Colorblindness: the New Racism?

Kawania Wooten’s voice tightens when she describes the struggle she’s having at the school her son attends. When his class created a timeline of civilization, Wooten saw the Greeks, the Romans and the Incas. But nothing was said about Africa, even though the class has several African American students.

Wooten, who is black, spoke to the school’s director, a white woman — who insisted that the omission wasn’t racially biased.

“Her first comment was, ‘you know, we’ve just been following the curriculum. We’re not talking about whether people are white or black,’” recalls Wooten, who lives in Bowie, Md. “I said that the children have eyes and they can see. And I’d like them to see that our culture was a strong, viable culture.”

That kind of story brings a groan from Mark Benn, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Colorado State University. He hears similar tales whenever he delivers lectures about race relations.

Such incidents are examples of  racial “colorblindness” — the idea that ignoring or overlooking racial and ethnic differences promotes racial harmony.

Trainers and facilitators say colorblindness does just the opposite: folks who enjoy racial privilege are closing their eyes to the experiences of others.

“It benefits me not to pay attention,” says Benn, who is white. “I never have to question whether or not my race is being held in question when I apply for a job. It benefits me not to question that (because) it makes it look like I got here on my own.”

Paying attention to the cultural experience of students is becoming increasingly important, given the differences between the demographics of American students and their teachers. 

According to reports from the National Center for Education Statistics, roughly 80 percent of American teachers are white, while children of color make up more than 40 percent of the student body.

As the nation’s demographics shift, the sight of a white teacher leaning over the desk of a brown or black student is likely become more and more common. In order to be effective, teachers will have to learn about the cultural experiences of their students, while using these experiences as a foundation for teaching. The approach is called culturally relevant pedagogy. 

But that is hard to do if a teacher doesn’t see differences as valuable. That means the blinders have to come off, says Randy Ross, a senior equity specialist at the New England Equity Assistance Center, a program of Brown University’s Education Alliance. Ross facilitates workshops on racism and culturally responsive teaching. And in her experience, white people have the hardest time opening their eyes.

“I have never heard a teacher of color say ‘I don’t see color,” Ross says. “There may be issues of cultural competence [among teachers of color], but colorblindness is not one of them. The core of ‘I don’t see color,’ is ‘I don’t see my own color, I don’t see difference because my race and culture is the center of the universe.’”

Such tunnel vision is the reason a teacher can omit Africa from a timeline of world civilizations, Ross says. Still, she cautions, the flaws of the colorblind approach run deeper than curriculum.

Failure to see and acknowledge racial differences makes it difficult to recognize the unconscious biases everyone has. Those biases can taint a teacher’s expectations of a student’s ability and negatively influence a student’s performance. Study after study has shown that low teacher expectations are harmful to students from socially stigmatized groups.

In her article “Culturally Responsive Pedagogy for the Nineties and Beyond”, Ana Maria Villegas pointed out that ignorance of cultural differences could lead teachers to “underestimate the true academic potential” of minority students.

“Teachers’ judgments on students’ potential have profound and long-lasting effects on students’ lives,” Villegas wrote. “For minority children in particular, such judgments or misjudgments may prove costly…

“The evidence is overwhelming. When compared to their ‘high-ability’ peers, ‘low-ability’ students are called on less often in class, given less time to respond, praised less frequently...and prompted less often in the case of incorrect responses.”

Ross says a teacher who professes to be “colorblind” is not going to understand how unconscious biases can influence expectations, actions, and even the way a teacher addresses students of color.

After talking to her son’s teacher, Kawania Wooten wondered whether her son was being harmed in just that way.

She’d asked for advice on helping the youngster complete a difficult project. Instead, the teacher immediately offered to give him easier work. Just as quickly, Wooten refused. Then she explained the racial subtext of the exchange: the white teacher doubted the intelligence of an African American child.

“I heard that expectations of my son were low,” Wooten says.

Such misunderstandings could be avoided, she believes, if the teacher learned some things about African American culture.

Society’s persistent segregation doesn’t make these interactions any easier, says Brown University’s Randy Ross.

“You don’t get comfortable talking about race by talking to people who look like yourself,” Ross notes.

The fear of appearing racist also throws up roadblocks. Ross recalled a workshop participant who said she’d been taught to ignore race when she’d gone to college in the 1950s. Now, the woman lamented, she was being urged to practice behavior she considered bigoted.

But claims of colorblindness really are modern-day bigotry, according to Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a sociology professor at Duke University. In his book White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, Bonilla-Silva argues that racism has become more subtle since the end of segregation. He considers colorblindness the common manifestation of the “new racism.”

“Whites believed that the Sixties was the end of racism,” says Bonilla-Silva, who is a Puerto Rican of African descent. “In truth, we have to admit that struggles of the Sixties and Seventies produced an alteration of the order.”

That alteration upended the rhetoric of the civil rights struggle, Bonilla-Silva said, so that historically oppressed groups would seem to be the perpetrators of discrimination, not its victims. As an example, he points to the way affirmative action foes buttressed their position with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s quote from the 1963 March on Washington.

“They say ‘like Martin Luther King, I believe that people should be judged by the content of their character.’ People eliminate the history and contemporary practice of discrimination and play the morality tale,” Bonilla-Silva says.

Building a bridge to another culture can be difficult, but rewarding, as Aileen Moffitt has seen during her 20 years at Prescott Elementary School in Oakland, Calif.

The 300-student population of the school is overwhelmingly black, but Latinos, Asian Americans, whites and Native Americans also attend.

Moffitt never claimed to be colorblind. Before becoming a teacher, she had quite a bit of interaction with African-American youngsters because she worked in the city’s parks and recreation department. She was surprised, then, when she had trouble reaching her students.

“I started as a well-intentioned white woman who was not awake,” she says with a deep laugh.

Moffitt found mentors in other veteran teachers who were African American. The women led the way when it came to integrating cultural references from their students’ backgrounds across the curriculum.

“My point is that it behooves us as educators to utilize the strengths that our children bring to the classroom — a rich language, a strong culture, a remarkable history. We do not need to be afraid of these strengths,” she wrote. “The children I teach are more likely to be productive members of society if they have a strong sense of self to accompany their mastery of the curriculum.”


Taste the Rainbow

Submitted by Anonymous on 26 June 2014 - 12:33am.

As an African American student in the 60's and 70's, I can recall many instances in school wherein I felt marginalized by the words and actions of my white teachers, and by the content of the curriculum that was being presented. Today as teacher and lifelong learner, I am encouraged by the move to recognize, embrace, understand, and celebrate the racial and cultural differences of our students.
We have come a long way, but we still have a long way to go. As people who educate the generations, we must realize that we cannot afford to be colorblind and fail to recognize the rainbow of hues present in our classrooms. We must seize the opportunity and fearlessly celebrate diversity. In doing so, we empower everyone who is present (including the teacher). If you are living in the fallacy of, "I don't see color when I look at my students", you are missing out on a wonderful experience. On the contrary, learning to see color will probably improve your efficacy as a teacher and as a person.

The ideal outcome of the

Submitted by Anonymous on 13 May 2014 - 1:14pm.

The ideal outcome of the philosophy of colorblindness is that we live in a society in which race simply has no social implication or value and does not exist. Disputing this by saying, "well racial privilege still exists, and you're giving yourself license to turn a blind eye", does not acknowledge that if the ideal outcome of colorblindness were achieved, such privileges would not exist to begin with. People continue to have disadvantages precisely because that ideal has not been realized, but you're not asking can that ideal be realized - you're saying "it hasn't been, so it shouldn't be." Your proposed solution is to instead recognize and appreciate ethnic and cultural differences -- but I'm asking, as long as such differences remain central to us and to our identity, mustn't preferences exist, and as long as preferences exist, won't loyalties exist?

Re-examing the focus

Submitted by Anonymous on 2 February 2014 - 12:50pm.

This article made me re-examine the famous americans I select for my second graders to study during our Social Studies unit. Of course, I ensured that black americans were represented. We read about Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jackie Robinson. I realized that the people I selected made contributions that dealt with overcoming racial bias, which is very important. However, in the future, I will include black americans who became known for their intellect and ingenuity, such as mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and agricultural chemist George Washington Carver.


Submitted by Anonymous on 26 March 2014 - 8:48am.

I commend educators like you who are open to learning about weak points of current curriculum and even re-examining curriculum that has been revised in the past. You make a great point about selecting blacks who became known for intellect and ingenuity. Thank you, thank you!

Embracing Color

Submitted by Anonymous on 3 June 2013 - 6:27am.

I think that when a child is younger one should be learning about other cultures,embracing there strengths,showing others "who they really are" by where they come from and encouraging one another. We need to have a multicultural curriculum to prepare the students and help them not to live closed color lives. A curriculum should have something for everyone. Ethic and cultural diversity should permeate the the total school environment. Some student are sheltered and don't know much about other cultures, or race. We need to open the eyes of the children and help them embrace color.
-chelsea m

This sounds like a Western

Submitted by taveteh on 29 August 2012 - 11:04pm.

This sounds like a Western Civilization class, which is why the students are studying Rome, Ancient Greece, etc.. These are the very beginnings of Western Civilization. IF you want your child to study Global Studies, then enroll your child in Global Studies. In doing so, your child will learn about all the great civilizations throughout history dating back to Ancient Summeria and the Akkadians. Also, I think I should point out that the Roman Empire spanned all of Northern Africa during its peak, so perhaps you should be more specific when you mention that you want your child to learn about African Culture. Overall, it just sounds to me like this parent has found something to be offended about. I mean, this is ridiculous and petty.

Wait a minute. It never said Western

Submitted by Anonymous on 21 August 2014 - 12:32am.

No one caught the error in the comment above. The article did not say the class was about Western Civilization which is European countries. The article did not say Western. It said a timeline of Civilization in a history class for young students. The parent was correct Africa shoukd be included as they had civilizations and Civ's don't run on a linear timeline. They rise and fall for various reasons. Now if the class truly was Western Civ it would be strange to talk about the great empires and Civ's in West Africa but that was not what the article said. It said a timeline of Civilizations and there were plenty in Africa thousands or hundreds of years ago. No one seemed to catch that in their response to the comment instead they went off on what Western Civ is and missed the entire point and chance to rebut the fallacy in the comment.

Portland, OR

What age level are we talking about?

Submitted by Anonymous on 20 June 2013 - 3:45pm.

I did not have a so-called Global Studies class until I was in high school. Even then, I believe it was one or two semesters and that's it. Which those of us who have studied at universities know is barely enough time to scratch the tip of the iceberg of any particular subject. When one reaches high school or college, there is a little more control over which classes one can enroll in. But I'm betting typical K-8 public school education is not going to give you history classes to choose from... Most students don't even move around to different teachers throughout the day until middle school/junior high so really, in the first several years of a child's education (very important time, though elementary), there is probably just a time each day that the students learn "history." From my own experience, that consists of mostly U.S. history, from the America is the Greatest Country in the World viewpoint. Though slavery was discussed, it wasn't discussed to the extent that made us truly aware of the horrible atrocities of the time.

Basically I'm saying that primary school history education is probably very general and I doubt you can just "enroll your child in Global Studies" if there are not different history classes to choose from... That seems to only be available post-adolescence. What are other people's experiences? Did your schools offer a selection of history classes before secondary/post-secondary education?

LB from Portland, Oregon

The Incas are not part of

Submitted by kp636 on 14 October 2012 - 11:11pm.

The Incas are not part of 'Western Civilization'. When the mother was talking about white bias in the history class, she mentioned that she also referred to visual representations. Although the Roman empire did include Norther Africa, I highly doubt that the visual depictions of the culture included dark-skinned people (even though this was the case in Rome and Greece)- even our history books have been altered to accommodate white supremacy, using color-blindness to deny this fact.

Dark-skinned people- whatever

Submitted by mariner on 16 October 2012 - 12:57pm.

Dark-skinned people- whatever name they go by- are part of world culture. So-called western civilization did not get here on its own; it just didn't spring from heaven; rather, it consists of accretions and accrued knowledge and practices from prior civilizations. As a matter of fact, 'western' is a moniker that means absolutely nothing- why not just say 'white'/European instead of fumbling with unwieldy themes. The assumption that 'westerners' are earth's special gift and/or whatever, is one of the most pernicious myths ever propagated. Today we stand on the edge of the precipice- and I wonder what future generations will say about 'western' civilization- western abyss? Indeed, the Incas are part of world/western civilizations: without the Incas or Asiatic-type people, there would be no Western. You can go back even further, and you might begin to recognize the utter ridiculousness of the moniker

"Kawania Wooten’s voice

Submitted by on 26 June 2011 - 12:05pm.

"Kawania Wooten’s voice tightens when she describes the struggle she’s having at the school her son attends. When his class created a timeline of civilization, Wooten saw the Greeks, the Romans and the Incas. But nothing was said about Africa, even though the class has several African American students.

Wooten, who is black, spoke to the school’s director, a white woman — who insisted that the omission wasn’t racially biased.

“Her first comment was, ‘you know, we’ve just been following the curriculum. We’re not talking about whether people are white or black,’” recalls Wooten, who lives in Bowie, Md. “I said that the children have eyes and they can see. And I’d like them to see that our culture was a strong, viable culture.”

Possibly the discussion was based primarily western civilization.....maybe the board of education should be notified as to teach African civilization in compilation with the other.

Saying this class pertains to

Submitted by Kristal c on 13 October 2012 - 10:55pm.

Saying this class pertains to western civilization and that's why African people were excluded is problematic. It presumes that black and African people contributed and are contributing nothing to western civilization. I think it's also important that readers who are quick to jump to that conclusion ask themselves why it is that students generally have more access to and interest in western (read:primarily white) history . Really all of the justification that goes on regarding representations of people of color are just attempts to ignore the fact that this culture is very Eurocentric .

This isn't just not picking or looking for something to be upset about as another commenter stated. It has an impact on the psyche of children when all they know of their history is that they are the descendents of slaves. That is placed against a backdrop of other students who can claim with the support of a Eurocentric curriculum that their descendants built countries, founded democracy, traveled the globe and concurred distant lands (a story that should be told from the perspective of the colonized more often), were great inventors, and started revolutions.

love this discussion. keep

Submitted by Anonymous on 23 January 2013 - 8:03am.

love this discussion. keep gleaning.

Teachers must teach and tell

Submitted by Anonymous on 3 June 2013 - 9:37pm.

Teachers must teach and tell the truth about civilization. Many white teachers do not know the truth because they have been raised to think their truth is the truth!!! Africans were civilized people before and after the white man came. The teacher should have included the African presents. There is scientific proof the Garden of Eden was in Africa. Ask the white archeologist, from Arizona, who founded it!!! Why is it difficulty for some white people to accept the facts about people of color around the world? Don’t’ destroy the world because you think it is your’s and you hate people of color. If you have a religious faith or background then you should know; he who mistreats his brothers mistreats me!

Where it begins

Submitted by Anonymous on 23 July 2013 - 9:30pm.

Much of the historical content found in history books and curriculums across the nation have a small amount of information on African civilization and its contributions, because of this some teachers who are not of African American descent often find it difficult to teach or have valuable discussions about Africa or African contributions. This is due in apart to lack of knowledge and a very low comfort level. If parents really want things to change and students to be immersed in a more balanced multicultural education then they need to appeal first to school districts, boards of education and the textbook industry and then let it all trickle down.