ATA News

Some thoughts on colour blindness

Given that February is Black History Month, there is a vast array of topics to cover addressing racism or the experiences of people of colour. It’s tricky to write something that hasn’t been said a million times before. As I considered what to write about, my thoughts settled on the phrase “I don’t see colour,” which always makes me pause.

It’s impossible to deny physical characteristics that make us different. As a Black woman, I’ve had my own experiences with this statement. It resonates with me as a reluctance to confront your connection to racism. I was curious to learn what this phrase meant to others, so I put the following question to a cross-section of teaching colleagues.

What goes through your mind when you hear the phrase, “I don’t see colour?”

Here are the responses.

When I hear the phrase “I don’t see colour,” it evokes a range of thoughts and emotions within me. It’s a statement that masks understanding or awareness of the experiences and challenges faced by individuals of diverse racial backgrounds. Simply put, it is a quick “get-out-of-talking-about-racism” card in the game of “socially conscious monopoly.”

For many Black and Brown individuals, hearing these words is like nails on a chalkboard. It evokes feelings of disappointment and frustration. The truth is that when white people say, “I don’t see colour,” many Black and Brown people hear a different message. It often sounds like code for statements such as “thank goodness I don’t have to think about race.” Unfortunately, this phrase often shuts down conversations about race, implying that “seeing race” is a bad thing and should not be discussed. It becomes a subtle manipulation, requesting an immediate change of topic whenever the subject of race or racism is brought up.

As a pre-service teacher, I have to consider this question in the context of education. Simply put, claiming to be colour blind denies the racial identity of students. It disregards an essential part of who they are and what they experience in society. Pre-service teachers are taught that one of our responsibilities is to prepare students to enter a society that sees race as something to be embraced and understood, rather than ignored. Even if one were to legitimately claim that they “do not see colour,” it is important to recognize that understanding the perspective of seeing the race of their students is necessary to prepare them for the world they will navigate.

– Olivia Skaley, pre-service teacher

I don’t see age. I don’t see disabilities. I don’t see gender. I don’t see sexuality. I don’t see poverty. I don’t see colour. Recognize the absurdity? In reality, we all perceive colour. We all form judgments rooted in stereotypes and unconscious biases. Adopting a colourblind stance neglects the profound impact skin colour can have on individuals. By dismissing these experiences, you miss addressing systemic and intersectional inequalities stacked against Black, Indigenous and People of Colour.

While I appreciate the intention behind the colour blind approach, it is crucial for society to move beyond expecting individuals to always comprehend motives. Merely acknowledging race remains discomforting for many. Yet, it is essential to affirm that you see me. Acknowledge me so we can get to the business of leveling the playing field.

- Janice Pinnock, diversity education consultant

I’ve heard the phrase “I don’t see colour” often in my career. The person sharing this sentiment is using it as a means to reassure that what’s about to be said next is not connected to race. I’ve often associated this with erasure of identity. My race and skin colour tell my story. By stating that you do not see my colour, you are contributing to a system of conforming.

My brownness connects me to my ancestors, it tells the story of resilient hands that planted olive trees in soils that are foreign to me. It tells the story of my mother’s resilience, and my grandparents’ courage. I acknowledge the systems of oppression that are in place that directly affect me, my children and my students through an inherit bias that is evident in all systemic institutions; however, I’ll immerse myself in the joy brought on by my colour and I carry it with pride.

I urge teachers to rethink that notion of not seeing colour, and to work towards understanding what it actually means.

– Rana Shawar, teacher

“I don’t see colour!” Is a term that I have, specifically, heard on vanishingly few occasions. However, I have had significantly more interactions with its analogs:

  • Skin colour isn’t something that matters to me.
  • I have lots of black friends.
  • I have friends across the spectrum of colour.
  • I see all people as being equal.
  • I treat everyone with kindness.
  • I treat everyone the way that I would want to be treated.

My personal impression is that individuals use these phrases to create the impression that their interactions with the world are not fundamentally and frequently guided by bias. Each instance has served to clarify my awareness of the depth, insidiousness and ubiquitousness of bias. These experiences continue to fuel my unwavering commitment to working with young people (the most adaptable of us) to develop their awareness and fundamental human skills.

– Omari Lewis, teacher

What goes through my mind when I hear the phrase “I don’t see colour” is my interior monologue responding with “must be nice.” As a person of colour, I am constantly reminded that my narrative, my experiences and my presence in this profession are different from many, and with that comes assumptions ranging from what subjects I teach to who I am and “should be” in the eyes of others as an educator.

I feel like I used to hear this phrase at the beginning of my career when folks would chime in as to how issues should be taken up in social studies. Not so much anymore. I want to believe that folks have regarded this phrase to be tone deaf and immensely unhelpful in advancing the work of anti-racism and reconciliation. It is always encouraging to see responsive change in action where folks are willing to walk something back when they know/learn otherwise.

A memorable experience I’ve had with the phrase is a session I attended at GETCA a few years ago, when Dr. Farha Shariff shared a quote that still resonates with me to this day: “To see one’s race as having no meaning is a privilege afforded only to white people.” To me ... the position of colour-blindness is a position of privilege that is only afforded to some, certainly not those oppressed by systems of prejudice, discrimination and racism.

– Waishing Lam, teacher

Portrait of a smiling black women with long black hair in a fuscia blouse.
Gail-Ann Wilson Mitchell

Executive Staff Officer