COLOUR-BLINDNESS AND ITS IMPLICATIONS
Towards the end of his I Have a Dream speech in 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. called for full civil and economic rights for African Americans and an end to racism in the United States (US), he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character”. This particular segment of his speech has since been cited as advocating for racial colour-blindness, which is “rooted in the belief that racial group membership and race-based differences should not be taken into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed, and behaviours are enacted”. The underlying logic of colour-blindness and how it can prevent racial prejudice and discrimination is this: if individuals or institutions do not even notice race, then they are unable to behave in racially biased ways. As a result, it seems to promise equal opportunities for all, with race no longer impacting one’s access to opportunities and lived experiences. However, despite being seemingly well-intentioned in nature and perhaps sound in theory, it risks unintended consequences when applied in reality, especially when practised in a still-racist world like ours.
Although racial colour-blindness assumes that racism will cease to exist so long as we are blind, or rather, choose not to see race, problematically, when it is embraced, it also involves a refusal to see the persistent racial discrimination and inequities, history of violence, as well as the current trauma that is perpetuated within a still-racist society. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva warns, colour-blindness merely functions as an ideology that legitimises specific practices that maintain racial inequalities, including, but not limited to, police brutality, housing discrimination, and voter disenfranchisement, amongst others. Though thought about in the context of the US, similar arguments could be made on the persistence of racial inequalities in many other contexts. Rather than resulting in less racism as it promises, this very ideology more likely perpetuates ‘colour-blind racism’, which is arguably more insidious than overt forms of racism. Those who enjoy relative privileges on the basis of their race can minimise or deny the extent of racial inequality and discrimination by insisting they ‘do not see race’, and rather, explain such inequalities as resulting from factors unrelated to race. In this way, adopting such an ideology undeniably threatens to conceal racial inequalities, dismiss the lived experiences of people of colour, and inhibit conversations surrounding race and racism entirely.
The negative repercussions of colour-blindness can be best expressed by the emergence of the All Lives Matter (ALM) movement, which arose as a response to, and criticism of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the US. Supporters of ALM claim that their position is far more inclusive than BLM, which they took to mean ‘Only Black Lives Matter’. In a similar vein, criticising BLM for being ‘divisive’ and ‘racist’ in nature, former US President Donald Trump and other high-level Republican representatives too have articulated a clear preference for ALM instead. Similar sentiments have also been echoed by high-profile Democrats, including former Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in her call for greater inclusivity. The slogan ‘All Lives Matter’ outwardly proclaims that all lives are equal because we are all human beings. This very articulation is a colour-blind one, endorsing the belief that rather than race, what matters is our shared humanity. While it is indeed true that all lives matter, its usage misunderstands and deflects attention away from the true problem. As plainly put by Judith Butler, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, “It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve”. In a world where Blacks continue to be stigmatised, marginalised, and discriminated against, BLM demands recognition for the value of their lives as well. Hence, contrary to what advocates of ALM might think, the utterance of ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not to say that only Black lives matter, but rather that Black lives matter too. Therefore, when ‘All Lives Matter’ is used in response to ‘Black Lives Matter’, it essentially derails the specific conversation about racism against Blacks.
Because colour-blindness tends to individualise the inequalities as experienced by people of colour, those who are unlikely to experience disadvantages due to their race can effectively ignore or downplay racism, justify the current social order, and feel more comfortable with their relatively privileged standing in society. Though embracing racial colour-blindness is perceived by some as a dawn of a ‘post-racial’ society, research suggests otherwise, for colour-blindness may actually perpetuate existing racial inequities, with embracing a colour-blind ideology leading to more racial bias, rather than less. While advocates of colour-blindness tend to claim that emphasising Whites’ group identity as Whites (rather than as individuals) is counterproductive as they would then cling to, rather than critique the privileges which ‘whiteness’ affords, scholarly evidence directly contradicts this argument. Similarly, with regard to support for ALM, research has shown that the more an individual articulated support for ALM, the more they displayed high levels of implicit racism against Blacks and defined racism in very narrow terms, which made them unlikely to see racism except in the most outstanding situations. As a result, even though supporters of ALM may claim to be more inclusive than BLM, they are essentially weaponising colour-blindness to deny anti-Black racism and maintain the current racialised social order that privileges and protects the superiority of ‘whiteness’ over others. In contrast, moving away from colour-blindness has actually been shown to serve as a pathway toward anti-racism. In many of these studies, as Whites came to understand themselves as members of a racial group that enjoyed unearned privileges and benefits, they were compelled to forge a different sense of White identity built on anti-racism rather than simply supporting the status quo.
CURRENT SITUATION IN SINGAPORE
While much has been written about this topic in the context of the US, we could also think about its relevance to Singapore. In 2020, Sylvia Lim, chairman of Workers’ Party, called for a nationwide review on how Singapore’s progress towards becoming a ‘race-blind society’ could be quickened, with this aim having been articulated in a report created by the Constitutional Commission to review the elected presidency in 2016. She also called for an open review of race-based policies, including the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) and race-based self-help groups; while such policies have been beneficial, their existence has also arguably reinforced racial consciousness which could be detrimental to true harmony. While the goal of a race-blind society, where racial prejudice no longer exists, is ideal, I argue that a hastening of this process without due attention paid to pre-existing racial inequalities, as well as prejudice, may be detrimental.
According to the most recent data from the 2021 Channel NewsAsia-Institute of Policy Studies Survey on Race Relations, which polled more than 2,000 Singapore residents aged 21 and above, more Singaporeans (56 percent) now perceive racism to be an important problem, as compared to 46 percent in 2016. While this does not necessarily suggest that racism has increased in Singapore, it does however indicate a greater awareness of how racial bias and prejudice may manifest in our everyday lives. This heightened awareness may be, in part, informed by the slew of high-profile racist incidents that happened in the past year, including the incident of the former lecturer who made racist remarks to an interracial couple and the man who had hurled racial slurs and assaulted a 55-year-old Indian woman for not wearing her mask even though she was engaging in strenuous exercise.
Strikingly, approximately half, or 53.9 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that being of the majority race is an advantage in Singapore society, with sentiments about majority privilege differing by race. While minority race respondents were more likely to agree or strongly agree that this was the case (67.9 percent of Malay respondents and 63.3 percent of Indian respondents), Chinese respondents were evenly divided on the issue. Additionally, while most Malay (66.9 percent) and Indian (60.6 percent) respondents agreed or strongly agreed that members of the majority race generally have more resources and opportunities than other races, only 42.6 percent of Chinese respondents felt similarly. Contrastingly, while most Chinese respondents (71.8 percent) felt that racial minorities have the same resources and opportunities as the majority race, only 37.7 percent of Malays and 46.4 percent of Indians felt that they did. The survey also found that roughly one-fifth of Malay and Indian respondents felt they had unfairly lost out on a job due to their race at least once – for instance, by mandating Mandarin speakers when it was unclear if this was a genuinely necessary requirement for the job – compared to just 5 percent of Chinese respondents. Elsewhere, more individuals from the minority races have also come forward to share instances of casual racism, which include, but are not restricted to name-calling, racist jokes, use of vulgarities, contact avoidance, expressions of irritation, and differential treatment. From these examples alone, individuals of colour have evidently been, or at least, perceived to have been treated differently based on their race. Within such a context, simply adopting a colourblind policy may only serve to gloss over such experiences than provide avenues for productive conversations surrounding race, discrimination, and prejudice in Singapore to occur.
Evidently, despite being well-meaning in nature, adopting colour-blindness as a mode of fostering greater harmony in a still-racist world is not only impossible but also unhelpful. Simply choosing to ignore one’s race or ethnicity to focus on human similarities rather than differences without paying adequate attention to the unequal power dynamics embedded within racial hierarchies in societies is extremely problematic. Though it is construed to promote racial harmony, colour-blindness undeniably allows people from non-disadvantaged backgrounds to see themselves as non-prejudiced and utilise colour-blindness to defend racial hierarchies instead. Not only does this deny the lived experiences of people of colour, but it also prevents those who enjoy racial privilege from being cognisant of this privilege and work towards a more equitable society. The goal of anti-racist work is not to make race invisible but rather to shed light on existing systems of inequity based on race so that they can be dismantled.
Interestingly, a popular alternative to racial colour-blindness is that of multiculturalism. As one of our own national policies, it ostensibly calls for all races to be treated equally, with diversity strengthening the social fabric of Singapore through exchanges of different customs and practices across the various racial groups. Rather than refusing to look at race, as colour-blindness posits, multiculturalism blatantly does. Although it does facilitate appreciation of differences rather than a mere silencing of them, it is not without its drawbacks too. Particularly, the hyper-visibility of race in various aspects of our social life has also meant that race is very much a part of the everyday consciousness of Singaporeans who have, in turn, come to view themselves and those around them in very racialised ways, which may result in greater racial stereotyping or discrimination. Against such a backdrop, the way forward is to therefore allow for more productive conversations about race to occur, giving equal weight to all racial groups to shed light on issues specific to them, taking these concerns seriously, and more importantly, not shying away from difficult conversations. ⬛
1 National Public Radio. Read Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in its entirety. 2022, January 14. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/2010/01/18/122701268/i-have-a-dream-speech-in-its-entirety
2 Apfelbaum, E. P., Norton, M. I., and Sommers, S. R. Racial Color Blindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications. Psychological Science, 21(3), 2012. pp. 205-209. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721411434980
3 Wingfield, A.H. Color Blindness Is Counterproductive. The Atlantic. 2015, September 13. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/color-blindness-is-counterproductive/405037/
4 Sijpenhof, M. L. A transformation of racist discourse? Colour-blind racism and biological racism in Dutch secondary schooling (1968–2017). Paedagogica Historica, 56(1-2), 2020. pp. 51-69. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/00309230.2019.1616787
5 Atkins, A. Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter? Color-blindness and Epistemic Injustice. Social Epistemology, 33(1), 2019. pp. 1-22. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2018.1483879
6 West, K., Greenland, K., and van Laar, C. Implicit racism, colour blindness, and narrow definitions of discrimination: Why some White people prefer ‘All Lives Matter’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(4), 2021. pp. 1136-1153. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12458
7 Atkins, A. Black Lives Matter or All Lives Matter? Color-blindness and Epistemic Injustice. Social Epistemology, 33(1), 2019. pp. 1-22. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/02691728.2018.1483879
8 Rappeport, A. Hillary Clinton’s ‘All Lives Matter’ Remark Stirs Backlash. The New York Times. 2015, June 24. Retrieved from: https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/06/24/hillary-clintons-all-lives-matter-remark-stirs-backlash/
9 Richeson, J. A., and Nussbaum, R. J. The impact of multiculturalism versus color-blindness on racial bias. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 40(3), 2004. pp. 417-423. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.09.002
10 West, K., Greenland, K., and van Laar, C. Implicit racism, colour blindness, and narrow definitions of discrimination: Why some White people prefer ‘All Lives Matter’ to ‘Black Lives Matter’. British Journal of Social Psychology, 60(4), 2021. pp. 1136-1153. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1111/bjso.12458
11 Tan, A. WP’s Sylvia Lim: Policies need to be addressed for S’pore to become ‘race-blind society’. Mothership. 2020, September 1. Retrieved from: https://mothership.sg/2020/09/sylvia-lim-race-blind-society/
12 Lim, V. Growing number of people in Singapore feel racism is an important problem: CNA-IPS study. Channel NewsAsia. 2022, April 2. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/racism-discrimination-singapore-survey-ips-2601276
13 Awang, N., Ng, J. S., and Naheswari, SM. The Big Read: High time to talk about racism, but Singapore society ill-equipped after decades of treating it as taboo. Channel NewsAsia. 2021, June 19. Retrieved from: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/the-big-read-racism-singapore-society-race-interracial-1955501
14 Mathews, M., Teo, K. K., and Nah, S. Attitudes, Actions and Aspirations: Key Findings from the CNA-IPA Survey on Race Relations 2021. Institute of Policy Studies. April 2022. Retrieved from: https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/ips-exchange-series-22.pdf
15 Institute of Policy Studies. Commentary: Here’s how far Singapore has come in making ‘regardless of race’ a lived reality for all. 2022, April 3. Retrieved from: https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/ips/publications/details/commentary-heres-how-far-singapore-has-come-in-making-regardless-of-race-a-lived-reality-for-all
16 Velayutham, S. Races without Racism?: everyday race relations in Singapore. Identities, Global Studies in Culture and Power, 24(4), 2017. pp. 455-473. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1080/1070289X.2016.1200050
17 Plaut, V. C., Thomas, K. M., Hurd, K., and Romano, C. A. Do Color Blindness and Multiculturalism Remedy or Foster Discrimination and Racism? Psychological Science, 27(3), 2018. pp. 200–206. Retrieved from: https://doi.org/10.1177/09637214187660680
Shantini Rajasingam is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University.