Race will most likely influence all of the following: whether we will survive our birth, where we are most likely to live, what schools we will attend, who our friends and partners will be, what careers we will embrace, how much money we will earn, how healthy we will be, and even how long we can expect to live.
The international protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have begun to spark positive change around the world. The long-overdue outcry over the ways Black Americans have been mistreated, underserved, and underpaid has also effectively strong-armed many non-Black people into having tough conversations about race and racial inequality in the U.S.—often, for the very first time in their lives.
Unfortunately, however, many people and organizations still refuse to have conversations about race, believing that they are not racist, or thinking that they already “get it.” These group of people are victims from what is known as “color-blind diversity,” claiming that they don’t see race or color.
Robin DiAngleo, author of White Fragility, refers to this group of people as “White Progressives,” which she argues are the most difficult kind of advocates for people of color to deal with because they will put their energy into making sure that others see them as non-racist. None of their energy will go into what actually needs to get done to end racism: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, embracing education, building diverse relationships, and actually practicing antiracism. White progressives, according to DiAngelo, do indeed uphold and perpetuate racism.
After reading DiAngelo’s book, I decided to do some research about the color-blind approach to diversity and its impact on organizations. As a Latina woman that “doesn’t look Latina,” I thought I understood what it was like to be an underrepresented minority in the US. However, I was surprised to discover that I had a lot to learn about systematic racism and the effects of pursuing a color-blind approach. What I found was yet more proof that the color-blind diversity approach is not only unrealistic, but also detrimental for organizations and individuals. But more than that, I found out that I didn’t really comprehend what racism truly entails.
How Color-Blind Diversity Presents Itself in Organizations
Color blindness is a strategy for managing diversity in intergroup relations. It’s based on the belief that we are all equal regardless of our race and background. In other words, it doesn’t matter where we came from or how we see the world. Color-blind perspectives advocate reducing, eliminating, and ignoring category memberships. The underlying reason being that there is research that supports the idea that there are significant negative outcomes that stem from social categorization, including homogeneity, favoritism, and ethnocentrism, as well as prejudice and stereotyping. Based on Nussbaum’s work, many intergroup conflicts can be solved through practical methods that reduce category salience and encourage individuation, which is why color-blind approaches have been promoted in many organizations across the globe and followed by many individuals, like me.
At a glance, the color-blind diversity approach seems to have many benefits, especially for white people who don’t take the time to educate themselves. However, this is far from the truth.
In a study conducted by Apfelbaum, it was found that when many people were asked to describe the person in the picture they have just been shown, most of them had a tendency to avoid mentioning race despite knowing that their performance on the task would suffer. Such color-blind behavior has been found to result in the display of a greater degree of both explicit and implicit racial bias, which can end up facilitating racial resentment.
Downplaying demographic differences reduces the engagement of underrepresented employees because white people’s attempt to appear color-blind tends to create a barrier between co-workers.This can result in either more biased behaviors from white employees or lead them to avoid intergroup collaborations that can spark innovation and enrich their work. According to Apfelbaum, researchers found that White employees’ endorsement of color blindness decreased engagement among minority employees while increasing minority employees’ belief that the organizational climate was really biased.
This case reveals that ignorance of the accomplishments of racial minorities has been found to predict negative racial attitudes – which slowly build into the systematic racism we experience today.
The fact that color blindness can have such negative consequences on social interactions presents big problems for companies who follow this approach. After all, employees who feel that they are being treated differently because of their race will most likely feel excluded. This feeling of dissatisfaction can have significant effects on employee turnover, satisfaction, engagement, self-esteem, team synergy, and overall creativity – all of which will ultimately, hinder organizational performance.
A NEW APPROACH: MULTICULTURALISM
Multiculturalism is an alternative approach to color-blind diversity in which racial differences, rather than being neglected, are acknowledged and even celebrated.
According to Nussbaum, multiculturalism yields more positive outcomes for intergroup relations than color-blindness. For instance, a researcher found that individuals exposed to multicultural messages demonstrated heightened perspective-taking tendencies, underscored by efforts to understand other people better. In addition, research has shown that recent data has indicated that fostering appreciation for other people’s perspectives intensifies the feeling of inclusion within the organization. And teams with inclusive leaders are 17% more likely to report that they are high performing, 20% more likely to say they make high-quality decisions, and 29% more likely to report behaving collaboratively.
Racial attitudes may fluctuate depending on the approach taken to achieve inter-ethnic harmony. A color-blind approach can lead to many problems in social interaction that can ultimately hinder performance.
BUT WHAT IS RACISM REALLY?
Many people think that racism ended in 1965. Many define the word racist as someone who holds a conscious dislike of people because of race. Both of these beliefs are untrue.
White people, who hold the social and institutional positions in society, tend to infuse their racial prejudice into the laws, policies, practices, and norms of society in a way that people of color aren’t able to. Because only white people hold these powerful and influential positions, only whites can be racist, only whites can have the collective and institutional power, and only whites can have privilege over people of color. And that’s because people of color do not have this power and privilege over white people.
Need proof? Check out these numbers provided by DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” from 2016-2017:
- Ten richest Americans: 100% white
- US Congress: 90% white
- US governors: 96% white
- Top military advisers: 100% white
- President and vice president: 100% white
- US House Freedom Caucus: 99% white
- US presidential cabinet: 91% white
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which books we read: 90% white
- People who decide which news is covered: 85% white
- People who decide which music is produced: 95% white
- People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95% white
- Teachers: 82% white
- Full-time college professors: 84% white
- Owners of men’s professional football teams: 97% white
These numbers are not a matter of good people vs. bad. They represent power and control by a racial group that is in the position to disseminate and protect its own self-image, worldview, and interests across the entire society.
The time to amplify black people’s voices was ages ago. We need to stop hiding behind the idea of “I’m not racist, I don’t see color.” This is the easy path.
The first step to solving a problem is to not hide away from it. To interrupt racism, we need to build our capacity to sustain the discomfort of not knowing. We need to be able to have proactive conversations about race with honesty, understanding, and courage. It is critical for people to be comfortable with the uncomfortable conversation about race in order to create a culture of inclusion in organizations around the world. In addition, we need to stop creating conflicts with the people that call us out when we make a racist comment, and start taking this as an act of love and take the time to reflect upon it.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE?
If you want to embrace multiculturalism, start by taking a good look in the mirror. Reflect upon how your daily actions and decisions are influencing those around you. Are you building a safe and inclusive environment for those around you? Are you embracing and celebrating diversity?
Check out this list by Greenbiz and learn what actions you can take if you want to promote justice, equity, and restoration:
- Donate to your local NAACP chapter, Black Lives Matter and the United Negro College Fund.
- Before voting, understand politicians’ positions on environmental and social justice as well as criminal justice reform. Hold elected officials accountable once in office.
- Find and support black-owned businesses
- Push for your company to hire people of color. Ask your company’s HR department to hire more people of color in leadership positions. Call out workplace bias and discrimination when it happens. Promote truly inclusive workplaces.
- Watch movies and read books that can help educate you on the black experience and race in America.
- Do research to better understand and process your own biases and privilege.
- Learn the difference between equality and equity.
- Stop appropriation. Many non-black people enjoy the social currency and financial profit derived from embracing elements of our culture, while simultaneously devaluing our very lives.
- Remember that silence is deadly. Address friends and family who spread ideals laced with racism and discrimination, no matter how subtle.
- If you witness racism and violence against, record and share the incident. Digital evidence can help protect us against people such as Amy Cooper who weaponize racism, putting innocent black lives at risk.