What’s at stake when using colorblind and gender-blind language

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I’ve worked with employers in the past who have wanted to write corporate mission statements and leadership thought-pieces that avoid the “political topics” of race and gender. Rather than mention women or historically underrepresented groups in the workplace, these companies wanted to use colorblind and gender-blind language as a way to avoid discussing gender and race.

Working with these companies, I frequently encountered their impulse to promote equality in the workplace by underscoring their egalitarianism while inadvertently neutralizing and marginalizing issues of gender and race. “We don’t see color,” they may say. “It doesn’t matter who you are, man or woman.”

In some cases, when companies use colorblind and gender-blind, they do so to emphasize that the person who will be hired or receive a promotion will do so because of their merit. One of the core ideas that these companies try to express is that a person receives a promotion regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity. The company’s thinking is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is; if you have what it takes, you will succeed. In some cases, this statement is true, but there are also many ways that race and gender influence such decisions that we may not even be aware of on conscious levels.

Looking at the facts and figures, it sometimes does matter who you are. In some industries, women occupy high-level roles, making them great candidates for executive positions––CEOs, COOs, and other top-level leadership positions. But among Fortune 500 companies, the number of women in these positions is surprisingly low. According to the Pew Research Center, the share of female CEOs at Fortune 500 companies fell from 6.4% in 2017 to 4.8% in 2018, with 32 women leading major firms in 2017.

For some, colorblind language in particular is directly associated with racism, as it “allows people to ignore manifestations of persistent discrimination.” As Monnica T. Williams explains in a frequently cited article in Psychology Today, “In a colorblind society, White people, who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to race, can effectively ignore racism in American life, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society.”

People who agree with Williams’s view often see a larger and longer narrative of discrimination in the United States. A few examples illustrate this point: there’s the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that “ended the era of free immigration and stigmatized an entire race,” as historian Jonathan Bean explains. Before this event, Protestants had issues to pick with Irish and German Catholic immigrants before the Civil War. Then there’s the Dawes Act and Plessy v. Ferguson––and on the examples go.

Yet there’s a side that critiques Williams’s view. Conor Friedersdorf, a journalist at The Atlantic, suggests that “encouraging whites to be color conscious and to think of themselves in racial terms would encourage the nativism embraced by some Donald Trump supporters—that a heightened awareness of whiteness would produce a sense of persecution, and encourage some to rally in defense of white rights.”

Regardless of where one may stand on the debate (though knowing the debate is helpful), I think it’s more instructive to consider the individual and their experience. For some, gender and race are integral aspects of their identity. When someone says, “we don’t see color,” they may be discounting the experience of an individual or a group who did go through discrimination or persecution.

On a company-wide, the implications of colorblindness and gender-blindness allow for the perpetuation of implicit biases that affect hiring and promotions and other facets. As UCLA Professor of Law Jerry Kang explains, “These social cognitions, whether they be attitudes or stereotypes, can be either implicit or explicit. Similar to its usage in cognitive psychology, the term ‘implicit’ emphasizes our unawareness of having a particular thought or feeling.” Implicit biases of race, gender, and ethnicity “affect social judgments but operate without conscious awareness or conscious control.” The onus is then on companies to change their internal policies to expel  internal biases.

In today’s time––and putting aside whether the allegations are scurrilous or true––scandals abound on issues of race and gender: New York Times CEO Mark Thompson faced a discrimination lawsuit; Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky had to act quickly when his company was accused of bias; and UBER Chief People Officer Liane Hornsey resigned following allegations of ignoring discrimination complaints. For some, “color” and/or “gender” are important issues and conflicts that do relate to race, ethnicity, and culture. To ignore it, or say “we don’t see color,” is one way to discount the experience of a group of people who do see gender and color in their lives.

When companies want to write leadership thought-pieces that lean in the direction of “it doesn’t matter who you are,” one of my suggestions to them is to focus on the specific achievements people accomplished. Regardless of the view companies take on the colorblind and gender-blind debate, by focusing on accomplishments companies reinforce their commitment to equality on the basis of performance.

Measuring performance also means recognizing merit amongst all employees. And while noticing an employee’s merit, in some cases it’s helpful to recognize their unique experiences. Noticing each person’s experience contributes to a diverse workplace.

The irony is that focusing on performance metrics and accomplishments alone feed into what colorblind and gender-blind policies have done in the past: ignore gender and race and focus instead on merit and accomplishments. It’s not the best solution. As recent examples have shown, the best way to avoid colorblind and gender-blind issues is to have efforts that bring all people together, equip leaders and employees with educational tools to lead, and have action plans that lead to behavioral change.*

*The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the companies mentioned.

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