CSWAC Blog

What Makes a Group White? (part 2)

“It was a very white group.”

At the heart of that observation lies a meeting of two different racial ideologies, colorblindness and color consciousness.

A color conscious approach recognizes and brings together different cultural perspectives while acknowledging and addressing systemic racism and entrenched white culture. Although clear in theory, the practice remains challenging. Unlike with colorblindness, there is no clearly worked out normative system that attaches to a color conscious ideology. Each organization must work its process out in its own way, and this requires time and resources that might otherwise be directed toward other essential tasks.

Accordingly, colorblindness still retains a great advantage since the colorblind normative system provides a commonly shared understanding and guide to action. In times of stress, when groups must marshal their resources and when coordination becomes paramount, one might expect colorblind norms to prevail.

Either way, there is a personal price to be paid, but a difference in who pays it. With colorblindness, the system is familiar to white Americans and geared toward their comfort. It allows white privilege to operate and removes the means by which a person might question that privilege. Since colorblindness operates under white cultural norms, white people need do very little to accommodate a system that, essentially, already accommodates them. Under colorblindness, people of color carry the full weight of accommodation to a system that only partially meets their needs at best.

Under color consciousness, each person must make some accommodation, and the nature of the accommodation is not always clear. For white people transitioning from colorblindness, this is a new requirement that imposes substantial cognitive and emotional overhead. Colorblindness, for people of color, already means accommodating to white settings [see You Deplete Me]. Color consciousness requires a different accommodation, but one that has promise of taking some of the formerly unmet concerns of people of color into account.

In a predominantly white organization seeking or facing pressure to become multiracial, the colorblind and color conscious concepts of a “white group” will confront one another. Almost invariably this happens as an emerging color consciousness challenges a complacent and status quo colorblind perspective. The two perspectives will clash. Whether this takes place through open conflict or by reasoned discussion may depend on the specific organizational setting, but the two perspectives are incompatible. As competing racial ideologies, they each seek to set the terms of engagement.

For a manger and organizational decision-maker it’s important to understand that when someone says a group is a white group, it’s almost always raised as a critique of the status quo. Sometimes the critique is raised softly as a self-reflective colorblindness. (“We take note that we’re very white and we’d like to see people of color around here.”) Other times the critique comes out of color consciousness. (“We have plenty of people of color here, but management is still white.”)

Either way, the organizational setting is showing signs that colorblindness and color consciousness are beginning to contend with one another. Managers have a choice. You can move toward color consciousness; you can reinforce colorblindness; or, you can postpone any action.

Reinforcing colorblindness entails suppressing or diverting discussion of race and whiteness, espousing values of equality and individual merit, while simultaneously avoiding examining how racism operates systemically or culturally. This may restore order and allow the organization to continue at its current level of productivity. But it may ultimately lead employees of color to exit the organization, along with a smaller number of sympathetic and color conscious white employees. And the organization will not be utilizing the full potential of its employees of color, who must conform and accommodate to white cultural practices.

If one decides to move towards color consciousness, the organization will have to enter a learning mode, and face the diminished productivity that takes place as resources are diverted to establishing new cultural expectations. Employees must acquire new social and cultural skills and understandings. Some white employees may not be willing to make the transition and leave, as may a smaller number of employees of color who are invested in deploying white cultural practices.

Ignoring the emerging conflict of perspectives is a short term option at best. Given organizational demands and contingencies, it may be what you have to do. But recognize that ultimately colorblindness is based on the expectation that everyone assimilate to whiteness, and this model has increasingly become unworkable. The future now aspires to become multiracial. Just as an organization invests in new operational methods and technologies, with short term loss but long term gain in productivity, so too must it invest in social and cultural technology that will prepare the organization to serve its mission and meet its purposes in our emerging multiracial society.