The Color Bind: Talking (and Not Talking) About Race at Work

Erica Gabrielle Foldy & Tamara R. Buckley

217 pages, Russell Sage Foundation, 2014

Buy the book »

Organizations engaged in social innovation regularly face issues related to race and ethnicity, but often avoid actually talking about them. We call this the color bind. This book grew out of a study of child welfare workers. We observed teams over several years to see how their members discussed race and ethnicity in their work with families, and found that most teams barely broached the topic. In fact, only one team regularly brought race or ethnicity into their conversations. We dug into what made this team different and gleaned some important lessons for a variety of organizational contexts.

The Color Bind shares in-depth case studies of this team and others, and outlines strategies—including modeling desired behavior and encouraging movement toward color cognizance—for organizations looking to transcend the color bind and engage race in ways that advance their mission and create trusting relationships.

Chapter 1: The Color Bind

The local office of the state’s child welfare agency was difficult to find. Although it was located on a busy road, no signs indicated that the office was inside. In fact, the door from the street looked almost like a back entrance, without identification of any kind. Once inside, instead of a lobby, there were just a dark and somewhat dingy set of stairs leading up and a hallway leading to an elevator. The office of the agency was on the third floor.

The workers were immersed in a conversation about a particularly challenging case. The members of this family were recent immigrants from West Africa who had witnessed terrible violence because of their country’s civil war. The agency was involved in the case because the fourteen-year-old son, living with his grandparents, had become too difficult for them to handle. He was currently at a group facility receiving treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

One particularly troubling behavior was his tendency to move in very close to others, but the source of the behavior was unclear. Was it culturally informed or a sign of aggression? The lead caseworker, Dave, described what the boy would do. “He’ll corner her [the staff person at the group facility]. Get right up into her face. He does that with other people. Did that with me, [with] every one of us in that meeting.” His coworker, Chris, wondered about the boy’s diagnosis: “Sounds to me like we don’t have a lot of information on the kid. What’s his evaluation say? To me PTSD is a throw away diagnosis. More going on.” Arlo, another team member, agreed, raising the possibility of cultural misunderstanding or stereotyping: “[PTSD is] attached to every kid [that] comes from Africa.” Chris built on this: “Culturally, from [West African country], talking close to someone might not be a boundary issue.”

Katie, their team leader, picked up this theme, noting that their consulting psychologist had puzzled over the role of culture when doing a psychiatric evaluation: “He was debating [whether to give] him psychosis as part of his diagnosis, because we don’t have a full understanding of his culture.” “Or what he lived through,” noted Katie’s supervisor, Harriet. But Dave was resistant to a cultural explanation: “[The boy] is not getting into anyone’s face because of cultural reasons, he’s getting in people’s face[s] to make them feel uncomfortable. No question in my mind.” Katie pushed back, suggesting that culture could be at least part of the explanation: “That would be good to at least call [the agency that does cultural evaluations]. I do think understanding the cultural is a piece that’s important … The more we can become educated.” Finally, Carla, another coworker, appealed to Dave on a personal level: “[Dave], the second you got this case you said, ‘I know the cultural aspect of this is going to be tremendous, I want to take it as a learning experience.’ You could be right, [the boy] could just be trying to get into somebody’s face to piss them off… . But, in terms of learning more—maybe there’s something else there. That it comes from the cultural. Why not, if we can, why not explore? Maybe it will uncover some of those questions.” After a pause, Dave concurred: “I agree,” he said.

This discussion illustrates a work group wrestling with the role of culture in its work with families. Standing very close to someone could be a sign of hostility, a reaction to trauma, or a cultural norm. In fact, it could be all three. How can they know? The team ultimately recognized the limits of its knowledge and decided to pursue a cultural evaluation to enhance its understanding rather than settle for a simplistic explanation that either anointed culture as the only explanation or fully rejected it. The team’s conversation, though, didn’t reference only the family’s culture. When Katie and Harriet praised his work with the boy, Dave thought his own “very open, animated” way of interacting rooted in his “Italian family” might have played a role. Although brief, the comment illustrates his awareness that he, like his client, is also informed by culture.

This conversation stands out because this work group was able to grapple with the often-challenging topic of culture, something that most workplaces largely avoid. Indeed, as we document in this book, even in the context of a child welfare agency that extolled cultural competence, explicit discussions related to culture were quite rare—and conversations referencing race rarer still. Ample research suggests that most of us shy away from exchanges related to race or culture, particularly in diverse groups, even if we think such topics are important. We feel caught in a color bind. This team did not feel those constraints, however. This book explores how its story, and the story of other teams in the same agency, can help us break free of the color bind.

Although our study is based in child protection, analogous conversations might happen in other work contexts in which participants must grapple with the role and weight of race and culture. Policymakers investigate how a proposed public housing regulation preventing convicted felons from living there will have different impacts on black and white tenants because African Americans are so disproportionately ensnared in the criminal justice system. The vice president of human resources and the lead corporate counsel at a large manufacturer wrestle with a recent allegation of racial discrimination. A doctor, nurse, and social worker explore how best to approach a distraught patient in the emergency room, recently emigrated from Indonesia. A professor and her teaching assistants discuss how to teach the achievement gap in education without putting students of color on the defensive. A racially diverse team of field researchers studying a Mexican community checks in every evening to compare notes, including reflections on how their differing backgrounds may shape the way they understand an interaction they observed. Members of corporate teams, brought together from four continents to design and market a new product for a global audience, must learn together how cultural differences can affect how consumers will react.

As the child welfare workers grappled with how to work with the West African family, they reflected—knowingly or not—a larger societal debate about whether, how, and when race, ethnicity, and culture matter. Two basic models of diversity and inclusion contend for influence in the American arena. One is the color-blind approach that emphasizes similarity and assimilation, the dominant model in the United States since the 1960s. Color blindness, informed by a universalistic ideology that presumes a set of broad similarities among all people, argues that race and culture are largely irrelevant and that people should be understood as individuals, not identity-group members. It down-plays the existence of current discrimination and racism, seeing them as vestiges of the past. Color blindness is a step in the right direction when compared with slavery, genocide, and outright segregation. Scholars from many fields, however, including sociology, psychology, and education, have delineated how it contributes to searing inequities. Whether driven by a well-meaning desire to do right, an anxious need to evade charged issues, or a hostile animus toward people of color, color blindness ultimately reinforces the current racial hierarchy. Therefore, many call instead for color cognizance, drawing from a culturally particularistic perspective, which combines an awareness of the profound impact of race and ethnicity on individuals and communities, a belief in the richness of racial and cultural heritage, and an acknowledgment of prejudice and discrimination.

Much of this literature aptly addresses the broad currents and institutions in American life that shape these discourses. On the ground, however, these models are enacted by people interacting with other people. Little research examines what enables color cognizance to flourish or even gain a foothold at the micro level—for diverse groups of people to actually engage in color-conscious behavior that includes discussing racial and ethnic differences as a point of strength and addresses these differences in real time.

In fact, in work groups, color cognizance is hard: it requires breaking with established ways of thinking; it challenges those who benefit from the status quo, usually those of European descent; and it means talking about things, like race and culture, that are hard to talk about. Above all, perhaps, it demands being willing to make mistakes. Therefore, many of us who believe these issues matter and think they should be addressed are reluctant to do so. In fact, research suggests that members of all racial groups can be apprehensive about such conversations, though for different reasons. Whites are likely to fear that they will say something racist or offensive or will be perceived as doing so, and people of color are worried that they will be the targets of such statements. Because both sets of concerns are credible, we remain caught in the color bind.

This book, based on an intensive investigation of teams in a child welfare agency, builds theory on how we can transcend the color bind, creating work groups that can discuss racial and cultural issues in ways that advance the work and create trusting relationships.

For more on the book, watch an interview with the authors. The Color Bind can be purchased on the Russell Sage Foundation’s website.