The Science of Small Talk: What Not to Say

Color blindness is a learned skill—and one we can do without.

By Sam Sommers Ph.D., published on May 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

A mother checks out the produce while her 3-year-old happily jabbers away from his perch at the front of their grocery cart. In the midst of an exuberant soliloquy lengthy enough to make Shakespeare or Joe Biden proud, the young boy suddenly points to a fellow shopper and exclaims, "Mommy, look—that man has a brown face!"

How will Mommy respond? By smiling? Perhaps with, Why, yes, he does, and you have a pink one? Or maybe, That's true, but pointing isn't polite, so how about waving hello instead?

At my local grocery store, the answer is none of the above.

When I recently encountered this scenario, Mommy's response was one of sheer terror. It was the shade of her face that was most interesting—she was I-Just-Saw-A-Ghost Pale in crayon parlance. She couldn't even muster a verbal reply, and instead sped away like a bank robber.

American society is increasingly one in which people (especially white people) embrace the idea of color blindness. Mind you, I'm not talking about the dream articulated by Martin Luther King decades ago, that one day his children would be judged by their characters instead of their color. No, I'm talking about a dream that's been embraced by Stephen Colbert's mocking persona: the effort to appear literally color-blind by claiming not to notice race.

We often hesitate to use race as a descriptor: Maybe you can recall a friend saying something like, "He's about my height, mid-30s, dresses well..." and then, only after looking around nervously to see who was listening, "and he's... black..."

Consider the observations of Janet Schofield, a psychologist who once assessed a junior high school in which the teachers, by administrative decree, avoided any mention of race in the classroom. She reported the amazing story that some students were surprised to learn during an interview with the researchers that Dr. King was a black man.

In research with my colleagues at Tufts and Harvard, we've found that the underlying motivation is the thought that if I don't notice race, then I definitely can't be called a racist. Americans think that feigning color blindness is the safest way to handle a potentially dicey topic.

You can see this mentality in the tendency of many white Americans to prefer a root canal to any discussion of race. You can see it in the knee-jerk dismissal called "playing the race card" levied against anyone who dares talk about racial issues. You can see it in the parent who reacts to her child's mention of race as if it were an epithet or insult. After a while, kids pick up on this message.

In one study we asked elementary school students to play a variation on the game Guess Who, in which they had to ask yes-or-no questions to figure out which photo, from a set, their partner was holding.

The children were given a set of photos of white faces that varied on a number of dimensions, including age, weight, facial expression, and background color. It took 10- and 11-year-olds fewer questions to identify the target than 8- and 9-year-olds. No surprise there: As they get older, kids get better at categorization, problem solving, and logical reasoning.

But an interesting thing happened when we threw race into the mix. When half the photos were of white faces and half of black faces, the performance advantage of the older kids disappeared. In fact, it reversed: Suddenly it was the younger kids who were quicker to get the right answer.

Why the change? Because the older kids wouldn't ask about race. While 77 percent of the younger children talked about skin color, only 37 percent of the older children did. In other words, at a young age, kids start to master the skill of categorizing people on dimensions like gender, race, age, and attractiveness. (This tendency seems to be at least somewhat innate; even infants perceptually differentiate between racial groups.) And then, a few years down the road, they learn that they're only supposed to admit to using some of these social categories.

Should we care that increasing numbers of Americans are claiming to be color-blind, even though neuroscientific data reveals that we notice race within 150 milliseconds of meeting someone?

Actually, yes. Our research suggests that you typically don't make the good impression you might think you will by going out of your way to avoid acknowledging race. When we show people silent video clips of adult participants trying to complete a photo description task without talking about race, such "color-blind" individuals are rated as distracted, interpersonally cold and distant, and disingenuous. In short, bending over backwards to avoid mentioning something as obvious as race can create more problems than it solves—especially when race is relevant, diagnostic information.

Teaching our kids to avoid race at the store also teaches them to be blind to real differences in other walks of life.

So the next time your little one points out someone's skin color in public, don't shame her or him into silence. Point out that they, too, have a skin color. There are plenty of legitimate ways your kid can embarrass you in public—why let the mention of race be one of them?

Indeed, not long ago I came close to getting the opportunity to put my own advice into practice. My daughter and I wheeled up to the deli counter, and as I eyed the peppercorn turkey, she eyed the African-American couple next to us. In particular, she seemed intrigued by the husband, who must have been at least 6'6" and 250 pounds.

"Daddy, look," I heard her say. Then, with the wide-eyed enthusiasm that only the littlest of us can muster, she shouted dramatically, "He must be the biggest man in the whole world!"

While the gentleman in question was only mildly amused, Mrs. Gigantor doubled over with laughter. And I was reminded that a little honesty about what we see around us isn't the end of the world.

Read Sam Sommers' PT blog: The Science of Small Talk

Face to Face,  Race To Race

PT blogger Kristin J. Anderson, Ph.D., author of Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice, shares tips for healthier conversations.

  •  Acknowledge awareness of race: Whites are much more likely than people of color to describe themselves as colorblind. But it's impossible to not perceive race; therefore, it's a disingenuous stance.
  •  Let go of the fear of appearing racist: People of color who talk to whites who are self-consciously monitoring themselves, for fear of saying something racist, rate those interactions as awkward or negative.
  •  Be yourself: Unless you want to look like bumbling fictional boss Michael Scott (The Office) when he imitated Chris Rock on "Diversity Day,"never use what you assume is someone else's preferred lingo to get on his good side—it's embarrassing for all involved.
  • Choose topics appropriately: Don't avoid mentioning race when relevant. But don't talk only about race in an attempt to show how sensitive you are to racism in our society.