For anyone, race can be a difficult topic to talk about; yet, research indicates that the way we talk about (or fail to talk about) race has changed over time, particularly for White people.[i] In an honest effort to attempt to reduce racial prejudice, or at least to appear less racist[ii], one might adopt a “color-blind” perspective. To be color-blind means to believe that race does not, or should not, matter. One might believe that race does not matter because “we’re all human” or that talking about race actually perpetuates racism rather than solving anything. However, the recent deaths of unarmed Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement reinforces the notion that race does matter and that we need to be able to talk about it.
What contributes to a color-blind perspective and other difficulties in talking about race? In my doctoral program, I was a student, and later a teaching associate, in a racial-cultural counseling laboratory course, where students explored their ethnic, religious, social class, and racial group memberships. Invariably, race was the most difficult to discuss. As a student, I did not want to offend or appear to hold any of the racist stereotypes that are ubiquitous to Whites in the United States. As a teaching associate at two different colleges in New York City, I watched as students had similar difficulties with varying levels of resistance. I noticed that for my students, and myself, an important first step was to say something in regards to one’s understanding of race, and be receptive to feedback. The most pernicious quality of a color-blind attitude is that the reality of race is distorted. Overcoming this can be jarring as one comes to a new and sometimes painful awareness of racism.
A common method of minimizing or avoiding the topic of race was to focus on another aspect of one’s identity, particularly if that identity is marginalized. Many White students were much more willing to identify with their religious or ethnic group. For example, students would identify more readily as Jewish or Italian-American instead of White. While these identities are important, they are not the same. An important question for White people to ask themselves is “What does it mean to be White? What privileges do I have and how has my worldview been shaped as a White person?”
At the end of each semester in the racial-cultural lab, I remember feeling as if the conversation about race had just begun. Each time I learned something new, but always felt like there were more questions than answers. I think this is a good thing, as race is complex, and its discussion must be more than just an abstract, intellectual one. Increasing racial awareness is a lifelong journey with immediate implications. In order to take that journey, we have to push ourselves to start.
[i] Whibey, John (2014). White racial attitudes over time: Data from the General Social Survey. Journalists Resource, Harvard Kennedy School on Media Politics and Public Policy. http://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/race-society/white-racial-attitudes-over-time-data-general-social-survey.
[ii] Bonilla-Silva, E. & Forman, T. A. (2000). “I am not a racist, but…”: Mapping White college students’ racial ideology in the USA. Discourse & Society, 11(1), 50-85.
Jacob S. Sawyer is a doctoral candidate in counseling psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the identityLORE research team, which aims to give voice to underrepresented and marginalized voices through empirical research. His research and clinical interests also include grief and bereavement, nonreligious identity, racial identity, and color-blind racial attitudes. You can find him on Twitter @JSSpsych.