By Michael I. Norton and Evan P. Apfelbaum
It’s a natural tendency, proven time and again in research: When you see a new person, one of the first things you notice is his or her race. In business life, however, we typically pretend we don’tnotice—a behavior that’s called “color blindness”—because we want to reduce our odds of exhibiting prejudice or engaging in discrimination, or of seeming to do either.
Our research, conducted with our colleague Sam Sommers, of Tufts University, shows that there are drawbacks to the color-blind approach. In a series of experiments, we found that when people avoided referring to race in situations that cried out for a mention of it, other people perceived them as moreracially biased than if they’d brought the subject up.
We asked 30 white adult participants to play the role of the questioner in a version of the child’s game Guess Who? Each was paired with a partner (some partners were white, some black) who was assigned a target face from a sheet containing photos of 32 faces. The participants were told to ask their partners yes or no questions (“Does the person have a mustache?” “Does the person have blue eyes?”) to try to identify the target face, aiming to do so with as few questions as possible. Half the faces on each sheet were white, and half were black. Obviously, one of the fastest ways to zero in on the target would be to ask about race—the answer would eliminate half the field. But the questioners tended to shy away from that strategy, particularly when their partners were black: For example, just 57% of those who played with a white partner, and 21% of those who played with a black partner, used the word “black” or “African-American” in a question. And the people who did looked uncomfortable and anxious.