All right, “color-blind” colleagues, we need to have a talk

Share

[Image description: Sharpened coloring pencils of various colors. From left to right: Dark green, light green, light blue, purple, red, orange, yellow. They are all lined up in close proximity and facing the same direction, and they appear to be on a mirror, hovering over their reflections. Image obtained from Pixabay.com]

In my work and travels I’ve met some really incredible people doing amazing stuff. Every meeting, every trip restores my faith in our sector, as well as replenishes my office’s supply of pens and chapsticks from various exhibitors at conferences.

But once a while, I encounter people who are “color-blind,” who say things like:

  • “Vu, I love what you say about nonprofits needing to be more inclusive. You know, I have a grown son who has diverse friends. And he has never once referred to his friends by their skin color characteristics. Not once. I think it’s wonderful that he just doesn’t see color.”
  • “XYZ foundation decided to focus on organizations doing work with minorities. That’s great for organizations like yours, but what about the rest of us? I just don’t understand. I just don’t get why we need to keep focusing on race.”
  • “Can we talk about income? We keep talking about race, when really it’s about income. It’s not about race. Poor people are of all colors.”
  • “Why do you keep using the term ‘people of color’? Isn’t that just dividing us further? Where did that term even come from?”
  • “Why does it matter that they [leaders of organizations focused on specific diverse communities] be from those communities? Shouldn’t the most important factor be whether they have the qualifications to run the organization?”
  • “Maybe you should release a statement saying that you prioritize skills and experience above everything. That may help calm people down.” This was said by a board development consultant after I said my organization has been trying to be thoughtful about ensuring we have a diverse board that’s representative of the communities we serve, but that it was complex and we were getting pushback on the fact that though our board is 90% people of color, we still are not representative.

These are just a sample of things I’ve heard, and when I hear them, it makes me sad. So I do what I sometimes do under stress: Listen to the soulful ballads of Kenny Loggins. Especially “Return to Pooh Corner,” which recalls the innocence of childhood, counting bees and chasing clouds with a yellow bear whose nose is stuck in a jar of honey (Kenny Loggins, you sexy mulletted genius, you!).

What’s really alarming is that these statements above come from nonprofit professionals, people in our sector, the sector tasked with addressing inequity and injustice. Sometimes, doing education equity work, I hear them from teachers. I’ve been ignoring them as isolated incidences, but these comments have been cropping up more and more. So, I want to address the rest of this post to all my nonprofit colleagues who consider themselves “color-blind.” If you don’t see what’s wrong with the above comments—or perhaps you were nodding in agreement—let’s have a conversation.

First of all, I love you. I have met so many wonderful people while doing this work, and everyone I’ve encountered is trying hard to make the world better. The issues we tackle are so challenging and complex. We don’t all have the same backgrounds or upbringings or conversations, so we are on different points along the continuum. Some people are at the beginner end, some at the more experienced end.

And there are multiple continua: race, class, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, etc., and it’s almost impossible to be at the expert end of all the continua all the time. I myself am a beginner when it comes to many of these areas. We all learn, and we all make mistakes, and it’s OK. You’re not a bad person if you are “color-blind,” if you don’t see race, if you believe you treat everyone equally regardless of their race or gender or class. In fact, you’re probably an amazing person, like Kenny Loggins.

But we need to have a heart-to-heart, all right? I know this can be tough, but meet me halfway.

COLOR-BLINDNESS IS NOT GOOD. It is not good to be color-blind. There’s been plenty written on why. Psychology Today calls it a form of racism. And here’s a piece on Everyday Feminism detailing how colorblindness perpetuates injustice (The article also acknowledges that “color-blind” as a term is ableist). And here’s an article in the Atlantic debunking the argument that focusing on race actually causes the nationalist movement we’ve been seeing more of recently. And here’s a thought-provoking TED Talk on how we need to move from being color-blind to “color-brave.”

I’m reiterating a few arguments that the authors and speaker above bring up, along with some points I’ve thought of, as to why color-blindness is harmful. It is generally destructive, but it is even more so when wielded by those of us in nonprofit, education, and other professions focused on helping people and addressing injustice:

It invalidates people’s identities: Whether we like it or not, so much of our identity has been shaped around our race. Sometimes this is against our will. I remember walking home from school once, and some kids across the street turned to me and yelled out, “Ching chong ching chong!” It takes many of us a while to navigate this part of our identity, often working through fear and rage and confusion. To say that you don’t “see color” is to deny us the struggle and the beauty of a significant part of our identity. I’ve known of teachers who say, “I don’t see my students’ race or color.” Well, then you don’t see them. This is the same for counselors, after-school program coordinators, senior center staff, mentors, and other professionals in our field.

It perpetuates the notion that diversity is bad for some reason: One of my colleagues of color, when told by another person that they don’t see her color, said, “Why not? Is there something bad about my color?” The other person stumbled to find a response. “If you don’t think there’s anything bad about my color,” continued my colleague, “then why do you need to say you don’t see it?” There’s nothing yucky or bad about being of color. By denying the existence of color, you turn it from something positive into something negative. Diversity is good. There are now lots of studies that show that diversity leads to stronger business performance, increased board effectiveness, higher customer satisfaction, etc. Diversity and inclusion are not scary. We don’t need to be afraid of them. They’re actually good things. You want to see good things in the world, right?

It ignores the impact of implicit biases: Whether you “see” color or not, all of us are affected by it, mostly in ways we are not even conscious of. Countless studies—some mentioned in this article—have shown that job candidates with less “white-sounding” names get fewer callbacks for job interviews. This piece describes a study where participants were given a document to find typos in, with some participants being told the document’s author was white, while others told the author was black. This is the same document, mind you, with the same errors. And yet, participants who thought their memo was written by a black person found more mistakes and also rated it lower. No one deliberately thought “Hm, this person is black, so I’m going to try extra hard to find their mistakes.” This is why implicit biases are so insidious. It’s a danger zone. Just because we don’t “see” color does not mean we are not unconsciously affected by it.

It denies the existence of systemic oppression: So much of the injustice and inequity we are trying to address in this sector stems from histories and systems of racism and oppression. Just because you’re a nice person does not negate hundreds of years of injustice that carry on to this day, perpetuated by implicit biases and other factors. If you don’t see color, then you cannot help to counter systemic injustice. How can you fight against something you refuse to see? This point is really critical, because our sector’s overarching mission is to address inequity and injustice in the world, and we can’t do that if we don’t see the factors that are interconnected with systemic oppression.

I know it is simplistic and risky to equate different forms of injustice to one another, but I find it can be helpful to draw parallels. Disability, for instance. Imagine if you decided that you didn’t see disability. I know from speaking with colleagues with disabilities that one of the most hurtful and irritating things is hearing someone say something like, “I don’t even see you as a person with a disability. You’re just like everyone else to me.” Besides denying people their identity, if we are “disability-blind,” then we are less likely to see that buildings are inaccessible, that bathrooms are not friendly to wheelchair-enabled clients and colleagues, that videos and images are not captioned or described, that we use hurtful or thoughtless words like using “lame” to describe something corny. (See “25 simple ways we can all be more disability-inclusive.”)

If we are gender-blind, then we can’t address systemic sexism and misogyny that lead to, for example, women being paid less for the same or higher-quality work. If we are transgender-blind, then we can’t address the ingrained cissexism in society that leads to high violence rates against transgender individuals. If we are sexual-orientation-blind, we can’t effectively tackle the barriers facing many people not just in marriage equality but across a range of issues such as adoption and discrimination in housing. If we are age-blind, we can’t fight the implicit and explicit biases against older adults, such as when applying for jobs, or the challenges youth and younger adults face in the workplace. If we are rural-urban-dynamics blind, we can’t solve the inequitable distribution of resources and influence among geographic areas. If we are faith-blind, we cannot fight the persecution and discrimination people face for their beliefs. If we are intersectionality-blind, we can’t address the compounding challenges of multiple identities affected by implicit biases and systemic injustice.

So, let’s agree not to be “color-blind” or any sort of “blind” anymore. It does nothing but invalidates people’s identities, turns something positive (diversity) into something negative, denies and thus perpetuates implicit biases, and stymies our ability to address systemic racism and other forms of injustice.

In a perfect world, everyone would be treated equally and we don’t need to think so much about skin color and other identity traits, which is why it is so tempting to fall for color-blindness. But the ideal world does not exist yet, and the more that we believe that it does, the less likely we can bring it into being. We do not yet live in a racially just Pooh Corner’s. We never have. There is no equitable Pooh’s Corner to return to! 

So, next time you think about being “color-blind,” just remember the words sung by the angel-voiced and handsome Kenny Loggins in his song “For the First Time,” before he changed the lyrics to be more commercial:

Are those your eyes, is that your smile
I’ve been lookin’ at you forever
But I never saw you before
Are these your hands holdin’ mine

Now I wonder how I could of been so color-blind

For the first time I am looking in your eyes
For the first time I’m seein’ who you are
I can’t believe how much I see

When I acknowledge diversity
Now I understand why being color-blind is
counterproductive to fighting injustice, for the first time…

ANNOUNCEMENT: GET A BEER* AND UNDO NONPROFIT POWER DYNAMICS DAY!

Last year, I proposed a day where nonprofits and funders, including foundation trustees, can get a beer or some ice cream together and see each other as human beings, and help to decrease the power dynamics so present in our sector. Several of us took this suggestion seriously, including many really cool foundations. 

Well, this year we are continuing this now-annual tradition. NWB, along with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, and Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers are calling for a one-day where foundations and nonprofits can just get a beer together, or coffee or ice cream, without an agenda, and just talk about whatever. This year it is going to be May 25th!

I hope you’ll participate. There’s only one rule: There cannot be an agenda. Regarding what time, where, who pays for the rounds, whether to dress up in cloaks, etc. that’s up to foundations and nonprofits in each city to figure out. Let’s have thousands of conversations across the globe between funders and nonprofits, because we both do awesome stuff. 

We are calling it the Get a Beer* and Undo Nonprofit Power Dynamics (GBUNPD) Day, which is the best name ever, you will agree. Let me know in the comment what you plan to do, and let’s make this big. Because power dynamics hurt everyone and make unicorns cry. (*BEER stands for “Beverage to Enhance Equity in Relationships,” and does not have to be alcoholic)

Support the maintenance of this website by buying NWB t-shirts and mugs and other stuff.

Make Mondays suck a little less. Get a notice each Monday morning when a new post arrives. Subscribe to NWB by scrolling to the top right of this page (maybe scroll down a little) and enter in your email address (If you’re on the phone, it may be at the bottom). Also, join the NWB Facebook community for daily hilarity.

Also, join Nonprofit Happy Hour, a peer support group on Facebook, and if you are an ED/CEO, join ED Happy Hour. These are great forums for when you have a problem and want to get advice from colleagues, or you just want to share pictures of unicorns. Check them out.

Donate, or give a grant, to Vu’s organizationRainier Valley Corps, which has the mission of bringing more leaders of color into the nonprofit sector and getting diverse communities to work together to address systemic issues.

 

Share
  • Hildie Lipson

    Thanks for an excellent Monday morning wake-up.

  • Amanda K

    We should start calling it something less attractive like “Diversity Denier”. Then people will be less eager to label themselves that way.

    • Abigail Soto

      Yes! Call it what it is. Just like saying “pro-life” is just perpetuating the idea that those who are pro-choice are anti-life. Couldn’t be more of a spin if you ask me.

  • Sarah Lange

    Thanks for this post. I recently returned from China, traveling via Qatar (because I love Qatar Airlines). When I posted that I thought it was good for me (a white chick) to be traveling through a part of the world that was predominantly brown and hang outside my cultural and linguistic comfort zone for a while, I got pushback from my white friends that it wasn’t cool to say that — as if noticing racial differences was somehow bad.

    I could not disagree more! If I were to travel through the middle east without noticing and noting that I was in the vast minority, then I wouldn’t have been color blind, I’ve have been dead! And I *do* think it’s good for us white folk to experience *not* being the dominant culture for a change — gives us a little taste of how many people of color, immigrants and refugees feel most of the time. I also just think it’s good for people to be forced outside their comfort zone, to stretch and grow beyond what they know. So, screw the pushback, I’m going to continue to notice, note, and celebrate racial differences!

  • chukicita

    Thanks for this. I needed to hear it (and so do most of my colleagues). And thanks for including “intersectionality-blind.”

  • Lynn Nee

    Thanks for providing me another classroom reading and discussion tool…My admin skills for social workers class is better because of you!!

  • Diane Leifheit

    Just read a Huff post on this very problem. Here is additional reading for everyone. We have such a long way to go Thanks Vu for keeping everyone in reality of all ethnicities.

    White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack Can be found as a pdf if you google.

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gina-crosleycorcoran/explaining-white-privilege-to-a-broke-white-person_b_5269255.html?ncid=engmodushpmg00000003

  • Denice Rothman Hinden

    Vu, you strike a cord for things I am thinking about and been able to put the right words too. I appreciate all the resources you mentioned as well. Your care and candor makes this piece a wonderful framework to expand this conversation. I plan to give your words a lot of thought, share your ideas broadly and expand the conversation in my networks. Thank you.

  • Lisa Daleiden-Brugman

    Well put as always, Vu,

  • Patrick Taylor

    Great post. I think many of us when we are being “color-blind” we are treating people equally regardless of their skin color, but the actual term more often that not means that we are ignoring people who don’t look like us, or worse, hiding behind a veneer of “i’m totally not racist!” to ignore or exacerbate inequality.

    As a side note, does anyone else find “Everday Feminism” to be aggravating? Even if I often agree with their viewpoint, there is something about the listicle format and scolding tone of that site that drives me crazy and feels not super helpful.

  • Sheri Simonsen

    Even though we ain’t got money, I’m so in love with you honey…

  • Pat Ryan

    Great post! And I’ve often wanted to tell you what a chuckle I get each week with your detailed picture description. It’s always so annoying when people post a picture and then note every detail as if the reader can’t see for themselves! Except, of course, when you do it, it’s beautiful understated sarcasm.

    • Mariel Rieland

      Image descriptions are for people who are visually impaired and require text-to-speech services to access the internet. They are supposed to be very detailed. It is not for people who can see it for themselves.

      • Pat Ryan

        Well, duh, I feel so stupid! I never thought of that, never heard of that and obviously really just stuck my foot in my mouth. Thank you, Mariel, for the education!

        • Mariel Rieland

          Of course!! I don’t know a lot about them myself, but have some friends who are very conscious of posting image descriptions whenever they share a photo on Facebook so I have learned a lot from them!!

        • Abigail Soto

          Pat, this is a perfect example of how to accept responsibility without deflecting because of potential embarrassment. Thank you for your honest and thoughtful reply.

  • N Lu

    Eloquently stated, Vu. I’ve never commented before, but I read your posts weekly and find tremendous inspiration from them. And because I know you’d want to know, you have an error in the last paragraph: “We are calling it the Get and Beer…” should be “We are calling it the Get a Beer…” Cheers! 🙂

  • Michael Brand

    Sure, all these identities shape a person’s experience, but each individual is shaped in different ways. That’s where much of the diversity talk fails. It is shepherding individuals into corrals based upon surface characteristics which strip them of all personal agency for their lives. But worse, it fosters intellectual bubbles which coerce people into thinking the same way lest they be expelled into the “out group”. Want a concrete example? Next time you see a program acknowledging African-Americans of high achievement in contemporary society, ask yourself why Clarence Thomas is frequently not mentioned.

    • Lisa Barton

      Maybe Judge Thomas isn’t mentioned because of his history as a sexual harasser, and he isn’t exactly a stand out on SCOTUS. Not sure what point you’re trying to make except still arguing for the blind side?

      • Michael Brand

        Lisa, have you read any of the queer theorist Judith Butler? She was an eerily prescient observer that ‘identity politics” would be used as a tool to organize people into silos rather than view them as fluid individuals. Must admit when I first read Gender Trouble in the 90s it went totally over my head. But as the years went by I could see more and more of her argument

  • Melissa C.

    Very great points, well-written and educational as always, though I need to read it again after discussing this point that is sticking with me… can we define what we mean by “color-blind”? It seems to be a term that’s just used because it seems descriptive, but obviously it’s not concise enough. I’ve used it before in relation to how I’ve related with a rainbow of co-workers. We’d good-naturedly acknowledge and sometimes joke about our backgrounds, cultures, race, genders, etc., while getting to be so close we are good friends/like family and therefore no longer “see” differences, even though we kind of do, but not really unless we take a step back and look objectively. It’s also used for young children who play well together before they are taught bias. My own extended family is quite a mix, which keeps things interesting. Maybe a different term should be used? Is that my privilege and fragility talking? I identify with the relatively oppressed side of my family though it’s stealthy, as visually and culturally I fit right in with the mainstream, so I don’t presume to totally understand the preferences of POC and try to just listen.

  • Rebecca Stratosphere

    TLDR: I was raised colourblind and it made me judge people.

    When I was a kid, I was raised to be colour-blind. I thought everyone was equal. But I didn’t understand why there were so many Indigenous kids failing at life. Poverty, alcohol, drugs, and when I got older, I learned about sexual and physical abuse. Because I was assuming I lived in a meritocracy, I looked down on these people.

    Then in the late 1990s, Canada released the beginning of a report on Residential Schools, which were designed to exterminate our First Nations populations and cultures. Children were removed (often forcibly) from their families for approximately 150 years. Forced to speak English or French; to be Christian; abused. Lots of Canadians knew about these schools, of course, but it wasn’t taught in school. People in my generation had no idea about these, and thought that the Indigenous people were just lazy!

    Now the Indigenous population suffers from an epidemic of intergenerational trauma. People who choose to be informed can then understand why these communities suffer and struggle, and can sometimes even help.

    This is why we say “Black lives matter” although we know that “ALL” lives matter; it’s because we see the systemic injustices caused by the dominant society, and can’t help enable/cause/whatever your approach change unless we understand the issue in context.

  • Abigail Soto

    Vu, this is so excellent. One of the things I find most difficult is talking to ‘well-meaning’ friends about racism. I feel like your tone and layout of your argument are really, really helpful. I want to know how to call people in rather than call them out and this post so perfectly demonstrates how to do just that. Please know I will be using it as a teaching tool!

  • Lauren Benning-Williams

    This was an excellent article. As a black woman, your article spoke to me in so many ways. Very eloquent and right on time. I regularly have this conversation with my black colleagues. We all feel like we can’t engage in this conversation with our white colleagues (liberal or otherwise) because they refuse to focus on the fact that race is important.

  • Molly Welsh

    Thank you for this article. All the yes.

  • cffl

    Yes, Skin color really does matter (sarcasm). Colored people really need help and are defined by their group of skin tone only (sarcasm). They need leaders and “experts” they can follow and tell them how to live and who to hate (sarcasm). I love you guys, but you are all sadly racists if you believe this nonsense. Yes, that’s right. You are racists if you believe this. There’s nothing true nor moral in defining people from their skin color. (in the real term, not the new nonsense terms like color brave. Really? color brave? The manipulation is so obvious). Stop spreading the victim mentality. It’s arrogant, smug and self righteous. We are humans. Some decent, some indecent. I judge by the character of a man, period.

  • Eric Burgess

    Respectfully, I disagree. You, yes, I mean you of another race other than white (since you don’t want me to be color blind) can’t have your cake and eat it too. Let me explain.

    On one hand, you don’t want us to be color blind. At the same time, so many of you hate it when we ask questions like “what are you?” or “where are you from?” There are countless posts on Medium.com about this topic and how it annoys you so much, which I completely understand! But now… you say you also don’t want us to be color blind?!! WTH? Make up your mind already, you guys.

    I have to say that I love the fact that my children, 4 and 7, do not see color. It makes me happy. Example: we were recently watching the Today Show and my son made a comment about Al Roker and the way he described him really made me proud. He said something like “Dad, look at the cool tie that bald guy is wearing.” The way I grew up, I would have said… “Look at the tie the cool tie that black guy is wearing.”

    You get the point. I’m raising color-blind kids and I’m damn proud of it.

    • Rudy Batooty

      …”so many of you”
      “make up your mind already, you guys”

      Holy crap man. You should have a talk with yourself about how you really feel. It doesn’t really help a productive conversation when you’re just flooding it with language that shows a ton of built up resentment against “those guys.”