The dangers of a 'colorblind' workplace

Efforts to ignore racial differences in the workplace can make it harder for people to work together, writes Steve Kelman.

Steve Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

As a central part of the hiring process for junior faculty members in public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, candidates must present the research they’ve conducted. Most of the candidates we have heard from lately — like the majority of young organizational researchers these days — conduct their research in a lab setting or with so-called field experiments in which they use the experimental method in workplaces or other real venues.

One recent presentation was by Evan Apfelbaum of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management on the impact of talking vs. keeping silent about race in interpersonal interactions.

Apfelbaum started by noting the common view that it is best to be colorblind in the sense of not noticing the presence of racial differences in a group setting. He told the story of seeing a mother react with embarrassment in a supermarket checkout line when her small child loudly asked her, “Why is that man’s skin brown?”

In his first series of experiments, Apfelbaum showed white and Asian-American students an array of photos of people of various races and genders. Half the people in the photos were black, half were white. The students’ task was to identify which of the many photos the researcher across the table from them was thinking of. To solve the problem, the students could ask any questions they wanted about the people in the pictures, such as, “Does the person have bushy eyebrows?” “Does the person have blond hair?” Or even, “Is the person black?”

It turned out that if the researcher was white, the students were more likely to ask about the race of the person in question. But if the researcher was black, the white students were much less likely to ask that question.

To delve into the differences between the whites who asked about race with a black researcher and those who didn’t, Apfelbaum had another group of people watch videos of the interactions in which they could see facial expressions but not hear what was being said. The viewers thought the people who didn’t ask about race were less friendly than those who did. In their opinion, the former were ill at ease with the situation compared with those who asked about race.

Furthermore, although the whites who watched the videos rated those who avoided questions about race as less likely to be racially prejudiced, black viewers rated them as more likely to be racially prejudiced.

Ultimately, those who avoided asking about race were less efficient at gathering the information they needed to complete their task of identifying which photo the researcher had in mind.

In other experiments, Apfelbaum found that the colorblind approach is less likely to promote intervention against racially prejudiced behavior. A number of elementary school students watched one of two kid-oriented videos on promoting racial harmony. One video advocated colorblindness and the other sought acceptance of diversity. The kids then watched videos of a black child being treated inequitably. One video included a racial slur, while the situation was ambiguous in the other video. The kids then described the incident they had watched to a trained teacher.

The kids who had seen the colorblind video were less likely to describe the behavior toward the black child in a way that made the teacher feel the situation was serious enough to require intervention. In other words, the kids primed to be colorblind were less likely to notice or take seriously a racially oriented problem.

People in most workplaces, whether white or black, are aware of the skittishness that accompanies the idea of noticing or talking about race. Many whites, at least, believe that avoidance is more politically correct and signals a move beyond race or even thinking about race. The suggestion from this research is that such an approach, however well-intentioned, is not the best way to deal with issues of race in the workplace.

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