Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Distortion of Martin Luther King's Dream

How the "Colorblind" and "Melting Pot" Nightmares Prevent Justice and Equality

On this month over 50 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shared his "Dream." What have we as a society done with it since then? Have we turned MLK's dream into a "colorblind" and "melting pot" nightmare? What does psychology research suggest we should do instead? Read on.

(NOTE: I wrote this two years ago, but given that racism has escalated in our country since then, I think it is still VERY relevant today. Also, the fact that people - including many of our leaders - still perpetuate the "colorblind" and "melting pot" ideas tells me we still need to have this discussion. Please read on with open minds and hearts. The issue of racism is serious and important - it deserves our time, thoughts, and actions.)

Source: By Unknown? [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On this month in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered one of the most famous and influential speeches in American history - the "I have a dream" speech. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in front of over 250,000 people, Dr. King noted that although 100 years had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 freed millions of Black slaves, "the Negro still is not free." This is due to the continued inequalities and injustices to which our Black brothers and sisters (and other Peoples of Color) were subjected over such a 100-year period.

Thus, MLK's "I have a dream" speech in August 28, 1963 was delivered with the hope that the ensuing 100 years and beyond would be different in that they would instead bring Black people (and other Peoples of Color) closer to being truly "free"; closer to achieving social justice and equality.

So today we must ask: how far have we come since Dr. King's famous speech from over 50 years ago?

If the ultimate deciding factor is the extent to which we have eliminated racial injustice and inequality, then the easy answer is we haven't progressed that far. And I - along with many others - contend that this slow progression toward justice and equality has a lot to do with the fact that many Americans, including those who are well-meaning and especially those who are in power, have bought into and propagated the "colorblind" and "melting pot" concepts.

I'll admit that, at first glance, the notion of being colorblind -- or "not seeing race"-- seems like a good thing. Relatedly, the idea of a "melting pot" society -- where we all become one -- looks like a wonderful scenario on the surface. Both of these concepts sound so good, look so attractive, and are so "catchy" that they've become popular buzzwords that almost everyone has come to automatically and uncritically regard as the ideals that we should strive for. They have been easily accepted by many as our vehicle toward the realization of Dr. King's dream. Even further, many have even come to believe that a colorblind and melting pot society is what MLK actually dreamed of!

The reality, however, is that Dr. King dreamed of a society that does not judge people by the color of their skin; he did not dream for society to no longer see colors. There is a big difference!

The reality is that Dr. King dreamed of a society that truly believes in the notion that all humans are created equal; he did not dream of a society lacking in diversity wherein all humans are the same. There is a big difference!

So in reality, the "colorblind" and "melting pot" ideologies that many believe to be consistent with Dr. King’s dream are actually distortions and misappropriations of Dr. King's true dream. Both concepts are illusions that have done nothing but to preserve oppressive systems and hide prejudiced attitudes, essentially operating as barriers to truly achieving MLK's dream.

Let's break them down.

The problem with 'colorblind' and 'melting pot' ideas

The recent tragic deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, and Samuel Dubose -- along with stories of many other black and brown individuals who were harassed, imprisoned, or killed by police officers -- have brought national attention to race relations and racism once again (UPDATE: Over the past 2 years, even more examples of egregious and blatant racism have taken place throughout the nation, including the events in Charlottesville, Virginia where neo-Nazis and White supremacists held a march). Despite overwhelming data and research showing that black and brown individuals are disproportionately over-represented in our prisons, that black and brown folks are more likely to be perceived as threatening and deviant than white folks, and that black and brown boys are more likely to be perceived as guilty, face police violence, and be accused of a crime than white boys, many of our American brothers and sisters still continue to claim that race is not a factor and should not be a factor in these and all other cases.

Some of us cannot even think of any rational reason for why Peoples of Color would perceive racism and injustice, because -- according to many of our fellow Americans -- we've already made so much progress as a society in eliminating racism that racism is essentially dead. In fact, MLK already got us through that problem and we now have a Black man as president! So if racism is dead, we shouldn't even consider racism as a factor anymore. And because racism is no longer relevant, we shouldn't even see race anymore. This is where the notion of colorblindness comes in.

The adamant refusal by many people to say #BlackLivesMatter and their almost automatic minimization of the very real struggles of Black People when they instead say “All lives matter,” is another manifestation of this colorblind idea. And for those of us who do acknowledge that racism may exist, the typical, quick go-to buzzword of an answer to solve racism is by not seeing race, because seeing race is regarded as the cause of racism. Being colorblind also comes in when someone says something like, "I don't care what your color is, or what race you are ... I don't even see or consider race at all." Some people even dream for future generations of children to not even know what the color of their skin is, believing that such colorblindness is the solution to racism.

But dear brothers and sisters, let’s be clear about this one thing: seeing color is not the problem, racism is. Also, seeing color is not the reason racism exists. Even further, seeing color is not racism.

 DeMarsico, Dick, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By New York World-Telegram and the Sun staff photographer: DeMarsico, Dick, photographer. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Racial bias on the individual level is when we regard one color as superior, better, more acceptable, more desirable, and ideal than other colors. This becomes racism if such bias is supported, normalized, and propagated on the institutional level with policies – whether intentionally or not – that creates and maintains the power, voice, representation, and access inequalities that exist in our society. So pretending or choosing to not see color will not solve racism; colorblindness will just ignore racism and maintain it.

Being colorblind is not what we should strive for because the colorblind ideology does not bring Peoples of Color up to make everyone equal. Instead – as a person of color – the colorblind ideology puts us down, and keeps us down. It denies our existence. It denies our struggles. It minimizes our lived experiences. It hides our truths.

For many of us, our racial, ethnic, and cultural identities are important parts of who we are. For many of us, it's our connection to other people -- our friends, families, and ancestors. We value such identities and such connections, so we don't want people to be "blind" to them. We definitely don’t want people who used the very race, ethnicity, and culture that we identify with to put us down and kill us, to now say they don’t even see such identities. We don't want people to ignore such important parts of our identities, and we certainly don't want people to pretend that our race, ethnicity, and cultural heritage do not matter in our current society.

We are proud of who we are, and so we want people to see, respect, and value the entirety of who we are -- including our color. We don't want others to not see our color; we want others to regard our color as equal to theirs.

Being colorblind devalues us, our heritage and our culture. Being colorblind devalues our realities and the lived experiences of our ancestors -- experiences of pain, struggle, trauma, devastation, as well as experiences of love, strength, resilience and hope.

Colorblindness sends the message that race and ethnicity do not matter, and that we shouldn't even see it. Essentially, it makes race and ethnicity -- and the inequalities and injustices based on race and ethnicity -- topics that we shouldn't even talk about. So how can we solve a problem if we can't talk about it? How can we solve the problem of racism if we won't even acknowledge that it exists?

Related to colorblindness is the notion of a "melting pot" society, which is problematic because it implies that we should all become one and the same, to be indistinguishable from each other. It sends the message that we should lose what makes our racial, ethnic, and cultural groups unique and that we should all just "blend" together and become one. And once we've all melted together, then there's really no need to pay attention to the variety of colors anymore, because there would be none. Just like the colorblind idea, the melting pot concept also tries to erase us -- to render us invisible. Again, we don't want to simply "assimilate" and lose our racial, ethnic, and cultural identities.

So we need to be more critical of the "melting pot" idea and question if that's what we should really strive for as a society. We need to remember that -- as is typical of many melting pots -- the scum usually rises to the top while the stuff at the bottom usually get burned. I doubt this is the type of society that Dr. King dreamed of.

Getting back on track toward Dr. King's dream

Dr. King dreamed that we will one day live in a nation where we are judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin -- not because we've lost the different skin colors of the world, not because we have become blind to colors, not because we choose to not see colors, and not because we are pretending that skin color does not matter anymore. MLK dreamed for us to not be judged by the color of our skin because he hoped that all of the colors will come to be equally valued, respected, and loved. We are clearly not there – not even close – and buying into the false promise of the colorblind and melting pot ideologies will not get us there.

Perhaps, instead of colorblindness, it might be more beneficial for us as a society to be conscious about race and where we might be in relation to others. Let’s know and understand our privileges. Instead of colorblindness, let’s see the reality that there are many different colors in our world. The real world has plenty of colors and they're beautiful, don't you want to see reality and appreciate its beauty? Or do you prefer pretending that the diversity of colors in our world does not exist and does not matter?

Indeed, research seems to support the benefits of a more race-conscious approach instead of being colorblind. For instance, research has consistently shown that not being conscious of race and our biases can lead us to thinking (i.e., sterotypes), feeling (i.e., prejudiced), and behaving (e.g., discriminatory) in very biased ways. Research also suggests that we need to be racially conscious and become aware of our biases and privileges in order for us to control - or keep in check - how our biases influence our attitudes and behaviors. In other words, we need to become conscious of race in order to be racially neutral -- to be fair and just -- in our behaviors.

Finally, research also suggests that we are complex and advanced enough as human beings to have the ability to simultaneously hold multiple different worldviews, ways of doing things, or cultures and regard them equally. We don't have to choose just one, and so we definitely don't need to all become just one and the same. So perhaps instead of a melting pot, maybe we should strive for diversity and multiculturalism -- where we equally appreciate, respect and value different peoples, worldviews, cultures, and ways of doing things. Indeed, we don't need to all be the same for us to have respect and love for each other.

Follow the author on twitter.

For more information, visit the author's website.

*Note: An earlier version of this article was previously published by the Alaska Dispatch News.