Colourful Or Colour-Blindness? Which is the Best Approach To Address Racial Issues?

Whether you recognise a person by their race (or not) has advantages and disadvantages. Knowing this can help you better tailor your diversity and inclusion initiatives.

Colourful Or Colour-Blindness? Which is the Best Approach To Address Racial Issues?
Photo by Sam McNamara / Unsplash

The #BlackLivesMatter movement spread like wildfire worldwide amid the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. Campaigns flooded social media, and many organisations advocated for social justice. Masked protestors flooded the streets all over the Americas, Europe, and Australia.

Amid the protests, another slogan appeared. #AllLivesMatter. At first glance, it made sense. It comes from the belief that everyone is equal and should be treated equally and that race should not matter. Yet, the slogan points to a more significant problem.

That is the problem with racial colour-blindness. Racial colour-blindness occurs when individuals, institutions, or policies claim to treat people equally regardless of race, often by ignoring or downplaying the significance of racial differences.

Isn't racial colour-blindness a good approach?

Racial colour-blindness is based on the belief that equality is best achieved by being "blind" to race. It is based on the belief that people are judged based on their personal talent, merit, and character, and in doing so, everyone is treated the same.

At first glance, this might seem like a fair deal.

In a racial colour-blind workplace, employees should be treated equally. This approach influences decisions in recruitment, promotions, performance management and other human resource processes. This stems from the belief that race

should not be taken into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed, and behaviours are enacted. Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers

Racial colour-blindness might have started with good intentions. Yet, this approach is harmful. While the belief that “blinding” is equal treatment, it dismisses racial identities and ignores the historical and social contexts that shape racial dynamics.

This can lead to the exclusion of minority employees. The "should not matter” attitude can come to mean that discrimination should be ignored or dismissed.

People do notice race. It is the very first thing that people see. Our minds perceive race in less than one-seventh of a second and as early as six years old.

In some societies, it has become a norm to not acknowledge or mention race for fear of being accused of racism or offending others. People don't mention race out of good intentions. Yet, race cannot be ignored, especially when it involves making important decisions.

Proud of being racially colour-blind.

When an organisation emphasises racial colour-blindness, employees from the dominant culture tend to pride themselves on it.

Who wouldn't want to be treated as an equal?

In a racial colour-blind organisation, the dominant group's norms and values become the benchmark. A successful employee is expected to behave in the same manner. Those who act differently are excluded.

Employees from minority groups feel the pressure to fit in and to change their appearance and behaviour. To succeed, minorities must appear and act like the organisation's dominant culture. They limit their cultural expressions, sometimes to the point of covering.

For example, non-white people were pressured to act white in white-dominated companies. Or women were told to play like men in male-dominated industries. Thus, minority employees who do not "act" like the majority may be ignored, dismissed, or excluded.

The majority prefers the colour-blind approach.

The majority group usually prefers racial colour-blindness. They hold a deep-seated belief that life outcomes should not depend on race but on one's effort and talent.

However, people from the dominant culture forget to consider their advantageous position. Unlike the majority, minorities need to exert tremendous effort to overcome barriers of discrimination.

The majority's preference for colour-blindness is to defend their dominant position within the organisation. Rather than adapting themselves, the majority hopes for minorities to adapt to mainstream norms. Rather than shedding their culture, the majority expect minorities to shed theirs.

Paradoxically, when the dominant group adopts racial colour-blindness, they are less engaged with minority peers. Also, employees increasingly believe their organisational climate is racist.

If racial colour-blindness is not the answer, is there an alternative?

Multiculturalism is like a quilt; each patchwork has its unique character and story.

The Colourful Approach: Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is the preservation of diverse voices and traditions that are unified in purpose. Like a quilt, each patchwork has its unique character and story. When woven together, it creates a beautiful quilt.

Using the multicultural approach, organisations recognise, support, and appreciate the benefits of cultural diversity. In valuing diversity, you also promote the inclusion of people from diverse backgrounds.

There is no pressure to conform or adapt to the dominant culture. People feel safe bringing their authentic selves and fully engaging in the workplace. Peers gain cultural knowledge of other groups. Cultural empathy increases, and positivity towards cultural others grows.

The minorities prefer the colourful.

Multiculturalism has a positive influence on minority members. Researchers discovered that minority group members prefer multiculturalism to racial colour-blindness in the workplace.

Minorities gain an increase in their positive self-esteem and motivation. When minorities can express diversity, they gain confidence and a sense of security. When cultural differences are recognised, minorities feel valued. Subsequently, work performance improves, and work satisfaction increases.

However, with multiculturalism, employees from the majority group feel uncomfortable and excluded. They sense that organisational benefits only prioritise minority groups, leaving them out of the picture. Hence, employees from majority groups are less attracted to multicultural organisations.

Companies need to move beyond colourism.

When organisations use either colour-blindness or multiculturalism, someone will be excluded. Researchers advocate for an alternative, All-Inclusive Multiculturalism or AIM. AIM is the inclusion of everyone, both majority and minority groups.

AIM acknowledges the consequences of race, gender, or other social and cultural identities of the individual. It considers these consequences equally for all groups, both majority and minority groups. All groups are encouraged to maintain their identity under the larger identity of the organisation.

Leaders must be mindful of these approaches and find ways to be inclusive to all groups. Here are some suggestions:

  • Strive to ensure leadership roles and diversity task forces are culturally representative.
  • Openly appreciate the contributions of all cultural groups in organisational communication.
  • Mention how everyone can enjoy benefits when implementing policies.
  • Share how diversity policies promote professionalism and create a better workplace.

Yes, all lives matter. But all lives are not made equal.

Ignoring racial diversity by saying everyone is equal, does not solve issues of discrimination. It is not as easy as waving a wand, uttering a spell "that-shall-not-be-named"; in the naive hope that discrimination becomes "that-shall-not-exist".

As long as racial discrimination persists in society, race needs to be recognised and considered. All aspects of an organisation, from human resources to diversity and inclusion, from leadership to new hires, must be mindful of their approach.

Fostering an inclusive and fair workplace takes work. It takes a lot of effort and patience to meet diverse needs.

All-inclusive multiculturalism will require commitment from everyone. While it is hard to solve deeply embedded historical and social issues or change overnight, the effort is most definitely worthwhile.

This post is updated from the originally published post on Culture Spark Global on 19 October 2021 and written by the same author, Ling Ling Tai.