March 25, 2009
Is colorblindness or multiculturalism better for minorities?
If you believe in colorblindness when it comes to race, consider the findings from a recently published University of Georgia study that suggests a colorblind workplace may not be the best model.
Victoria Plaut, an assistant professor of psychology at the university, along with researchers Kecia Thomas and Matt Goren examined 17 departments in a large health care organization. The researchers measured the diversity beliefs of white employees (managers and non-managers) to determine the extent to which they endorsed either “colorblindness” or a more “multicultural” approach to diversity. Then the researchers looked at how engaged or committed the department’s minority workers were.
The goal was to determine in which departments the minority workers fared better, or were more psychologically engaged—the ones in which white workers subscribed to a more colorblind approach where racial and ethnic differences were downplayed. Or, the departments in which multiculturalism reigned, where differences were recognized and even celebrated.
The study found that “contrary to popular beliefs, workplaces that downplay racial and ethnic differences actually make minority employees feel less engaged with their work,” said Plaut, the study’s lead author. “Minority employees sense more bias against them in these allegedly colorblind settings.”
Plaut said it’s not clear whether the bias is correctly sensed, but research has shown that there’s a correlation between whites who profess colorblindness and racial bias.
“For a long time whites have been told they should not pay attention to race,” she said. “It’s best if we all assume people are all the same, right? But this type of colorblindness often is based on assimilation.”
That means, in some cases, it’s easier for a white person to be colorblind if the person of color acts white, or fits almost seamlessly into the white norm.
She said one of the dangers of the colorblind model is that some might deny the racialized experiences of a worker who is black, Asian, Hispanic or Native American.
“The world is color-coded,” she told me. “Social hierarchy is color-coded. If you float in on your colorblind cloud—however well-intentioned that cloud may be— you’re denying the fact that that reality exists.”
Also, she said, colorblindness can create a hostile interpersonal environment because a worker who might not want to appear prejudiced, ironically may act prejudiced in racial interactions or avoid them altogether.
The departments whose managers promoted multiculturalism had better outcomes—workers of color felt more invested, which may translate into fewer retention problems and lower turnover rates. But that approach was not perfect either, Plaut said. Sometimes in seeing or acknowledging skin color, a white worker may start to view minority workers in terms of stereotypes.
I don’t pretend that this isn’t complicated stuff, which, by the way, has implications beyond the workplace. It’s complicated because people of color often say, ‘See us as individuals,’ which suggests a colorblind approach is preferable. But they also say, ‘Recognize that minorities in their various groups have differences that should be acknowledged and even celebrated,’ which implies multiculturalism is the way to go.
Help me out on this. What do you think?
Click here for the study, published in the online version of the journal Psychological Science.