Larry, one of the employees you supervise, hasn’t been performing his job up to expectations. But you’ve been reluctant to take him aside and speak with him candidly: Like most senior people in the company, you are white. What if Larry, who is black, takes your criticism the wrong way or, worse, thinks you are racist?
The last thing you want is for others to think your actions were influenced by race. So you’ve held off talking to him about performance issues that you’d likely have raised with your non-minority employees. You’re relieved that a potentially thorny situation was averted, even pleased with your capacity to be so racially sensitive.
My research investigates the science of diversity. Some of the questions I’ve been working on lately explore what strategies people use to appear unprejudiced in social situations, and to what extent these efforts are effective.
Ever see the Colbert Report on Comedy Central? One of Stephen Colbert’s recurring jokes is that he is “racially colorblind.” Colbert, the political satirist who portrays a self-important right wing commentator, says things like: “I don’t see race … People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I own a lot of Jimmy Buffett albums.” His colorblindness is a running joke and repeated on the show with different punch lines some tamer than others.
It’s a very funny routine. And Stephen Colbert gets away with it because he’s a comedian. But in the real world, racial colorblindness is a tricky subject. In my research, I’ve discovered that people who claim to be colorblind and go to great pains to avoid talking about race during social interactions, are in fact perceived as more prejudiced by black observers than people who openly acknowledge race.