"I don't see colour": The problem with 'colourblindness' and race
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Claiming to ‘not see colour’ (i.e. not notice anyone’s race) is problematic for 3 main reasons:
It’s a lie
It allows us to turn a blind eye to real problems
It is a representation of privilege
To engage with this issue, we need to do some myth-busting.
Racism is all too often misunderstood as some kind of irrational, inherent hatred for any person of a different skin colour. This allows us to see racism as limited to explicit and violent/hostile acts towards another person due to personal prejudice based purely on biological differences, and not on the structural or societal context.
So, what does this mean? It means we can have a good person/bad person narrative in which anyone who isn’t aggressively racist or is fundamentally a ‘good person’ can see themselves as exempt from involvement in racism.
Unfortunately, this is not the case and in some ways other forms of racism are even more frightening. Racism should be understood as twofold: personal and structural. Personal racism, as already discussed, involves action against an individual due to personal prejudice. Structural racism is a much more challenging opponent – the result of centuries of attributing a lower social value to particular people and their actions which carries on into our narratives and perceptions today. Importantly, this allows racism to remain within mainstream society, institutions and power structures and can be very powerful.
For example, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said in 2011 that Islamophobia had passed the ‘dinner-table test’. By this, she meant that this bigotry had become more than just the violence of hooligans and the fringes of society, and could be presented in a rational form in more acceptable settings (i.e. middle-class dinner tables) having been legitimised by commentators, think-tanks and politicians. While this may suggest that it has become socially acceptable within some areas of society, its presence needs to be acknowledged and responsibility taken to change what is deemed acceptable.
For A News Education’s guide on Racism click here.
So, what’s wrong with someone saying they don’t see colour?
Well, we all do. Unless actually blind, we can all see the colour of people’s skin when we see and engage with them. The issue with racism is not the ability to physically distinguish between people’s skin colours. The issue is the social value that we assign to people and their actions as well as the assumptions we may consciously or sub-consciously jump to.
We need to engage with our own prejudices. After announcing his incredibly controversial experience with explicit racism, Liam Neeson called on people to recognise their internal prejudices. Unfortunately, it is very easy to succumb to ingrained ideas founded on historical racism and what we see in the media. But, if we ignore the presence of race and do not engage with the idea, we ignore racism and cannot confront our own prejudices.
This claim allows us to ignore racial injustice. Even if someone, theoretically, couldn’t see skin colour, that wouldn’t stop millions of people from facing the consequences of their skin colour. However, this sort of claim allows us to feel separate from the issue of racism and justifies not confronting it within ourselves, with others and within society. Racism thrives on indifference.
Claiming not to see colour can represent privilege, since not being aware of race would require not being made aware of your own race. Acts of personal racism, along with attempts to exclude ethnic minorities from 'Britishness' and question their mere existence in the UK often contribute to ethnic minorities feeling hypervisible and more aware of their own skin colour.
The claim of not seeing colour neglects what is often a significant part of many people’s identities. The difficulties and prejudices which arise from being an ethnic minority can often lead to stronger identification with one’s ethnicity and this should not be so carelessly undermined. Every part of everyone’s identity should be recognised, protected and encouraged to allow them to be themselves.
To sum up, if you say you don’t see colour, you’re also saying you don’t see racism and, as we’ve all heard before, the first step for solving any problem is recognising that there is one.
This means really understanding what the issue actually is. And remember that racism is much more than just personal prejudice or explicit acts from ‘bad’ people.
For more on race and equality, take a look at our Racism, Islamophobia & Anti-Semitism section.