As a black woman and an anti-racism activist, there are few phrases I hear that are more well-meaning, yet cringe-inducing than, “I don’t see colour.”
For years now, I and many other people of colour have been pushing back against the “colourblind” approach to racial relations. Those who claim that they “don’t see colour,” we’ve argued, don’t actually see us. Because we are people of colour—people of many colours—with our own diversity, culture, history, beauty, and, yes, struggles. To “not see colour” is to not see us at all. When people don’t see us, what they see is the default of whiteness that defines our societal norms, and we relegated to a status of “other” instead of people in our own right.
There’s a strong myth around race that says that people are not born seeing colour; that it is taught. If we could go back to not seeing colour, it’s then surmised, we could end racism altogether. But multiple studies have shown that our ability to “see colour” in other people pretty much comes with eyesight. We all see it. Young children, even babies, are able to discern racial differences in people and begin to show racial biases at very young ages.
So, if our children are already seeing colour, and it’s natural for them to do so, how do we stop this recognition of difference from turning into racial prejudice? It turns out, one of the most effective ways to fight implicit racial bias in young children is to not only allow them to see colour, but to also deliberately show them more of it.
A recent study from Canadian and Chinese researchers shows that when Chinese preschoolers who were showing strong implicit bias against black people were given lessons on how to distinguish between the faces of different black people, their implicit bias was reduced. After just two 20-minute sessions with researchers, the anti-black bias in these children was significantly reduced, and that reduction lasted for at least 60 days.
Here’s the important part: these children were not just shown images of black people, they were taught how to really see them. They were taught how to distinguish between features and tones and point out individual black faces. When a separate group of Chinese preschoolers with the same anti-black bias were taught to differentiate faces of white people instead of black people, their implicit bias against black people remained unchanged. They needed to see and appreciate black faces in order to reduce their anti-black bias.
What broader implications can this study have for Western societies looking to battle anti-black racism, or racism against any group of colour? It underscores the importance, not only of diversity in our books, television, movies and social circles—but of the importance of true appreciation of diversity. In a society where people of colour are rarely seen in our arts, education, or entertainment—and when they are, they are often reduced to one-dimensional stereotypes, it is easy to see how the implicit bias against the unfamiliarity of the “other” can not only remain from childhood, but can grow from implicit bias to explicit bias as children get older.
While we must continue to fight explicit bias in our systems and social groups with activism, outreach, policy and more traditional efforts, this study underscores the importance of also fighting the implicit bias that often reinforces and justifies greater systemic oppression. You can help stop racial bias before it starts, by not only encouraging your children to see colour, but by encouraging them to truly appreciate it.
This article was originally published online in October 2017.