Should We Embrace Race in the Workplace and School?

by Ean Tam, January 16, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

As a student of the New York City public education system, I have always been in a diverse environment. For instance, my elementary and middle schools had an annual Multicultural Day Fair. The younger students performed traditional dances from different cultures, while the older students set up tents around the campus and presented research they had done on specific countries or an influential person. I enjoyed the Multicultural Day Fair, but I never thought of it as anything particularly special. It was just an event that I had always participated in since kindergarten. A few years into high school is when I realized that not all schools in America are as diverse as mine and how diversity can be a privilege. What diversity has taught me in terms of social interactions with people of other backgrounds is not a lesson that every person in America has the opportunity of receiving. However, in today’s world, where companies and firms can draw in employees from all across America and the world, employees may find themselves in workplaces where a majority of their coworkers are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Schools are another part of society in which people may experience culture shocks or accidentally stumble into a cultural clash. Employers and school administrations may try to mediate these differences by encouraging either of the two strategies: color blindness or multiculturalism. The colorblind strategy advocates for people to be oblivious of race, whereas the multicultural strategy embraces race. Having been accustomed to the multicultural mindset all my life, I want to explore how the colorblind strategy compares. How successful is the colorblind strategy not only in leading people to ignore race, but also in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? 

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump introduced her father, Donald Trump, and claimed, “He recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it. He is colorblind and gender neutral.” Evidently, she has linked color blindness as a means of seeing a person’s true worth—what he or she can bring to the table is more important than his or her race. This very same idea is highlighted in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The notion that our personal attributes solely define who we are is very attractive. So, it is not hard to see why a colorblind strategy would be implemented in a company or school. But how successful is the colorblind implementation when it comes to people looking beyond a person’s race? Research suggests grim potential for the colorblind strategy. In a study conducted at Dartmouth College, researchers Dr. Jennifer A. Richeson and Dr. Richard J. Nussbaum found that participants who had been told the colorblind strategy was most ideal in a diverse setting were more likely to show signs of racial bias versus the participants who had been told the multicultural strategy was better (419-421). The research  participants were presented with names and were asked to categorize them as “White” or “Black” names, and they were presented with pleasant and unpleasant stimuli and were asked to categorize them as “Good” or “Bad.” Richeson and Nussbaum observed students of the colorblind group took longer to categorize negative stimuli as either “Black” or “Bad,” but were faster to categorize positive stimuli as either “White” or “Good.” They interpreted this discrepancy as a sign of the students’ racial bias. This categorizing system may seem like unconvincing evidence of bias. However, this system, called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), is well known and utilized by researchers to find the true attitudes people do not want to admit (“Implicit Association Test”). Richeson and Nussbaum’s research suggests that even the very idea of the colorblind strategy being successful was enough to create a considerable amount of racial bias within the students. The participants in this study were participating on their own free will without any personal repercussions (Richeson and Nussbaum 419-421). So this makes me wonder, what would be the effects on workers who have to keep a colorblind mindset since their paycheck depends on it? 

Dr. Michael I. Norton et al. of Harvard Business School demonstrate how color blindness affects work productivity and interactions between black and white coworkers. Norton et al. concluded that white workers were more productive with other white workers and communicated more in order to complete the task at hand (950). This ease of communication was facilitated because the white worker was more willing to use specific terms such as “black” and “African-American” when doing a categorizing activity. However, when the white workers were put in the same situation but with a black coworker, white coworkers no longer had the confidence to use those specific terms regarding race. Norton et al. explain that interactions between the black and white coworkers went further downhill as the white coworkers’ “… attempts to appear color-blind—by avoiding race—are accompanied by additional costs: less friendly nonverbal behaviors” (950). I found the results of this article interesting because it presents the colorblind strategy unintentionally becoming a form of extra-baggage in someone’s head. Instead of focusing and being able to communicate freely, a person who is attempting to be colorblind is carefully watching every one of his or her words. Now, I do not interpret (and I am sure the researchers do not imply it either) that being able to “communicate freely” means being able to mention race as comfortably as one likes. Not at all. “Communicate freely” is just everyday conversation that we should all be able to engage in. The colorblind strategy makes the everyday conversation subject to paranoia and increased self-restraint. Much like how a germaphobe is too afraid to venture outside because germs may or may not be on the next door handle, coworkers may be skeptical of those from other backgrounds because an accidental racial offense may or may not be lingering in the next conversation. As a result, coworker interactions are limited, brief, and uncordial. 

It is important to note that the workers described in the above study were not committing any kind of discrimination by limiting their interactions with black coworkers. They just did not want to be put out of their comfort zone, and that in itself should be convincing enough that the colorblind strategy is flawed. However, there is more research contributing to a narrative that the colorblind strategy separates people more than it brings them together. While the research mentioned so far has been focused on coworker-to-coworker interactions and not so much coworker-to-employer interactions, the research concerning education policy is just about equally focused on teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions. This should give some insight into how the colorblind strategy affects authority and how such effects trickle down. 

Ideally, a successful educational system is one that makes every student feel welcome and comfortable to learn the material. In 2017, the United States Department of Education published a report stating, “Achieving a diverse student population in a given school building is a major accomplishment, but additional efforts are important to avoid the replication of inequities and disparities in achievement and access within a school that has a diverse student population” (18). This report takes the stance that a diverse student body will not automatically find its own way of including every student on the same path to success. Surprisingly, the twenty page report makes no specific reference to multicultural or colorblind strategies (it does not even use any form of the word “multicultural”). Although the US Department of Education report does not stress a particular strategy, it does advise school districts to consult legal experts if the school districts wish to recognize students’ race and cultural background (5). The report also emphasizes the importance of funding if a school wants to increase diversity because proper funding is necessary to enroll students from outside of their own districts (5). The US Department of Education report has made it seem that recognizing race, cultural backgrounds, and increasing diversity is quite the hassle: legal consulting, examining state and local laws, and allocating the proper funds. It may be possible that the colorblind strategy is an easier strategy to apply in schools than the multicultural strategy. A colorblind strategy ignores race, thus relieving any obligation a school administration may feel to increase the diversity of the student body. Not only does the colorblind strategy have an idealistic “I recognize people for their worth” mentality, but it can also be more practical and convenient. As mentioned earlier, this US Department of Education report was published in 2017, but the colorblind strategy and diversity in schools have been issues long before then. What is the historical basis for the colorblind strategy? 

Dr. Subini Ancy Annamma and co-researchers of the Stanford Graduate School of Education argue the persistence of the colorblind mindset in education is a result of the misinterpretation of a dissenting opinion from the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case (147). The lone dissent in the case by Justice John Marshall Harlan stated, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law” (559). Annamma et al. see these two lines of Harlan’s dissent to be the root of colorblind policies not only in schools, but also in society in general. Annamma says it is important to understand that just because Harlan says all the laws of the land are colorblind does not equate to Harlan believing race is irrelevant in all matters (Annamma et al. 147). However, it would appear that Harlan’s dissent has indeed been taken as an advocacy for the colorblind strategy for an all-purpose use. In the years following Plessy v. Ferguson, “[a]ccording to the liberal discourse that has developed in the post-Jim Crow era, a good citizen is colorblind” (Choi 56). So, color blindness has become a methodology of progressives to combat the idea of “separate but equal.” While well-intentioned as a means to combat discrimination, the colorblind strategy in contemporary times has actually been shown to encourage discrimination and discourage inclusiveness in schools. 

In a 2016 article published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Yale University researchers Aragón, Dovidio, and Graham defined inclusiveness as a means “to increase retention and enhance the achievements of people of color and women in STEM education, research, academic, and public sector careers” (201). Aragón et al. focused on the attendance of teachers to the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Science Education, which  aims to promote inclusive teaching methods in schools. According to the post-attendance data, teachers who endorsed the colorblind strategy were less likely to implement inclusive teaching methods and activities and were more easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea. The teachers who endorsed the multicultural strategy had the exact opposite results—they supported inclusive teaching and were not easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea (210). Based on the results of Aragón et al., I interpret the colorblind strategy as a mindset that minimizes the needs of different groups. Schools may inadvertently leave some students behind because recognizing the students’ differences would disrupt the schools’ commitment to the colorblind strategy. 

While I am alarmed that teachers of the colorblind mindset would so easily dismiss inclusive programs, I am not surprised that teachers of the multicultural mindset were open to more inclusive teaching practices. Relating back to my own personal experience, I see now the efforts my elementary and middle school teachers made in order for every student to feel included. For example, whenever a cultural holiday would be approaching, our teachers would ask students of that culture to explain the importance of the holidays and traditions involved. It was not awkward or a forced one-off moment in class. The teachers would try to incorporate the holiday into the day’s lesson. In hindsight, I see how important such activities were to making us feel that we all had an equal opportunity to contribute to the class. We were not just students listening to the teacher—we had something to offer. Applying the evidence provided by Aragón et al., I can presume that if my school had embraced the colorblind strategy, no such activities would have taken place. We would have lost out on a chance to build a personal connection to our teacher and class. 

Inclusiveness may not be a priority for teachers of the colorblind mindset, but the reduction of discrimination in schools is a common goal for both the colorblind and multicultural strategies. In spite of that, the colorblind strategy has been found to decrease students’ ability to recognize discrimination when they see it. In a study of elementary grade students, Dr. Evan Apfelbaum et al. of Northwestern University investigated how the colorblind and multicultural mindsets affected the students’ responses to various scenarios (1587). In one scenario, a white classmate physically harmed a black classmate and then justified his actions by stating the black classmate would play rough too since he is black. Only 50% of the colorblind group of students said the black student had been discriminated against. In the multicultural “value-diversity mind-set” group, 77% of those students reported discrimination (1589-1590). Based on this data, I cannot trust any pro-colorblind school administration that touts a decreased rate of discrimination or bullying on the basis of race. I have no way of knowing whether the colorblind strategy actually decreased acts of discrimination or merely decreased the rate of reporting of such acts. 

On the other hand, if a school following the multicultural strategy reported a decrease in discrimination, there is data suggesting the multicultural mindset was actually responsible. In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, Dr. Frances E. Aboud and Dr. Anne Beth Doyle assessed the attitudes and interactions of high- and low-prejudiced students. After discussing race with low-prejudiced students, the high-prejudiced students “became significantly less prejudiced in their evaluation” of others, especially if the low-prejudice students expanded on the similarities among people of different racial backgrounds (161). Aboud and Doyle’s advice: allow students to talk about race and start the conversation early on. If left unattended, students with prejudices and racial biases can grow up and allow these negative ideas to manifest and grow stronger. An open dialogue of race is essential to ridding students of any prejudices they may have. A colorblind school would frown upon discussions of race, and the students are deprived of an opportunity to learn how their prejudices were misguided. This not only affects a student’s behavior (whether or not he or she will discriminate), but also how he or she will interpret other’s behavior (deciding whether or not another student’s discrimination is wrong). 

Of course, it is not to be implied that colorblind students are prejudiced and that is why they do not report discrimination. Dr. Janet W. Schofield of the University of Pittsburg offers insight into the minds of the students who are aware of discrimination but decide not to report it. Schofield studied middle schools that insisted their student body were colorblind. Her data is especially valuable because Schofield did not impose the conditions on the students. The behavior she observed was the result of a long term institution of the colorblind strategy (268). To put in perspective of how long the colorblind strategy had been imposed on these students, one student was bewildered when Schofield told him Martin Luther King Jr. was African-American (280). In one school, Schofield noticed students had a harder time reporting any kind of problems—not necessarily problems of discrimination, just basic classroom complaints—because the students did not want to use race as a description. Schofield acknowledges that students in this particular middle school “[w]ere well aware that making references to race displeased many of their teachers and might also offend peers” (273). As a result, students, fearful of retaliation for identifying others by race, were hesitant to come forward when real problems arose. The students were clearly aware of their teachers’ colorblind expectations and—given the teacher-student relationship—conformed without question. The colorblind mindset does not solve the issue of discrimination in schools; rather, it merely shoves it under the rug and forces students to turn a blind eye. 

We can now see the parallelism between the workplace and the school setting. Schofield showed us that in colorblind situations, students will be mindful of their every word when reporting to teachers because they fear their teachers’ discipline. Recall Norton’s et al. study in which white coworkers became less friendly and communicative in order to appear colorblind; they too were filtering their words of any suggestions of race. Although differing in age and circumstance, students and workers manifest similar behavior when in colorblind situations. Both inhibit their everyday behavior in order to spare themselves an unpleasant reprimand from the authorities who implemented the colorblind policy. Given this parallelism, we can now return to previous studies and make a few assumptions. Apfelbaum et al. found students of the colorblind mindset to be oblivious of clear cases of discrimination; thus, workers will also be incognizant of racial injustices in the workplace. Aragón et al. exhibited colorblind-endorsing teachers to be opposed to inclusive teaching strategies; thus, colorblind-endorsing employers will also show distaste for programs to coalesce diverse workplaces. 

My personal experience convinced me that the multicultural strategy is effective in creating a cooperative and supportive environment. Examining the evidence, it is difficult to say the same for the colorblind strategy. Schools and businesses may find the colorblind strategy attractive due to its convenience and historical context, but they should consider the actual ramifications of imposing it. Is the colorblind strategy successful in making people oblivious of another’s race? No. The colorblind strategy encourages internal racial bias in coworkers. Given the similarities between worker and student behavior in colorblind situations, it is reasonable to believe that students would just as likely develop internal racial biases in school. Is the colorblind strategy successful in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? Being that the colorblind strategy deters everyday conversation and work productivity, synergy may be hard to find. How does the multicultural strategy fare, provided the research and not just my personal experience? From the same studies, multiculturalism does what the colorblind strategy cannot. Inclusiveness is prioritized, and discrimination is recognized and—most importantly—reported. Multiculturalism does not mean students or coworkers have to address ethnicity in every conversation, but at least multiculturalism allows for that conversation to happen. Multiculturalism can disprove prejudices and improve our understanding of those who are culturally and racially different from ourselves. Acknowledging the research, the colorblind strategy would be an ill-advised imposition in both schools and workplaces.


Works Cited

Aboud, Frances E., and Anne B. Doyle. “Does Talk of Race Foster Prejudice or Tolerance in Children?” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, vol. 28, no. 3, 1996, pp. 161-170. EBSCOhost, doi.org/10.1037/0008-400X.28.3.161

Annamma, Subini A., Darrell D. Jackson, and Deb Morrison. “Conceptualizing Color-Evasiveness: Using Dis/ Ability Critical Race Theory to Expand a Color-Blind Racial Ideology in Education and Society.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-162. Taylor & Francis Journals, doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016. 1248837

Apfelbaum, Evan P., Kristin Pauker, Samuel R. Sommers and Nalini Ambady. “In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality?” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1587-1592. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41062417

Aragón, Oriana R., John F. Dovidio, and Mark J. Graham. “Colorblind and Multicultural Ideologies Are Associated With Faculty Adoption of Inclusive Teaching Practices.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, vol. 10, no. 3, 2016, pp. 201-215. PsycARTICLES, doi:10.1037/dhe0000026

Choi, Jung-ah. “Unlearning Colorblind Ideologies in Education Class.” Educational Foundations, vol. 22, no. 3-4, 2008, pp. 53-71. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ857639&site=ehost-live&scope=site

“Implicit Association Test.” Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/odcc /implicit_association_test.html.

Norton, Michael I., Samuel R. Summers, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Natassia Pura, and Dan Ariely. “Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction: Playing the Political Correctness Game.” Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 11, 2006, pp. 949-953. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=17176425&site=ehost-live &scope=site

Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Supreme Court of the United States, supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/163/537/

Richeson, Jennifer A., and Richard J. Nussbaum. “The Impact of Multiculturalism Versus Color-Blindness on Racial Bias.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 40, no. 3, 2004, pp. 417-423. Science Direct, doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.09.002

Schofield, Janet W. “The Colorblind Perspective in School: Causes and Consequences.” Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Eds. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. 5th ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005, pp. 265-281. 

Trump, Ivanka. Republican National Convention, 21 July 2016, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Introductory Speech. Time, time.com/4417579/republican-convention -ivanka-trump-transcript/

United States, Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Improving Outcomes for All Students: Strategies and Considerations to Increase Student Diversity.” Diversity & Opportunity, 19 January 2017, ed.gov/diversity-opportunity.


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