Lea Assenmacher: We shouldn't aspire to live in a 'colorblind' society

Lea Assenmacher, Rochester Diversity Council volunteer

Satirist Stephen Colbert has a recurring routine on "The Colbert Report" in which he insists that he "doesn't see color."

"People tell me I'm white, and I believe them because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffet albums."

The routine gets a lot of laughs because it exposes the absurdity of ignoring physical attributes that are immediately obvious — and the kinds of stereotypes we unconsciously ascribe to members of particular groups. (Certainly not all middle-aged white men enjoy Jimmy Buffet, right?)

Denying difference — "colorblindness" — is one strategy to eliminate bigotry and discrimination by race, but it is a quixotic task to will oneself colorblind. It is impossible, if we are not actually blind, not to notice the color of a person's skin. Telling someone that you have not noticed the color of her skin would be similar to telling someone of the female gender that you have not noticed that she is a woman.

Statements such as "We're all just people" or "I don't see color" suggest the act of merely acknowledging another's race, ethnicity or sex is somehow prejudiced. Such an acknowledgement is only negative if derogatory stereotypes or judgments come along with it. Seeing, noticing or talking about difference in a neutral way is not the same as racism or sexism.


Many of our subconscious reactions to skin color are, as social scientists have shown, deeply ingrained by the time we are adults. Each of us is the product of our history, socialization and the unique personal situations in which we find ourselves. As Americans, we cannot escape the fact that various groups have been the targets of oppression and discrimination throughout our history, based on the color of their skin and ethnic backgrounds.

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s led to the elimination of many legal and institutional barriers that restrained the lives of people of color, and great strides have been made in the last 50 years to eliminate the most blatant kinds of discrimination. Nonetheless, anyone who is a member of minority group can tell you that prejudice and discrimination come in many subtle and insidious forms — in attitudes and practices that are not going to change without the sustained efforts of people of all races and colors.

These efforts are hindered when we use colorblindness to avoid any discussion of difference or to deny the very existence of racism. When we say "We don't see color," what we're really doing is pretending every individual is a member of our dominant and privileged group, and that the playing field is level, despite every indication to the contrary. Even being able to "not see color" is a mark of white privilege, since people of color are reminded every day in numerous ways that their lives are constrained by the negative stereotypes and marginalization that come with the color of their skin.

Most people who subscribe to a "colorblind" philosophy are honestly trying to avoid being prejudiced. After all, what could possibly be wrong with claiming to judge people on nothing but the "content of their character"?

The solution to a prejudiced society, however, is not to turn our backs on the problem, or to prematurely declare it solved. We cannot solve the urgent problem of discrimination and inequality by putting on blinders, no matter how well-meant. Instead, we can work toward a world in which different colors are recognized and appreciated because they are no longer associated with negative stereotypes and historical prejudices.

We can only begin to rid ourselves of prejudice when we take the difficult but crucial step of honestly and critically confronting our deep-seated assumptions about those different from ourselves. Then we must go one step further, and acknowledge and honor the very differences that make us all so uncomfortable.

Well-meaning people subscribe to colorblindness because the alternatives — self-examination and the resulting honest, awkward conversations — are so difficult and make us feel vulnerable and open to being misunderstood. In our efforts to be "Minnesota Nice," we get stuck on our journey toward understanding and, eventually, equality.

Our discomfort, however, is nothing compared to the experience of the people who, even or especially in a "colorblind" society, find their full humanity denied.


Lea Assenmacher of Rochester is a volunteer with the Rochester Diversity Council.

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