Beyond ‘Colorblind’: Expert Says Awareness, Empathy Are Keys to a More Just Society

A diverse group of people in a meeting.

Sit with your discomfort. Prepare to be vulnerable. Stop, breathe. Be centered and engaged. Think about what you’re trying to avoid, but remember that the discussion you’re about to engage in won’t, in itself, solve the problem.

Now—are you ready to talk about race?

Beyond ‘Us’ and ‘Them’

The guidelines above are from what organization development consultant Sukari Pinnock calls “The Four Components of Courageous Conversations.” Adapted from the work of educators Glenn Singleton and Curtis Linton, the guidelines help people resist the urge to shut down.

Or, as Pinnock put it in a recent LinkedIn column: “… take a step back from our fear of all that can go wrong and imagine how civil conversations about race might go a long way in narrowing the gap between the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that has gripped the nation by its collective throat.”

Pinnock is Program Director for Georgetown University’s Executive Certificate in Strategic Diversity & Inclusion Management, which is part of the University’s Institute for Transformational Leadership. She is also an instructor in the Master's in Human Resources Management program.

Given the extreme polarization in the country along political and, in many cases, racial lines, she says, it’s understandable that most people would want to avoid the topic. Nearly 60 percent of U.S. adults say that race relations are generally bad, and 56 percent believe President Trump has made them worse, according to the Pew Research Center. But Pinnock said that avoiding these issues just exacerbates the divisions.

“When we silence, ignore, dilute, or marginalize ‘race talk’ we play into a belief system that our society is too fragile to take on the very issues that are threatening our diverse and vibrant democracy,” she wrote.

Beyond Colorblind

It might sound nice, but Pinnock says it is unrealistic and even counterproductive to strive for a “colorblind” society, one where people are seen only as individuals and racial differences are made to disappear. Such thinking denies our own senses and tends to blind us to the kind of systemic discrimination that continues to impact black and brown people, immigrants, and other historically marginalized groups.

“The fact is, we automatically see the ‘groupness’ of those other than ourselves, even though we are taught from a young age to focus on individual-level experiences,” Pinnock said. “This is what comes most natural. Unlearning this behavior is difficult as it requires us to suspend our individual world views and actually look for the systemic behavior that confers power and privilege to different groups.”

At the same time, however, in workshops she leads for companies and organizations, Pinnock wants people to experience what individuals from other groups are feeling and make connections with them that resonate.

“My practice is to meet people where they are,” she says. “I try to point out that we need not participate in a competition about which group has faced more struggles.”

Toward a New Understanding

A recent Gartner survey found that diversity and inclusion is a high priority for CEOs but that only 36 percent of corporate diversity and inclusion leaders believe their organizations have been effective at building a diverse workforce. The less successful organizations tend to rely on “point-in-time” training, the report said, while the more effective ones make diversity an ongoing goal and track their progress over time.

“In most cases, organizations quickly come to realize that the process of building authentic and inclusive workplace cultures is not a destination to reach, but instead is a journey it must undertake,” Pinnock said. “And it is the journey, with all of its peaks and valleys, twists and turns, crossroads and dead ends, that builds the capacity and resilience within the organization to keep doing the work.”

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