06/13/2011 03:57 pm ET | Updated Aug 13, 2011

Pretending Not to Notice Race

Q: "No, I haven't met the new guy yet. What does he look like?"

A: "Oh, about my height, broad-shouldered, late-30's, dresses well, always smiling... also he's... (voice lowered to a whisper, looks around to see who's listening) Black..."

There's a growing trend today, especially among White Americans, to embrace the idea of colorblindness in race relations. Now, I'm not talking about the dream articulated by Martin Luther King almost 50 years 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 efforts at more literal colorblindness whereby people 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 maybe you yourself) hesitated before using race to describe someone? Or maybe avoided mentioning race altogether? Even when doing so is the obvious way to disambiguate who it is you're trying to describe? This is the type of colorblindness I'm describing.

As in the observations of Janet Schofield, a psychologist who once conducted a study of a junior high school in which the teachers went to almost comical lengths to avoid any mention of race in the classroom. She reported the amazing story that one of the students she talked to was surprised to learn during an interview that Dr. King was Black, not White.

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

What's 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 can't be called a racist. In other words, colorblindness has emerged in many circles as a safe way to sidestep the dicey topic of race.

You can see this mentality in the tendency of many Whites to prefer a root canal to any discussion about race. You can see it when individuals who do raise issues related to race are dismissed out of hand for "playing the race card." You can see it in the fact that simply talking or blogging about race is often sufficient to get people riled up enough to accuse you of being a racist.

But asserting that you're colorblind comes with its own set of social costs. I and my colleagues Evan Apfelbaum and Mike Norton examined this tendency by having research participants play an adult version of the children's game Guess Who? Playing with a partner, participants' task was to ask as few yes/no questions as possible in order to figure out which of an array of 32 photos was the target photo their partner was holding.

The photos in the array varied on a range of dimensions: 50% were on red backgrounds and 50% on blue backgrounds, 50% were male and 50% female, 50% were White and 50% Black. So participants could have asked about a number of characteristics, with questions about background color, gender, and race particularly good ones to ask in order to cut down by half the number of candidates remaining.

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. But with a Black partner, their behavior was very 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 in the opening of this post: they talked about less helpful, less diagnostic information in the effort to avoid having to admit that they noticed race.

Was this strategy of seeking to appear colorblind a wise one? Actually, far from it. Avoiding race in this context led pairs to perform more poorly, taking more questions to complete the task. Furthermore, participants didn't even make a good impression when they avoided race. When we showed silent video clips of 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.

So efforts at strategic colorblindness-attempts to claim that one literally doesn't see race-are suspect for a number of reasons. First, they're disingenuous: brain imaging studies demonstrate that race is one of the very first characteristics we notice when we see a face, sometimes as quickly as 100 miliseconds into an interaction.

Second, these colorblind efforts come at the expense of clear and efficient communication.

And third, they don't even work as intended, making a lousy impression on others as you stumble through an interaction too distracted to let your real self show through.

Of course, none of this means we should talk about race all the time or always use race in describing other people. But research illustrates that pretending that we don't notice race is not only silly, it's also counterproductive. We do notice race. Nobody, Dr. King included, ever asked us not to. He just dreamed that one day we wouldn't judge each other on the basis of it.

For the Funny or Die version of our study, see below:


Sam Sommers is a social psychologist at Tufts University in Medford, MA. His first book, Situations Matter, will be published by Riverhead Books (Penguin) in December 2011. You can follow him on Facebook here and on Twitter here.