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“Colorblindness” Is Not the Answer

Monday, July 18, 2016  
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What is Colorblindness?

            Race issues continue to be difficult for our country to address and we have found various ways to handle our associated discomfort over time. As our country transitioned from widespread blatant racial discrimination and segregation, which clearly made evident that race should be taken into account when determining a person’s worth, we made major advances in creating a more equal society. However, along the way, we also adopted the view that if we no longer acknowledged racial differences, then racial disadvantage would cease to exist and all would be fixed. This concept has been defined as colorblindness. The article, Colorblind Ideology Is a Form of Racism, by Monnica T. Williams Ph.D., defines colorblindness as: “the racial ideology that posits the best way to end discrimination is by treating individuals as equally as possible, without regard to race, culture, or ethnicity”.

This concept informs commonly heard comments: “I don’t see race” or “race doesn’t matter, we’re all the same”. Essentially, as Dr. Williams describes, we took Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideals of full equality regardless of the color of one’s skin -- which still should be our goal -- and ended up stating, before enough progress had been made, that we have already arrived in a post-racial society. However, clearly our minority students remain very aware that we have not.

As a study abroad field one of our goals is for students to discover the commonalities between people, to see how we are all connected across the globe, and to recognize our collective humanity. However, being colorblind is not the way to achieve these goals. Indeed, colorblindness, and the insistence that we are all the same, does not help unify us but only serves to erase our respective histories. Furthermore, all colorblindness does is relieve advisors and faculty from needing to actually address the discomfort and challenges related to racial difference, privilege, power and disadvantage. Instead, as echoed by Dr. Williams’, our goal should be fearless multiculturalism, which acknowledges the differences in identities and experiences of our students and prompts us to be: “not afraid to see how others have suffered as a result of racial conflict or difference” (Williams, 2011). Instead of ignoring conversations about race, we need to proactively discuss race issues before students go abroad and effectively advise diverse students ourselves or know the resources with which we can connect students to appropriately up-pack these experiences and get additional support. Instead of being dismissive, we need to validate our students’ experiences when they say that they have experienced discrimination abroad. In effect, fearless multiculturalism would involve anticipating and discussing race related issues throughout the study abroad process.

What Does “Colorblindness” Look Like in Study Abroad?

In education abroad practitioners emphasize global citizenship, increased leadership development, and an expanded worldview as the purpose and benefits of international education. However, there is relatively little discussion or research on diversity issues and how they affect the experiences of students, specifically students of color, who study abroad. This is unfortunate, and in fact startling, considering that race, and coping with racism, is an integral part of their identities. As such, it cannot be shelved during new cultural experiences such as studying abroad. Therefore, discussions around race and diversity abroad need to be incorporated into study abroad advising, pre-departure orientations, on-site support, as well as all re-entry programming. When we focus on preparing students for their host country’s culture without addressing the culture’s historical and current attitudes towards racial and ethnic minority populations, or how a minority identity fits into that cultural context, this perpetuates colorblindness and ignores the ethnoracial identities that students carry with them when they go abroad. In short, not talking about race can lead to feelings of invalidation and exclusion, which can hamper the growth experienced from study abroad. Thus, if we wish to create global citizens who are curious about the world, and eager to engage with others, we must first engage with our students and listen and take seriously their concerns, worries, and fears. Modeling such empathy, in turn, can help create more culturally sensitive and compassionate leaders.

Around the world the experiences of people of diverse ethnoracial identities, and the systems that perpetuate racial inequality, can look very different than they do in the U.S. As such, addressing these cultural differences becomes a necessary part of the study abroad experience for all students. Ideally, study abroad students immerse themselves in another culture, learn about the customs and practices of the host country, engage with locals and maybe even learn the language. A colorblind mindset affects the attitudes of U.S. students as they move in and out of different cultural spaces, preventing them from deeply considering and appreciating the impact of difference, power and privilege and fully understanding the role of their own identities in the host culture. Depending on a student’s background and the host country’s racial dynamics, students can be left feeling isolated, confused and disempowered as they grapple to make sense of this foreign cultural environment. That race and racism is not a common part of the study abroad conversation is indicative of the ideology that race does not matter.

Implications of Colorblindness

For the 2013-2014 academic year the Open Doors Data from the Institute of International Education reported that 74% of U.S. students who studied abroad were White. Such low numbers of students of color participating in study abroad programs begs the question: Does the conversation about race matter? We think it does. The underrepresentation of racial and ethnic minority students is very telling. Could the current colorblind approach to study abroad be a reason why these numbers are so low? The impact of colorblindness on the student experience is worthy of further research as it could provide a more robust understanding of enrollment, retention and peer-to-peer promotion of study abroad programs.

Additionally, as diverse ethnoracial identities are still not widely represented among study abroad professionals or faculty, many practitioners are often not comfortable with or prepared to critically discuss or manage issues of racism abroad, much less fully address the concepts of multiculturalism and global citizenship through an inclusive lens. With our current demographics, it is imperative that professionals from privileged racial backgrounds dedicate themselves to the professional and personal development that is needed to fully explore power and privilege and how their own identities may impact the support they provide students. Likewise, additional efforts and research need to be devoted to addressing the lack of diversity within the study abroad profession and how this dynamic may influence the race and ethnicity profiles of study abroad participants.

If we truly are committed to increasing the numbers and diversity of students who study abroad, there must be a shift away from our traditional approaches, marketing and support for these opportunities. In an article featured in USA Today, Why Are All of the Kids On My Study Abroad Trip White, the author quotes Gretchen Cook-Anderson from IES Abroad: “In the 1940s and ’50s, study abroad trips were mainly restricted to white, upper-class women, Cook-Anderson says. Year-long trips to France were the norm — a kind of finishing school before getting married.” Acknowledging that this type of educational program was not traditionally fitted for students of color, especially students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, the author goes on to describe the barriers students of color face in being the only one from their background to participate in study abroad. She notes that financial limitations and parental concern tend to be major factors, but what about the experiences students have, or fear they will have, once abroad? Relegating the dearth of students of color in study abroad programs to finances and a lack of knowledge is not enough. The lack of conversation around what it means to be a person of color studying abroad silences the very real experiences, thoughts and feelings these students have to live with everyday.

Let us begin to have the difficult conversations about race so we, as professionals in cross culturalism and global engagement, can truly embody what it means to be an effective global citizen and break away from the ineffective colorblind approach to study abroad.    

Resources for Further Reading

Colorblind Ideology Is a Form of Racism, by Monnica T. Williams Ph.D.

Why Are All of the Kids On My Study Abroad Trip White, by Elise Schmelzer

Written by the Diversity Abroad Network Task Force on Racially & Ethnically Diverse Students: Nicole McDermott - University of Maryland College Park (Chair); Darielle Horsey - University of Washington; Katja Kurz - Cultural Vistas; Irene Lopez - Kenyon College; Emerald Templeton - University of California, Berkeley

(Posted on Feb 2016)