On Color-Blindness and Observation Method

Thoughts, US Culture
four diverse women

The author (second right) and international students on a trip to Washington, DC

There are by now several compelling arguments why being “color-blind” does not address the problem of racism but merely masks it. A recent study in Social Psychological and Personality Science, detailed in New York Magazine, found that children were self-censoring to avoid referring to people by race. Middle-school children were asked to identify a photo of a person out of a group of 40 by asking yes-or-no questions. It was discovered that:

Overall, the odds of children mentioning race were 4 times lower than mentioning gender […], despite the fact that both questions were equally useful for completing the task. It was also clear that children noticed race: Over 97% reported noticing that the photos varied by race in the posttask measures.

The results were consistent across different (self-reported) racial backgrounds. The children who avoided mentioning race despite noticing it explained their choice as not wanting to be rude or racist. The study concludes that the stigma on mentioning race hurts minority children as race is central to their identities.

While this is a powerful argument to stop avoiding race in conversation and pretending to live in a postracial society, one should be careful not to interpret the findings as an encouragement for referring to people by their (perceived) background — something the authors never explicitly state in the article. Whatever benefits a person may derive from a strong racial identity, that identification needs to be determined by the person themselves and not assigned to them by the external observer.


Diversity in the US

Globalization, US Culture

You often hear that the US is a diverse nation and you can meet people from all over the world here. I would like to examine this notion of diversity.

First of all, there is no arguing that the US strives to end race and ethnicity-based discrimination (at least on the legal and official level). While there may still be some racism in the attitudes, unlike in my home country of Russia, it is unlikely to make its way into the mainstream discourse or policy. Diversity is proclaimed and welcomed in universities, in the workplace, and in the community. Far from trying to challenge this notion, I would like to examine what kind of diversity we are talking about.

One of the things you often hear from some Americans is how you can meet people from all sort of cultures and backgrounds in the US. This makes sense considering that in 2010 13 percent of US residents were born abroad. There is no arguing that people from all over the world have been coming to the US to work, study, live, or travel.

However, this interaction seems to be very one-sided. Foreign-born people are primarily viewed in terms of how they adapt to the US. Americans seem to be indifferent to these people’s cultural “baggage” and know little about the life in their home countries, their history and language. Thus,  the American notion of “diversity” pretty much reduces all international people — immigrants or not — to “Americans of X origin.”

While it is to be expected that guests and newcomers adapt to the rules of their host country, Americans don’t seem to meet them halfway. This is purely anecdotal, but I have met people who worked/served abroad for a few years but failed to pick up more than a few stereotypes about their host location. Having been the expat who fails to learn the local language, I am far from judging them, but isn’t it time we reconsidered the supposed diversity of the US?

Take the example of language as a vivid illustration of this trend. As reported in National Journal, “an analysis of 2010 census numbers shows that only 10 percent of the native-born reported speaking a second language. When immigrants were included, that percentage increased to 20.1 percent.” That means most US residents who can speak another language acquired it through speaking it from birth rather than mastering it through study.

Language is but one example but the list can be expanded. Education, business, entertainment — the diversity seems to consist in people flowing to the US and learning about it and not the other way around. “Well, everything is better in the US,” you may say. But how do you know that before you explore other cultures? Do you know as much about the culture of your foreign partner as they do about yours?