcome negative feelings that I had built up against them.

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  20.   lovelybbw says:
    Posted: 26 Oct 08

    Hey! This is one of those nature/nuture agruments! It is true that whites will avoid the topic of race. Ton's, volumes, reams of research on this topic. I was curious about the totality of the article and looked it up. Turns out it was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in october, 2008. Here is a direct link to the article. Its worth reading! It also gives reference to additional research in the field. The only thing new about this research project is the population on which it was conducted. There is absolutley strategic value in NOT calling your self out as a racist! Sooner or later your BEHAVIOR will call you out! http://www.apa.org/journals/releases/psp954918.pdf

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  21.   Gundo says:
    Posted: 25 Oct 08

    rae56, I think eric_t refers to this: "This avoidance of asking about race was rated by the Black observers as being evidence of prejudice". I wonder about two things: (1) As observed by ironwood63, the research apparently only was done with white people, so it appears to be incomplete to me, even more, this omition could be seen as proving the point; (2) that the discrepancy between how the 'avoidance of asking about the race' was perceived by a black audience ("evidence of prejudice") and how the researchers saw it ("well-intentioned people who earnestly believe that colorblindness is the culturally sensitive way to interact") was not followed up - this is exactly where it gets interesting... On the finding itself, the 'avoidance of asking about race' among white people, I cannot comment directly, since I never have been to the US. What I have noticed, however, is that people generally try to avoid subjects, regardless the significance, regardless the intention, when they feel the risk to get a negative label slapped on themselves just for mentioning something. Whenever this is the case, I think something is wrong - but very normal...

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  22.   rae56 says:
    Posted: 25 Oct 08

    eric_t, I've read the above article a couple of times and continue to miss the part that you're reading that says that blacks perceive avoidance as racist. On the contrary, the article that I'm reading clearly says, Our findings dont suggest that individuals who avoid talking about race are racists, Apfelbaum explained. On the contrary, most are well-intentioned people who earnestly believe that colorblindness is the culturally sensitive way to interact. But, as weve shown, bending over backward to avoid even mentioning race sometimes creates more interpersonal problems than it solves. The article is simply asking the readers a question on our thoughts and feelings on the topic, to encourage discussion.

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  23.   eric_t says:
    Posted: 24 Oct 08

    Well, I find it interesting nonetheless that the studies showed that black audiences perceived the avoidance as racist. Now from a white perspective, isn't that racist? Avoidance is a response grilled into whites who have learned that the mere mention of race has potential to aggravate hostility from african americans. Throughout childhood we've experienced a lot of hostility over a complex issue that at that age we didn't really understand. And what else could the result of such interactions be? Mentioning race as a white has become the equivalent of marching into an inner city Obama rally wearing red and carrying a George W. Bush sign. And who really wants to incite that kind response? So why do we respond like that? Because we've been burned enough to know not to place our hands on the stove. And if we haven't been burned we know of people who have. The intention is to like people for who they are. If mentioning race impedes that then why do it? But flip this thing around and we have another issue. If whites can get the race card played on them for mentioning race and then get the race card played on them for avoiding mentioning race what kind of picture does that paint? Is that white racism or are we really looking at black racism? I won't act naive and make this a blanket issue. There's something wrong with both ethnicities. I just think that this study's conclusions should have pointed the other way.

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  24.   Melis87 says:
    Posted: 24 Oct 08

    Okay whoever is coming up with these topics is very racially-minded. Take that how you want. Maybe we can start talking about different cultures and lifestyles instead of race statistics in America? Not everyone here is American... Otherwise lovely website :)

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  25.   lala2qz says:
    Posted: 24 Oct 08

    I dont think that research would be neccessary. Most black people dont tend to be shy about race or their feelings regarding such matters, despite whose asking. What Ria is writing about is very true of white people, but not so much of black people. But then again, I dont know everyone, I could be limited in my judgment, but Ive been many places and have only noticed this with white people(not all of course, but quie a few). BUT..... like I said, this is only from MY observations.

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  26.   ironwood63 says:
    Posted: 24 Oct 08

    what does the research say about black people being uncomfortable discussing race among white people in a social setting? It may be a misperception, but the racial attitude of white people in America seems to be analyzed to a much greater extent that the racial attitude among black america.

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  27.   rae56 says:
    Posted: 23 Oct 08

    Strategic colorblindness, as it is called, is not racism. It more than anything, is based on how uncomfortable and anxious that much of white america has become based on political correctness and the need to NOT be seen as a racist. Let's face it, there are some who play the race card at every turn, even when race is not an issue-- it's actually become a stereotype that in many cases, has been unfairly placed on white america-- not everyone who is white is racist, but with race card players, you're guilty until proven innocent, and those who like playing the race card are seldom ever going to give you the chance to prove your innocence or that you're not a racist. In my opinion, these are people who like to keep trouble brewing and use race as a crutch. That's not to say that there aren't plenty of racist still out there--I deal with them almost daily, but we have to be careful about placing unfair labels on whites just like it's been drilled into whites that they can't unfairly lump all blacks into one category-- people are people and should be judged on their merits and how they treat us undividually.

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