The Common Good

Colorblinded in the Workplace

"Is colorblindness or multiculturalism better for minorities?" I missed this post by Dawn Turner Trice when it first appeared a couple weeks ago. Trice hosts an ongoing, and always lively, forum at the Exploring Race blog at ChicagoTribune.com. In the blog post, she talks about a recent University of Georgia study on "colorblindness" in the workplace. Anyone out there familiar with it? The study's findings suggest that pursuing a colorblind culture may not be the best approach in a work environment---or in life. From the post:

The study found that "contrary to popular beliefs, workplaces that downplay racial and ethnic differences actually make minority employees feel less engaged with their work," said [Victoria] Plaut, the study's lead author. "Minority employees sense more bias against them in these allegedly colorblind settings."

Plaut said it's not clear whether the bias is correctly sensed, but research has shown that there's a correlation between whites who profess colorblindness and racial bias.

"For a long time whites have been told they should not pay attention to race," she said. "It's best if we all assume people are all the same, right? But this type of colorblindness often is based on assimilation."

That means, in some cases, it's easier for a white person to be colorblind if the person of color acts white, or fits almost seamlessly into the white norm.

Whoa, that last line is the zinger. I've actually been talking about the whole "integration vs. assimilation" issue at Christian colleges and conferences over the past couple years, so it's interesting to see a report that adds a little academic heft to my anecdotal musings. On the one hand, colorblindness seems like the only way to have a fair and equitable workplace or educational system or insurance coverage or mortgage lending, etc. But when you think about the real-life relationships that go into making a job or a school what they are, it would seem odd and a little unnatural not to acknowledge the reality of race and different cultures. Indeed, I've often found some of the most fulfilling aspects of work or school to be chances to rub shoulders with and really get to know people who have cultural backgrounds and life experiences that are different from my own. To wear racial or cultural "color-blinders" would have deprived me of a lot of those rich interactions.

Though I see the wisdom of a colorblind approach on some levels, when it comes to getting along with a coworker or classmate or neighbor, I think we have much to lose by denying the reality of seeing each other as God has made us and, when possible, celebrating our unique gifts and attributes. In fact, I wonder if this is at the heart of the notion of loving your neighbor? It's a lot easier to "love" people -- or get along with them, at least -- when we can fit them into our own neat little preconceived categories. And often, it's just simpler to exclude race or religion or other cultural differences from the equation. But then are we really taking the time to know that other person, to value them, to see them?

Over the years, I've had white friends say to me at different times something like this (or its equivalent): "Ed, I don't even see you as a black person; when I look at you, I just see a person." On the one hand, that's a very thoughtful and heartfelt sentiment to express -- and I appreciate and receive the spirit in which it was shared. However, on the other hand, such a comment could suggest that there might be something inherently wrong with the fact of my blackness. What's more, it's a flagrant denial of a very real aspect of my personhood.

I have a white friend whose family traces its lineage back to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War. One day, my friend shared with me a long story about these family connections. Though he apologetically acknowledged the fact that, well, Davis was a Confederate and that there's some awkward history there for a person of my complexion, my friend was nonetheless proud (on some level) of his family history. As he shared, my first impulse was to say something like, "Come on, man! Do you think I really want to hear that?" But I didn't. He was my friend, after all, and I could tell this was important stuff to him. Only later did I realize that my listening to his story, and trying to understand his complicated relationship to his family roots, was part of seeing my friend and knowing him in full.

This Tribune blog post on colorblindness actually was brought to my attention by one of my white coworkers yesterday. We chatted for at least a half-hour about issues of race and culture. He shared honestly with me about some of his experiences with people of other races and how one of his older relatives, a child of a more racially segregated era, had built relationships across racial lines even as he struggled with prejudiced thinking. The fact that my white colleague felt comfortable talking with me about race and culture in the workplace was a positive thing. I believe we both gained a deeper insight about the other person. This would not have been possible in a "colorblind" environment.

So how would you answer Dawn Turner Trice's question? Which is better, colorblindness or multiculturalism? Or, is that the wrong question to ask?

portrait-edward-gilbreathEdward Gilbreath is director of editorial for Urban Ministries Inc., editor of UrbanFaith.com, and the author of Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical's Inside View of White Christianity. He blogs at Reconciliation Blog.

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