The #BlackLivesMatter movement spread like wildfire, across the world, amid the 2020 COVID19 pandemic. Campaigns flood social media. Many organisations advocated for social justice. Masked protestors flooded the streets all over the Americas, Europe and Australia2.
Amid the protests, another slogan appeared. #AllLivesMatter. At first glance, it made sense. It comes from the belief that everyone is equal and should be treated equally. Race should not matter. Yet, the slogan points to a larger problem3.
The racial colour-blindness does not only appear in social justice movements. Many organisations adopt this approach in their culture as well as diversity and inclusion initiatives.
Isn't racial colour blindness a good approach?
Racial Colour-Blindness is when an organisation and their leaders emphasise individuality. People are judged based on their personal talent, merit and character. Race should not matter in how people are treated.
At first glance, this might seem like a fair deal.
Organisations that adopt racial colour-blindness believe that all employees should be treated equally. It influences decisions in recruitment, promotions, performance management and other human resource processes. This stems from the belief that race
should not be taken into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed, and behaviours are enacted4. ~ Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers
Racial colour-blindness might have started with good intentions. Yet, this approach is harmful because it can lead to the exclusion of minority employees. The attitude of "should not matter" means that issues of discrimination should be ignored or dismissed.
Yet, people do notice race. You cannot ignore race. It is the very first thing that people see. Our minds perceive race in less than one-seventh of a second and as early as 6 years old5.
It has become a norm to not acknowledge or mention race for fear of being accused of racism or offending others in our modern society. And so, people don't mention race out of good intentions. Yet, race cannot be ignored, especially when it involves making important decisions.
Proud of being racially colour-blind
When an organisation emphasises racial colour-blindness, employees from the dominant culture tend to pride themselves on it.
Who wouldn't want to be treated as an equal?
In a racial colour-blind organisation, the dominant group's norms and values become the benchmark. A successful employee is expected to behave in the same manner. Those who act differently are excluded.
Employees from minority groups feel the pressure to fit in and to change their appearance and behaviour. To succeed, minorities must appear and act like the organisation's dominant culture. They limit their cultural expressions, sometimes to the point of covering.
For example, people were told to act white in white-dominated companies. Or women were told to play like men in male-dominated industries. Thus, minority employees who do not "act" like the majority may be ignored, dismissed or excluded6.
The majority prefer colour-blind.
Racial Colour-Blindness is usually preferred by the majority group. They hold a deep-seated belief that outcomes in life should not be dependent on race but based on one's effort and talent.
However, people from the dominant culture forget to consider their advantageous position. Unlike the majority, minorities need to exert more tremendous effort to overcome barriers of discrimination.
The majority's preference for colour-blindness is to defend their dominant position within the organisation. Rather than adapting themselves, the majority hopes for minorities to adapt to mainstream norms. Rather than shedding their culture, the majority expect for minorities to shed theirs.
Paradoxically, when the dominant group adopts racial colour-blindness, they are less engaged with minority peers. Also, employees increasingly believe their organisational climate is racists7.
If racial colour-blindness is not the answer, is there an alternative?
The Colourful Approach: Multiculturalism
Multiculturalism is the preservation of diverse voices and traditions, yet unified in purpose8. Multiculturalism is like a patchwork quilt. Each patchwork with its unique character and story. Yet, woven together with another patchwork to create a beautiful quilt.
In using the multicultural approach, organisations recognise, support and appreciate the benefits of cultural diversity. In valuing diversity, people of diverse backgrounds feel included.
There is no pressure to conform or adapt to the dominant culture. People feel safe to bring their authentic selves and be fully engaged in the workplace. Peers gain knowledge of the cultural others. Cultural empathy increases. And positivity towards cultural others grow.
The minorities prefer colourful.
Multiculturalism has a positive influence on minority members. Researchers9 discovered that members of the minority group prefer multiculturalism to racial colour-blindness in the workplace.
For one, minorities sense an increase in their positive self-esteem and motivation. There is an increase in confidence and sense of security when minorities are allowed to express diversity. With the recognition of cultural differences, minorities feel valued. Subsequently, work performance improves and work satisfaction increases.
However, employees from the majority group feel uncomfortable and excluded. They sense that organisational benefits only prioritises minority, leaving them out of the picture. Hence, employees from majority groups are less attracted to multicultural organisations.
Companies need to move beyond colourism.
When organisations use either colour-blindness or multiculturalism, someone will be excluded. Researchers advocate for an alternative, All-Inclusive Multiculturalism or AIM10. AIM is the inclusion of everyone, both majority and minority groups.
AIM acknowledges the consequences of race, gender or other demographics on the individual. Yet, it considers these consequences for all groups equally, for both majority and minority groups. All groups are encouraged to maintain their identity under the larger identity of the organisation.
Leaders need to be mindful of these approaches and find ways to be inclusive to all groups. Here are some suggestions
- Strive to ensure leadership roles and diversity task-forces are culturally representative.
- Openly appreciate the contributions of all cultural groups in organisational communication
- Mention how everyone can enjoy benefits when implementing policies.
- Share how diversity policies promote professionalism and create a better workplace.
Yes, all lives matter. But all lives are not made equal.
Ignoring racial diversity by saying everyone is equal, does not solve issues of discrimination. It is not as easy as waving a wand, uttering a spell "that-shall-not-be-named"; in the naive hope that discrimination becomes "that-shall-not-exist".
As long as racial discrimination persists in society, race needs to be recognised and considered. All aspects of an organisation, from human resources to diversity and inclusion, from leadership to new hire, need to be mindful of their approach.
Fostering an inclusive and fair workplace is not an easy task. It takes a lot of effort to understanding and patience for diverse needs to be met.
The All-Inclusive Multiculturalism will need commitment from everyone in the organisation. While it is hard to change anything overnight, the effort is most definitely worthwhile.
What will you do to create an "All-Inclusive Multicultural" workplace?
- Gottbrath, L.-W. (2020, December 31). In 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement shook the world. Aljazeera.
- Stollznow, K. (2021, January 13). Why is it so offensive to say ‘all lives matter’? The Conversation.
- Apfelbaum, E. P., Norton, M. I., & Sommers, S. R. (2012).Racial Color Blindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21(3), 205–209.
- Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R. M. (2006). Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing. Psychological Science, 17(2), 159–163. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2006.01679.x
- Chrobot-Mason, D., & Thomas, K. M. (2002). Minority Employees in Majority Organizations: The Intersection of Individual and Organizational Racial Identity in the Workplace. Human Resource Development Review, 1(3), 323–344.
- Knowles, E. D., Lowery, B. S., Hogan, C. M., & Chow, R. M. (2009). On the malleability of ideology: Motivated construals of color blindness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(4), 857–869.
- Verkuyten, M. (2007). Social Psychology and Multiculturalism: Social Psychology and Multiculturalism. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 1(1), 280–297.
- Wolsko, C., Park, B., & Judd, C. M. (2006). Considering the Tower of Babel: Correlates of Assimilation and Multiculturalism among Ethnic Minority and Majority Groups in the United States. Social Justice Research, 19(3), 277–306. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11211-006-0014-8
- Stevens, F. G., Plaut, V. C., & Sanchez-Burks, J. (2008). Unlocking the Benefits of Diversity: All-Inclusive Multiculturalism and Positive Organizational Change. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 44(1), 116–133. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886308314460