Waking Up to Difference: Teachers, Color-Blindness, and the Effects on Students of Color

By Atwater, Sheri A. Castro | Journal of Instructional Psychology, September 2008 | Go to article overview

Waking Up to Difference: Teachers, Color-Blindness, and the Effects on Students of Color


Atwater, Sheri A. Castro, Journal of Instructional Psychology


Color-blindness, the ideology that "race should not matter" in how individuals are treated, is often confused with "race does not matter" (Neville, 2000). The historical, social, and political origins of color-blind racial attitudes are outlined here. Developmental and constructivist theories are used to illustrate how teachers' use of the color-blind ideology may hinder students' critical thinking skills and inadvertently affect their cognitive growth. Research documenting color-blind practices in schools is presented, and variables that may affect teachers' ability to adopt color-conscious practices are reviewed. Teaching about the consequences of color-blindness to pre-service teachers can make them aware of how this ideology may affect their practice.

Color-blindness: A Historical Context

      The white race deems itself to be
   the dominant race in this country ...
   But in view of the constitution, in the
   eyes of the law, there is in this country
   no superior, dominant, ruling class of
   citizens. Our constitution is color-blind,
   and neither knows nor tolerates classes
   among citizens ...

   Justice John Marshall Harlan (dissenting
   in Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896)

The notion of color-blindness in the U.S. can trace its beginnings to these words of Justice Harlan's in his 1896 dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson. Used extensively over the last several decades in the law field to argue for equal treatment of individuals regardless of color, race, or creed, the color-blind notion was considered a progressive response to racial bigotry. The premise was that justice--in the form of equal rights and equal opportunities--should be blind to skin color and racial differences (Cose, 1997).

Times have changed since Harlan's words, both in the racial landscape of America and in the opportunities and rights of people of color; yet the underlying problem of racism persists. Despite the current legal and ethical agreement that race and skin color should not matter, they very clearly do: African-Americans and Hispanics were three times as likely to be poor as non-Hispanic Whites in 2001; and in 2002, 24% of African-Americans and 20% of Hispanics experienced hardship over housing compared with only 10% percent of Whites (Finnegold and Wherry, 2004). In recent years, high school drop out rates for African American students in the U.S. have been twice as high as the rate for White students and four times higher than Whites for Hispanic students (Child Trends Databank, 2003).

In today's society, this distinction between a "race should not matter" philosophy and a "race does not matter" philosophy has become blurred. Neville refers to the modem-day notion of color-blindness as the idea that "race should not and does not matter" (Neville, 2000, p. 60). While the "should not matter" philosophy implies a goal of achieving true color-blindness--in education, this means not showing favoritism or discrimination to certain students based on skin color--the "does not matter" philosophy requires that teachers turn a "blind eye" to racial differences, despite the fact that skin color does indeed impact how individuals are treated. According to Williams (1997), modern color-blindness "... constitutes an ideological confusion at best, and denial at it very worst ... Much is overlooked in the move to undo that which clearly ... matters just by labeling it that which 'makes no difference.'" (p. 7).

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of color-blind ideals in the legal landscape of various U.S. states. In 1996, Ward Connerly, University of California Regent, chaired a campaign for California's Proposition 209, a ballot measure that effectively banned racial preferences--and made color-blindness the norm--in admissions policies for the University of California system. Similar initiatives have also surfaced on ballots in other states.

Why the crusade for color-blindness? …

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