De-emphasizing racial differences seems to be the emerging approach for managing racial diversity in schools, business, politics and the law. The hope is that this strategy will lead to tolerance, inclusion and equality.
However, a new study from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University reveals that this strategy can encourage people to turn a blind eye to even obvious displays of racial discrimination and lessen the likelihood for intervention.
In the study, researchers wanted to know if the ‘colorblind’ approach affected the ability of elementary school students to recognize racially motivated incidents and subsequently report them to adults who could intervene.
“In many ways, the logic behind colorblindness is understandable,” said Evan P. Apfelbaum, a visiting assistant professor of Management and Organizations at the Kellogg School and head of the study. “Downplaying racial distinctions should limit the potential for bias.”
Researchers observed the effects of promoting a colorblind approach to diversity among young students, ages 8 to 11. First, students were split into groups to hear different versions of a multimedia storybook. Half received a colorblind version, and the other half received a version that showed diversity as a value.
In both stories, racial equality was championed, but the colorblind version focused on minimizing race-based distinctions, whereas the value-diversity story encouraged readers to embrace these differences.
In other words, the colorblind story emphasized a “We need to focus on how we are similar to our neighbors rather than on how we are different” theme versus the value-diversity message of “We want to show everyone that race is important because our racial differences make us special.”
Following the first story, the children listened to three other stories featuring differing degrees of racial bias: a control story in which a white child was marginalized by his white schoolmate’s contribution to a school science project; a story that featured a potential (but unclear) bias about a white student excluding a black student from his birthday party; and a clearly biased story featuring a white student’s unprovoked assault of a black student during a soccer game.
Afterward, the students were recorded as they described the three events in each of the stories, and their videotaped descriptions were shown to school teachers. The students primed with a colorblind mindset retold the stories in a way far less likely to prompt adult intervention than students exposed to the value-diversity mindset.
Specifically, 43 percent of students in the value-diversity group perceived discrimination in the ambiguous story and 77 percent recognized discrimination in the explicitly biased story.
In the colorblind group, however, the frequency with which children recognized discrimination lowered quite a bit, to just 10 percent of children for the ambiguous story, and only 50 percent in the explicit story — the only scenario that displayed obvious evidence of racially motivated behavior.
“[O]ur research suggests that exposure to colorblindness can actually reduce individuals’ sensitivity to meaningful racial differences. And as a result, when discrimination does occur, individuals with a colorblind mindset often fail to see it as such,” said Apfelbaum.
“Teachers were less likely to see the need for intervention because the students’ descriptions in the colorblind condition played down the race-related nature of the transgressions.
“In a real-world situation, bullying on the basis of race could go unnoticed by onlookers or be mistaken for ordinary misconduct by teachers who receive insufficient information to recognize it as discrimination.”
The researchers believe the study gives reason to explore the effectiveness of value-diversity efforts.
“Despite good intentions to promote egalitarianism through colorblindness, our findings show that doing so sometimes elicits the exact opposite outcome, permitting even explicit forms of racial discrimination to go undetected and unaddressed,” said Apfelbaum.
“Perhaps most alarming, on the surface, colorblindness appears to work quite well — reported incidents of bias do decrease. In spite of such encouraging signs, however, our study suggests that colorblindness may not reduce bias as much as it adjusts the lens through which bias is perceived.”
Source: Kellogg School of Management