Skin Color Blind or Skin Color Conscious?

NOTE: This entry does not refer to any particular person or to any particular group, and the example used (“Don and Paul”) is hypothetical. The post presents possible speculations one may make based on information from the discipline of psychology.

Don and Paul, White business colleagues, were walking to a restaurant near their office for lunch. A Black man was approaching them, dressed professionally as they were – white shirt, suit and tie. Don said derisively, “Look at this big shot coming. Not too uppity, is he? Thinks he’s better than us, just because he’s Black. He’s probably some affirmative action guy who’s dumb as hell but gets breaks because he’s Black.”

“My God, man” says Paul, “what are you doing? I know you’re biased, but this is ridiculous. You never met this guy, but you think he’s some arrogant SOB who hates Whites? Just from seeing his skin color? Man, you really need to be more color blind.”

Did you ever hear that phrase, “color blind”? It was kind of pervasive back in the 1960s and 70s during the racial upheaval that tore through American society. The idea was, when you’re judging someone, be “color blind,” and ignore their skin color. Really? When you see someone, how can you possibly ignore one of their most obvious physical traits? Back to Don and Paul.

Don snaps back at Paul: “Oh, Mr. Pure of Heart, I suppose you didn’t have some negative thoughts about this guy?”

Paul says, “I didn’t even notice that he’s Black.”

“You didn’t notice his skin color?” challenges Don. “You’re color blind? Who are you kidding?”

Don has a point. The intent of, “You need to be color blind,” was noble back in the day, but it missed an important point: It’s impossible to do! When you look at someone else – especially a stranger – skin color is just too salient a characteristic to ignore.

Well, if it’s impossible to be “color blind” in social interactions, what if we strive instead to be “color conscious”? Substituting “conscious” for “blind” takes us down a completely different road – a road that offers much more promise when it comes to coping with our prejudices in social exchanges. How so?

Color conscious means that Don is aware of his racial prejudices and his tendency to disparage Blacks. He knows that he believes they feel entitled and want to be given breaks to make up for White domination over the past 400 years. He also knows that his prejudices make him pre-judge Blacks as being arrogant, smug, and conceited. Armed with that self-knowledge – being conscious of his biases – Don can guard against impulsively judging them. Had he been color conscious, when first seeing the approaching man, he might have said to himself, “Alright, Don, cool it. Give the guy a break and put your biases on the back burner. Don’t assume that this guy fits your belief.”

Note that when being conscious of his biases, Don follows some important coping rules: He accepts his prejudices and holds himself accountable for them. That awareness helps him avoid letting his negative attitudes make him act impulsively. Instead, he follows a plan of action that stresses courteous behavior over confrontational behavior. Humility and empathy will not be far behind.

The coping benefits of being “conscious” rather than “blind” with respect to physical appearances also applies to other obvious characteristics about a person, such as gender, height, hair color, or weight. Being conscious of who you are – your attitudes that make you behave in certain ways in particular situations – will make your social interactions more honorable and smoother, more productive, and satisfying. The alternative is lashing out inappropriately to serve your biases, which will result in more stress.

In 2009, Representative Joe Wilson of South Carolina was listening to a speech on health care by President Obama, delivered to a joint session of Congress. At one point – disliking something Obama said and clearly not conscious of his prejudices toward Obama – Wilson impulsively shouted out, “You lie!” In a later session, the House rebuked Wilson for his outburst, approving a resolution that said he had committed a “breach of decorum and degraded the proceedings of the joint session, to the discredit of the House.”   

Not very honorable behavior, Joe! Had you been more color “conscious” with respect to your biases, perhaps you would have been less likely to blurt out your disrespectful comment, and avoided a taint on your reputation.

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