Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

''I don't think we're supposed to be talking about this...''

The problems with pretending not to notice race.
Guess Who?Q: "I haven't seen the new guy at the office yet. Do you know what he looks like?"  A: "Oh, he's about my height, broad-shouldered, mid-30's, dresses really well, always smiling... also he's... (voice lowered to a whisper) Black..."

There is a growing trend in America today, especially among Whites, to embrace the idea of colorblindness when it comes to race relations. Mind you, I'm not really talking about the dream articulated by Martin Luther King four decades ago, that one day his children would be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin. No, I'm referring to literal colorblindness whereby Whites claim that they don't even so much as notice the race of other people around them.

Have you ever had a conversation like the fictional one above, in which the person you're talking to (or you yourself) have hesitated before using race to describe someone? Even when mentioning race would so would be a perfectly reasonable way to disambiguate who it is you're trying to describe? This is the type of colorblindness I'm describing.

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Or the observations of Janet Schofield, a psychologist who conducted a study of a junior high school in which the teachers claimed not to notice the race of their students and went to comical lengths to avoid any mention of race in the classroom. She reported the amazing story that one of the students in the class was quite surprised to learn during an interview with the research team that Dr. King was Black, not White.

Or the reader responses to one of my previous entries, in which I had argued that race was a factor in the unpopularity of the 2004 U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Of course, many respondents denied that they were influenced by race in rooting against this team, but one reader went so far as to offer the the I didn't even notice they were Black argument: "Yes, I am one who didn't care if this team lost. But no, I don't remember whether I noticed their complexion." 

Or the example provided by another astute observer of human nature, Stephen Colbert. You'll find his entertaining depiction of this type of colorblindness at about 2:56 of this interview clip with Bill Rhoden of the New York Times.

What is behind this effort to avoid acknowledging that we even notice racial difference? Typically, it's the thought that if I don't even notice race, then I know I won't be called a racist. In other words, colorblindness has emerged in many circles as the safe way to handle the potentially dicey topic of race.

You can see this mentality in tendency of many White Americans to prefer a root canal to any discussion about race. You can see it when individuals who do raise issues related to race, even when not allegations of racism per se, are dismissed out of hand for unnecessarily "playing the race card." You can see it in the fact that simply talking about race is often enough to get people riled enough to accuse you of being racist (again, see responses to the same basketball-related entry).

What to make of this tendency from a psychological perspective? In an article in the October Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my collaborators at Tufts (Evan Apfelbaum) and Harvard (Mike Norton) and I argue that such claims of literal colorblindness are nothing more than strategic efforts to avoid appearing prejudiced in public.

In examining this tendency, we had research participants play an adult version of the children's game Guess Who? Playing with a partner, participants' job was to ask as few yes/no questions as possible in order to figure out which of an array of 32 photos (right) was the target photo the partner was holding. The photos in the array varied on a range of dimensions, with 50% on red backgrounds and 50% on blue backgrounds, 50% male and 50% female, and 50% White and 50% Black. So participants could have asked about a number of characteristics in completing the task, with questions about background color, gender, and race particularly good ones to ask in order to cut down the number of candidates by half.

How did people perform? Across multiple studies, when White participants were paired with a White partner, they did what you might expect: they asked about background color, they asked about gender, they asked about race. In fact, in one study they asked about race almost 90% of the time with a White partner.

But with a Black partner, their behavior was different. Whites did ask about background color with a Black partner. They did ask about gender. But they only asked about race 67% of the time. Instead, many Whites followed the lead of the hypothetical conversation partner in the opening of this entry: they talked about less helpful, less diagnostic information in the effort to avoid having to admit that they noticed race. And who was most likely to do this? Those Whites who admitted in a separate questionnaire that they try to avoid racial prejudice in public because they don't want to appear to be biased.

Was this strategy of seeking to appear colorblind a wise or adaptive one? Actually, far from it. Avoiding race in this task led pairs to perform more poorly, indicating that many Whites were willing to forsake group efficiency in the name of impression management. Furthermore, it turns out that participants didn't even make a good impression by avoiding race. We showed silent video clips of the participants completing the task to a different group of individuals. Those participants who avoided talking about race with a Black partner exhibited nonverbal signs of distraction and interpersonal coldness that actually led them to be rated more negatively by others.

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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