Prof. Evan Apfelbaum: A blind pursuit of racial colorblindness — Research has implications for how companies manage multicultural teams

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Evan Apfelbaum

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.

In a string of experiments* I ran with colleagues at Harvard and Tufts, we asked participants—white college students—to complete a photo recognition exercise, similar to the children’s board game Guess Who? We paired participants with either a white or black partner who was secretly part of our experiment. The participant was seated before 30 photographs of people of varying race, gender, age, and body type, while the partner held a target photo of one of the faces. The goal was for participants to ascertain which photo from the array their partner was holding by asking as few yes or no questions as possible.

Now, of course one of the fastest ways to arrive at the correct answer would have been to ask: “Is your person black?,” but we found that participants were reluctant to do so, particularly when their partner was black. It was surprising: we weren’t talking about allegations of racism at a company or some other racially-charged context, the paradigm is an adaptation of a children’s board game.

To examine the question of when this behavior emerges, we conducted a similar experiment** with elementary school children. These results offered an interesting twist. We ran the experiment with a group of eight and nine-year-olds, and a group of 10 and 11-year-olds. What we found is that the eight and nine-year-olds actually outperformed the 10- and 11-year-olds—they were more efficient at narrowing down the array to target photo. Why? Because the younger children had no qualms about asking the race question.

It turns out that around age 10, children start to have the ability to understand social norms regarding race and political correctness and understand that their responses may give others the impression that they have violated these norms. To the 8- and 9-year-olds, this is merely a photo identification task, but beginning at around 10 years of age, this becomes more of a social exercise than a cognitive one.

The ostensible reason why the participants refused to broach the topic of race is that they didn’t want to appear racist. In later studies, we explore the consequences of this approach, namely whether whites who avoid mentioning race look less prejudiced in the eyes of black observers. To do so, we showed videos of white participants completing the Guess Who task in which they either talk about race early on or not all. It turned out that avoiding race was an ineffective means to seeming unbiased, and—more importantly—it backfired. Those participants who avoided race—the very individuals most motivated by politically correct concerns—were ironically perceived as more biased in the eyes of black observers.

While colorblindness may reflect a well-intentioned effort to avoid prejudice—or the appearance thereof—it does not work in the way that people tend to think it does. In some ways, I think of colorblindness as a bad strategy to achieve a worthy goal. Consider, for instance, a person who is trying to lose weight by curbing his appetite for fast food. He may attempt to do this by skipping meals, or suppressing thoughts of fast food altogether. But studies show that skipping meals predicts weight gain—not loss—and that suppressing thoughts of fast food only increases the likelihood of such thoughts.

Future research is needed to more fully test the viability of colorblindness and other approaches to race in contemporary organizations, institutions, and interpersonal contexts. Yet, one conclusion is already clear: shutting our eyes to the complexities of race does not make them disappear, but does makes it hard to see that colorblindness often creates more problems than it solves.

* Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Evaluating Strategic Colorblindness in Social Interaction; Evan P. Apfelbaum and Samuel R. Sommers, Michael I. Norton, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 918-932

** Apfelbaum, E. P., Pauker, K., Ambady, N., Sommers, S. R., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Learning (not) to talk about race: When older children underperform in social categorization. Developmental Psychology, 44, 1513-1518.

Evan P. Apfelbaum is an Assistant Professor of Organizational Studies at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

Read more in: The Boston Herald

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