Why “I Don’t See Color” Hurts Your Employees

HR needs to be color-conscious in order to effectively lead strategies to support racial, cultural and ethnic diversity at work.

by Aimie Ye

With recent events surrounding George Floyd’s tragic murder and an ongoing battle with racial inequality and historic injustices, HR professionals are on the frontline to create much-needed change within organizations. 

We recently wrote an article on How HR can support BIPOC in 2020, extensively underlining actionable steps HR managers and business owners can take to make a difference. Within this list, one of the action items covers the idea of opening up a dialogue about why Black Lives Matter, and what your company can do to better support People of Color. 

Taking it a step further, today we are exploring  the myth of racial colorblindness in the workplace, and why HR can’t be colorblind. From hiring new talent to inclusion efforts and maintaining employee relationships, human resources needs to be color-conscious in order to effectively lead strategies to support racial, cultural and ethnic diversity at work.

“I Don’t See Color”

Have you ever heard someone say that they “don’t see color” in regards to race? For the people behind this ideology, racial colorblindness offers a relatively simplified framework for addressing issues of race in today’s world. The idea aims to “normalize” employees by shifting their focus from racial and cultural differences to a unified organizational identity. 

While the approach attempts to emphasize fairness in theory, it turns out that in practice, racial colorblindness in the workplace (and in general) is often more harmful than helpful, as it potentially masks ongoing inequalities between races, hinders minority racial identity development, and stunts diversity growth.

Here are a few reasons why:

Problems with Racial Colorblindness in HR

Not Seeing Color Denies the Existence of Systemic Oppression

People that ascribe to a racially colorblind perspective are less likely to perceive discrimination in the workplace. Fostering a belief that employees are all the same regardless of racial differences suggests that they are (and have always been) treated equally. This is a form of denial that minimizes years of ongoing discrimination and systemic oppression experienced by Black, Indigenous and People of Color employees. Failure to address the inequity that BIPOC employees have experienced also means a failure to help counter systemic injustice. 

Colorblindness Invalidates the Employee Identity

Each and every employee within your organization has an identity tied to their race, in one form or another. Colorblindness denies these racial experiences, cultural heritages and unique perspectives of your employees. The experiences, whether positive or negative, are often tied to the color of one’s skin. 

To say that you do not see color thus denies your BIPOC employees the struggles that they have faced individually, which in turn may affect their engagement within the company, their confidence and their productivity within their role. 

Failure to See Color Perpetuates the Notion that Diversity is Bad

Choosing not to see racial differences and complexities does not make them disappear. How can we fix a problem that we cannot see? Diversity and inclusion efforts should aim to recognize skin color while regulating the impulse to make decisions based on these traits. 

Hundreds of studies have exemplified that diversity within the company leads to improved business performance, board effectiveness, profits, customer satisfaction and more. Failure to acknowledge diversity within your organization can harm both minority employees and your organization as a whole.

Minimizing Demographic Differences Reduces the Engagement of BIPOC Employees

Plaut, Thomas, and Goren’s analyses of over 3000 survey responses on diversity climate revealed that organizations’ endorsement of colorblindness predicted decreases in engagement among minority employees. Racial colorblindness can actually increase feelings of distrust and sense of bias among minorities within your company, which contradicts its original intentions. 

Furthermore, the ideology of attempting to appear racially colorblind when we can in fact see racial differentiators may result in more biased behaviors from white employees or lead them to avoid intergroup collaborations that can offer enriching and innovative results. 

Moving Forward

So what can we as HR professionals do to support and acknowledge racial diversity in the workplace? 

  • Review your hiring practices and stray away from “colorblind” recruiting
      • Implement bias interrupters in your hiring policies
      • Don’t mask your intentions of diversity recruiting
      • Utilize EEOC compliance guidelines to leverage diverse audiences and avoid only advertising in publications that target specific demographics and expand beyond homogeneous networks
      • Avoid narrow screening requirements
  • Create an environment that recognizes and celebrates racial and ethnic differences
      • Create and review existing workplace policies to ensure fairness to everyone
      • Provide diversity training to help individuals move past racial biases
      • Provide lessons to keep your team well-informed
      • Offer targeted internships and scholarships to people from underrepresented groups
      • Highlight your company’s commitment to diversity on your site
      • Establish diverse mentorships
      • Set goals and diversity metrics in which you want to improve on
      • Give BIPOC employees a voice and ask them about what diversity in the workplace means to them
      • Organize events and activities that celebrate diversity and employee differences

Though many well-intentioned people continue to take the “racial colorblindness” approach in their day-to-day, we encourage HR professionals to drive meaningful change within their organizations by being more transparent and authentic about race. 

Accepting this reality will not only allow for recognition of stereotypes but also for conscious efforts to change them. Additionally, we encourage recognition and celebration of racial differences by:

  • Inviting employees to join in discussions on diversity
  • Equipping team members with tools to expand knowledge
  • Providing employees with plans to affect change

 To read about other ways HR can support BIPOC employees, click here.

Additional Sources

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/color-blindness-is-counterproductive/405037/ 

https://www.theolympian.com/opinion/op-ed/article227280259.html

https://www.cnn.com/2012/01/31/opinion/apfelbaum-colorblind/index.html

https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2013/01/20/the-case-against-racial-colorblindness-in-the-workplace/#242303fc36a6

https://diverseeducation.com/article/12401/

https://hbr.org/2017/09/colorblind-diversity-efforts-dont-work

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&amp=&v=jetdCVgT3bY&app=desktop

https://trust.guidestar.org/all-right-color-blind-colleagues-we-need-to-have-a-talk

https://www.vanguard.edu/uploaded/Academics/Graduate/Organizational_Psychology/Modern-Day-racism-in-the-workplace-Symbolic-diversity-or-real-change.pdf

https://www.hbs.edu/faculty/Publication%20Files/Racial%20Color%20Blindness_16f0f9c6-9a67-4125-ae30-5eb1ae1eff59.pdf

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/problem-color-blind-hiring-dana-hagenbuch/

https://www.talentlyft.com/en/blog/article/246/how-to-build-manage-and-promote-workplace-diversity

https://www.forbes.com/sites/janicegassam/2019/02/15/why-the-i-dont-see-color-mantra-is-hurting-diversity-and-inclusion-efforts/#3f3d20682c8d

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