How wishing to appear racially colour-blind can backfire

I haven’t got a sign on the door that says white people only. I don’t care if you're black, brown or yellow - you know, Orientals make very good workers”, David Brent, from the BBC comedy The Office.

Like gender, age, hair colour and other personal attributes, a person’s race can be a useful way of distinguishing them from others, especially if, in conversation, we’re attempting to refer to a person whose name we don’t know. But such is the fear of being labelled a racist, that today many people go out of their way to appear racially colour-blind.

However, this desire to appear oblivious to race can backfire. Michael Norton and colleagues have shown that it not only impairs people’s performance on an identification game, but that it is also associated with appearing unfriendly.

The researchers first paired 30 white participants with either a black or white playing partner (unbeknown to the participants these partners were assistants working for the researchers). The participants had before them 32 photos of people – half were male; half were old, half were young; half were black, half were white and so on. On each turn, the participants had to identify which one of these 32 people their playing partner was currently looking at, by asking as few yes/no questions as possible.

Participants playing with a black partner were far less likely to ask a question about the race of the person in the photograph (64 per cent of trials) than were participants playing with a white partner (93 per cent). Not only did this apparent political correctness impair their performance at the game – they needed to ask more questions to find out who their partner was looking at – the effort to appear colour-blind was also associated with appearing less friendly.

Two independent judges watched silent video recordings of the participants as they played the game (their partners were obscured) and took note of their manner and body language. It turned out that those participants who used the terms ‘Black’ or ‘African American’ less during the game, were rated as more unfriendly by the judges, and tended to make less eye contact with their partner.

“Ironically those Whites who tried hardest to appear colour-blind by avoiding the use of race were the individuals who appeared least friendly when interacting with black partners”, the researchers said.

Norton, M.I., Sommers, S.R., Apfelbaum, E.P., Pura, N. & Ariely, D. (2006). Colour blindness and interracial interaction. Psychological Science, 17, 949-953.
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