White people react to discussions about racism, privilege, and social justice in varied ways. Some simply deny the existence of racism in American society—opting for a "colorblind" perspective.  Others acknowledge that racism, especially anti-Black racism, is a societal reality resulting in discrimination. What accounts for these different perspectives, and how might they influence White people's behavior in confronting racism?

Colorblind Racial Ideologies Affect Perceptions of Racism

Social scientists have defined colorblindness as a goal of not "seeing" race. Instead, colorblindness attributes racial inequalities to individual, group, or cultural efforts. For example, in response to information about racial wealth disparities, a colorblind perspective might say that White people simply work harder than Black people or Latinos, without considering other factors that may cause those disparities. In the colorblind American imagination, racism is a thing of the past. Therefore, believing that race and racism are societal realities is, itself, a racist act.

Like most other scholars, we push back against this idea.   We argue that endorsing colorblindness provides a kind of psychological shield that protects White people from having to deal with the discomfort that acknowledging racism might create.

Critical Race Theory details how racialized laws limit opportunities for people who are not legally characterized as "White." This work connects colorblind ideas to psychological and social outcomes by showing how White people can enjoy their unearned privileges without grappling with the advantages their race confers.

Colorblindness Thwarts Social Justice Efforts

On the surface, colorblindness might seem like a noble attitude—treating everyone equally regardless of race. However, as our research shows, colorblindness often perpetuates racial inequalities by overlooking the systemic barriers that marginalized groups face. It blinds White people from seeing their own White privilege—the recognition of the unearned advantages that White individuals experience in society simply because of their race. Awareness of White privilege prompts individuals to confront their privilege, challenges the idea of a colorblind society, and leads to a greater commitment to antiracist practices.

We examined White privilege by analyzing survey data from more than 500 White people, about two-thirds of whom were actively involved in an antiracism organization. In the survey, we asked participants to indicate their agreement with statements about White privilege, colorblind attitudes, and antiracist practices.

We measured antiracist practice with items such as, "Taking the time to learn more about racial justice issues is important" and "Racial justice work enriches my relationships." We measured colorblind racial attitudes with items such as, "English should be the only official language in the U.S." and "It is important that people begin to think of themselves as American and not African American, Mexican American, or Italian American." Finally, we measured White privilege awareness with items such as, "White people have it easier than people of color," and "Our social structure system promotes White privilege." We also controlled for factors that could influence participants' responses to these concepts, including gender, sexual orientation, and education level.

White participants were more likely to engage in antiracist practices when they rejected colorblindness and were more aware of their White privilege. Interestingly, rejection of colorblind ideas facilitated awareness of White privilege. 

These results suggest that challenging the illusion of colorblindness prompts people to acknowledge the realities of privilege and work towards a more equitable society.

How Best to Discuss Race and Privilege?

As you navigate conversations around race and privilege, remember that colorblind ideologies can create barriers to antiracist practices. By creating deeper understandings of race and racism in the U.S., White people may become aware of their privileges and work to dismantle racism. Working towards a more racially just society requires active participation from those who benefit from it the most. As Angela Davis notes, "In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist."

For Further Reading

Collins, C. R., & Walsh, C. (2024). Colorblind racial ideology as an alibi for inaction: Examining the relationship among colorblind racial ideology, awareness of White privilege, and antiracist practices among White people. Journal of Social Issues. https://doi.org/10.1111/josi.12595

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2015). The Structure of Racism in Color-Blind, "Post-Racial" America. American Behavioral Scientist, 59(11), 1358-1376. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002764215586826

Coleman, B. R., Collins, C. R., & Bonam, C. M. (2021). Interrogating whiteness in community research and action. American Journal of Community Psychology67(3-4), 486-504. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12473

Charles R. Collins is an Associate Professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell. He studies how whiteness ideologies impede progress towards greater racial and social justice.

Camille Walsh is an Associate Professor in the Law, Economics & Public Policy major and American and Ethnic Studies major at UW Bothell, and directs the Masters in Policy Studies program. She earned her doctorate in U.S. history from the University of Oregon and her JD from Harvard Law School, both places where she developed her interest in education, privilege, and economic inequality as a first-generation college student.