There's no such thing as "color blind"


"Color Blind" | Texas Children's Hospital

One of my biggest pet peeves is when one of my colleagues says something along the lines of: “You know, Adiaha, I just don’t see color.” At that moment, I have a choice to either say nothing or delve further into my colleague’s apparent visual impairment. If I choose to speak, my response can come in different forms, such as “when is the last time you saw an eye doctor?” or “I guess you don’t see gender, either.” Generally, the colleague will appear befuddled by either response.

In our so-called “post-racial” society, it has become fashionable for some to claim they “don’t see color,” which is often quickly followed by an explanation on how they treat everyone of all races and ethnicities the same and how they don’t believe in discrimination. At the heart of this post-racial phenomenon, I even hear some parents say their children don’t see color either. They go on to explain how their child befriends other children of different races, and how he/she will play with just about anyone. As a developmental-behavioral pediatrician, I’m well aware of the normal trajectory of a child’s psychosocial development and social consciousness. My perspective on this issue is purely a developmental perspective.

By the age of 3, a child starts placing the world into categories. A 3-year-old knows gender, and can distinguish people by their physical characteristics, including height, weight, hair color and style, and yes, skin color. They’re not savvy enough to place value on skin color or other physical features yet, but can recognize that people come in different colors and sizes, just like flowers or fruit.

By the age of 4, a child learns to categorize the world more subtly, and begins to assign value to people and objects. Developmentally, a 4-year-old starts to learn how some categories can be more socially desirable than others. By the age of 5, children can begin to exhibit prejudicial attitudes and well-established biases for/against various racial and ethnic groups. You might ask: “How is this possible?” Let’s explore the evidence.

The earliest known research on exploring racial bias in young children came from Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark; their studies are collectively referred to as the “doll test.” Dr. Clark presented preschool-aged African-American children with two dolls – one with white skin, and the other with dark brown skin. These children were asked a variety of questions assigning value to attributes, such as “show me the pretty doll.” Overwhelmingly, the children assigned positive attributes to the white-skinned doll, while assigning negative attributes to the dark-skinned doll. This study has been replicated many times over the years, producing similar results.

These findings from Drs. Kenneth and Mamie Clark were used in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and are considered to have been instrumental in the banning of school segregation laws across the nation.

In Canada, a recent study was conducted in which white kindergartners were asked to assign value to white, black and native individuals. The study found the majority of kindergartners endorsed very negative values to black people and somewhat less negative values to native people. The majority of kindergartners in this study saw white people as positive.

Some people might be surprised by this evidence, and may even question the findings. For those who do, I invite you to ask any 4-year-old to “be an indian,” and see how many of them will put their hand to their mouth to make the “woopwoopwoop” sound that’s often stereotypically described as a type of native war cry. Racial stereotypes are pervasive in U.S. society, and are found in a variety of domains, including textbooks, media images, music and even children’s literature. Children learn to assign value to skin color and physical attributes by internalizing the messages received by their family and wider surroundings in their community.

Evidence suggests that this “color blindness” is the newest form of racism itself, and may be more toxic than traditional, blatant racism that’s easily identifiable. Studies have found people who claim to be color blind regarding race might have higher rates of implicit bias than those who don’t claim to have this color blindness. Implicit biases are the intrinsic, unconscious notions we hold about our own cultural group when compared to others.

When these individuals claim to be color blind, they’re choosing to ignore a fundamental characteristic of a human being while pretending everyone looks the same. These people willfully ignore the beauty that stems from a person who doesn’t share their cultural background, and can turn a blind eye to acts of racism, intolerance and discrimination in our society – choosing to live in an abyss of ignorance.

I will ask again: If you’re color blind, are you also gender blind? You might think this question is ludicrous. However, I invite you to explore this argument with me rationally. If you cannot see a person’s skin color, then you also shouldn’t notice a person’s gender, age, height, weight, hair color and really anything else distinguishing the individual from others. Why would this person’s skin color be the one physical attribute you choose to ignore, while acknowledging all of the other ones? This is how claiming to be color blind can be a disingenuous statement.

Instead of teaching our children to ignore physical characteristics of other children and adults, we should teach them to value and embrace them. We can teach our children words to describe normal human variations in skin color, hair texture and so on without adding shame or negative value to these attributes. “Be color brave, not color blind!” This comes from Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Investments and Chair of the Board of Directors of DreamWorks Animation, during her TED Talk. We can also be brave enough to buy our children literature reflecting cultures and traditions that are not their own. For a vast collection of multicultural literature, consider visiting Lee & Low Books.

Let’s be brave enough to read this kind of literature to our children. Let’s be brave enough to invite our children’s friends of different color into our homes for play dates or lunch with their parents. Let’s be brave enough to take our children to worship with people who don’t look like us, sing like us or pray like us. Let’s be brave enough to encourage our children to stand up for someone being bullied because of their interests, race, religion, sexuality or immigration status. Let’s be brave enough to expose our children to local events celebrating historic contributions and legacies of people who don’t share their own cultural or historical perspective. Let’s be brave enough to take our children to eat cuisines from different parts of the world.

We are fortunate to live in one of the most culturally and racially diverse cities in the country. We have a plethora of local opportunities to educate ourselves about traditions, cultures and beliefs that are different from our own. I encourage parents to be brave enough to become color brave instead of color blind, and to model this perspective for our children.