2013. Vol.4, No.3A, 335-339
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.43A048
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 335
Anything but Race: Avoiding Racial Discourse to
Avoid Hurting You or Me
Phillip Atiba Goff1, Matthew Christian Jackson1, Andrew H. Nichols2,
Brooke Allison Lewis Di Leone3
1The University of California, Los Angeles, USA
2National Center for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Boston, USA
3Maryland Higher Education Commission, Baltimore, USA
Received December 21st, 2012; revised January 23rd, 2013; accepted February 24th, 2013
The present research examines how Whites employ strategic colorblindness—the strategic assertion that
race should not and/or does not matter—in interracial interactions, and how stereotype threat and concern
about non-Whites influence the use of this conversational technique. Because colorblindness can be
egalitarian or anti-egalitarian (Knowles, Lowery, Hogan, & Chow, 2009), one must define colorblindness
in order to understand how it is employed. Two studies provide evidence that both concerns that racial
categorization harms non-Whites and concerns with appearing racist affects the use of strategic color-
blindness. Study 1 uses field observations to explore the content of spontaneous colorblind statements and
their relationship to stereotype threat. Study 2 manipulates stereotype threat and concerns for non-Whites,
revealing that each independently increases Whites’ endorsement of strategic colorblindness relative to
control conditions. This research highlights the importance of both studying interracial interactions in
field settings and considering how definitions of diversity shape intergroup contexts.
Keywords: Stereotype Threat; Interracial Interactions; Intergroup Processes
“You know, like King said: color shouldn’t matter so don’t,
like, pay any attention to it.”—Study 1, Participant 73
It is often good advice to avoid talking about controversial
topics. We are admonished to avoiding talking about politics or
religion over casual dinners, and to eschew painful family sto-
ries during the holidays. It should not be surprising, then, that
the controversial topic of race causes many to feel anxious
(Richeson & Shelton, 2007, Vorauer, Main, & O’Connell, 1998;
Vorauer, Hunter, Main, & Roy, 2000) and subsequently, to
avoid the topic all together (Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers,
2008; Goff, Steele, & Davies, 2008). An emerging consensus in
research on interracial interactions reveals that this response is
particularly true for dominant group members, usually Whites.
Unfortunately, this literature also finds that avoiding the topic
and the attendant anxiety around it can be counterproductive,
creating inefficient interactions at best (Apfelbaum et al., 2008)
and even the ironic suspicion among non-Whites that avoidant
Whites are racist (Apfelbaum et al., 2008; Richeson & Shelton,
2007; Dovidio, Kawakami, & Gaertner, 2002).
Apfelbaum and colleagues refer to avoiding the topic of race
as “strategic colorblindness,” and suggest that it stems from
Whites’ concern with appearing prejudiced (Apfelbaum et al.,
2008). Apfelbaum and colleagues argue that, by avoiding the
topic of race, Whites may believe that they need not fear accu-
sations of racism. But given that colorblindness is often per-
ceived as a hierarchy-enhancing ideology, one designed to for-
bid the consideration of race for the purposes of creating inter-
group equality (Knowles et al., 2009), why would individuals
believe employing colorblindness would protect them from ac-
cusations of racism?
Perhaps the answer depends on how Whites believe color-
blindness affects non-Whites? Research by Knowles and col-
leagues suggests that, while some perceive colorblindness as a
procedural ideology, designed to enhance hierarchies, some see
it as a distributive ideology, designed to protect non-Whites
from the negative consequences of discrimination. This distribu-
tive colorblindness, historians argue, is consistent with Martin
Luther King, Jr.’s “colorblindness” and seen as an egalitarian
principle (Carson, 1987). The possibility that strategic color-
blindness could be a response to egalitarian impulses is not ex-
plored in previous research on strategic colorblindness and leaves
us with the outstanding question: does strategic colorblindness
stem from concerns about the self, concerns about others, or
both? The present research is designed to answer this question.
We expect that both concerns with appearing prejudiced and
concerns with how categorization affects non-Whites will in-
fluence the use of strategic colorblindness. Specifically, the
presence of either concern may be sufficient to produce either
spontaneous colorblind utterances or endorsement of strategic
colorblindness. If confirmed, this would suggest that, much like
other uncomfortable topics, regardless of whether one’s con-
cerns center around one’s self or someone else, the most obvi-
ous way to avoid injury is to avoid the topic. However, it would
also suggest that, unlike previous research, understanding the
motivation of an individual that employs strategic colorblind-
ness may be crucial for modifying the behavior.
In addition to this fundamental question, the present research
attempts to augment the literature on strategic colorblindness in
two additional ways: integrating stereotype threat theory into
the application of strategic colorblindness and examining spon-
P. A. GOFF ET AL.
taneous strategic colorblindness in naturalistic conversations
about race. With regard to the first, the literature on strategic
colorblindness is couched in terms of concerns with appearing
prejudiced, this concerns has not been framed in terms of ste-
reotype threat—the concern with conforming to or being evalu-
ated in terms of a negative stereotype about ones group (Goff,
Steele, & Davies, 2008; Steele, 1997). Stereotype threat often
leads to performance decrements either through cognitive load
(Schmader & Johns, 2003) or simply anxiety (Goff et al., 2008).
However, scholars traditionally use stereotype threat to frame
educational outcomes, and tend to focus on stigmatized group
members. A growing literature establishes that Whites can and
do experience stereotype threat around appearing prejudiced,
and can even access that experience consciously (Frantz, Cuddy,
Burnett, Ray, & Hart, 2004; Goff et al., 2008). Consequently,
the present research measures and manipulates stereotype threat
for Whites with the aim of expanding the traditional conceptu-
alization—and application—of the theory.
With regards to the second, we use actual group conversa-
tions about race to examine the prevalence of comments that
communicate colorblindness, providing applied evidence for the
previously laboratory phenomena. Taken together, the present
research provides an important translation of strategic colorblind-
ness to actual conversations and clarifies the motivations of do-
minant group members as they engage in intergroup interactions.
Overview of Research
Our efforts to expand and apply the literature on strategic
colorblindness took the form of two studies. Study 1 examined
real world conversations about race to determine whether or not
individuals spontaneously engaged in strategic colorblindness
in mixed-race context more often than in same-race contexts.
Previous research suggests that the mere presence of outgroup
members is enough to provoke stereotype threat (Inzlicht &
Ben-Zeev, 2000). Consequently, because we expected that ste-
reotype threat would produce spontaneous strategically color-
blind comments, we expected more of these utterances in mixed-
race contexts than same-race ones. Evidence that stereotype
threat produces strategic colorblindness would then allow us to
test potentially competing hypotheses: that either stereotype
threat or concerns for outgroup members prompt Whites to
endorse strategic colorblindness.
To test these potential motivations, Study 2 manipulates ste-
reotype threat and information about the harms that categoriz-
ing non-Whites in terms of race produce. Again, we expected
that, either when Whites were concerned with appearing preju-
diced or when they were concerned that race-consciousness
would harm non-Whites, they would be more likely to endorse
Study 1 was designed to identify the language Whites use
when discussing race in interracial and same-race groups and to
assess whether or not this language maps on to the concept of
“strategic colorblindness.” During group conversations, we
counted the number of comments made about race in the fol-
lowing three ways: paying attention to race is negative, catego-
rizing people by race is uncomfortable, and categorizing people
by race hurts those who are categorized—each an explicit ar-
ticulation of strategic colorblindness. Study 1 tests whether
Whites will employ explicit colorblind strategies in interracial
interactions, devaluing race-consciousness to the extent that
non-Whites are present.
Participants and Design
A total of 214 American undergraduate participants (116
women & 98 men; 182 White & 32 Black) at a large public
university in the US participated in 28 conversation groups
ranging in size from of 5 to11 people. Groups contained either
White participants only (8 groups) or White and non-White
participants (20 groups) creating our two-cell design. Partici-
pants came to the laboratory in order to participate in a student
run roundtable discussion called the Race Relations Project
(RRP). Participants were part of an optional summer prepara-
tory program for incoming students and were randomly as-
signed to discussion groups by the project coordinators. Stu-
dents were offered extra credit in their summer classes as com-
pensation for participation. The stated purpose of the 90-minute
conversations was to provide an open forum for university stu-
dents to discuss racial issues. Student facilitators led discus-
sions, and were trained to have minimal involvement in the
conversations. All conversations were videotaped. Four inde-
pendent raters coded the videos of the 28 conversations for
comments about race.
Video coders were instructed to count all comments that
mentioned race in three ways. First, they were to count all
comments that said that paying attention to race was negative.
“Really, why does it even matter? We shouldn’t even care
whether someone is Black or White or Pink or Purple or what-
ever. Paying attention to it makes it worse.”
“I don’t think people really even notice anymore, which is a
good thing. Like, who wants to be ‘White,’ or whatever? I’m a
person. You’re a person. Just, you know, treat people like
they’re people; like human beings.”
Second, coders were asked to count the number of comments
that explicitly mentioned that categorizing individuals by race
was uncomfortable, an explicit indication of stereotype threat.
“Like, which one is it? Black or African American or what? It
seems like it’s just easier not to do the label thing at all, right?”
“I don’t like labeling people by their race.”
Finally, coders were asked to count the number of comments
that explicitly stated that categorizing individuals by race hurt
those who were categorized, an explicit articulation of our
competing hypothesis. Comments included:
“If you care that much about their race, you don’t see them
as a person.”
“Looking at their race demeans them.”
Inter-rater reliability was 86% with conflicts resolved
through conversation. We hypothesized that White participants
would make more strategically colorblind comments (meaning
all three category codes) in the presence of non-Whites.
Analyses reflect significant differences between the mixed-
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
P. A. GOFF ET AL.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 337
race and same-race groups (see Figure 1), such that Whites
were more likely to indicate that paying attention to race was
negative during mixed-race interactions than in all-White in-
teractions, t(26) = 2.11, p < .05. Similarly, Whites were more
likely to state that they were uncomfortable categorizing people
by race during mixed-race interactions than in all-White inter-
actions, t(26) = 2.41, p < .05. Finally, Whites were more likely
to state that racial categorization causes people harm during
mixed-race interactions than in all-White interactions, t(26) =
2.12, p < .05. Of note, no Black participants made such com-
ments, meaning that only White participants did (in both the
mixed-race and same-race groups).
As predicted, Whites employed more strategic colorblindness
in the presence of non-Whites than they did in all-White groups.
Importantly to our hypotheses, they also indicated both more
stereotype threat and more concern for the outcomes of non-
Whites in the presence of non-Whites. This suggests that both
concerns for the self and for others prompt the use of strategic
colorblindness. To test these competing hypotheses directly,
Study 2 manipulated stereotype threat and concerns with hurt-
ing non-Whites. Again, we expected that both the presence of
stereotype threat and the likelihood that non-Whites would suf-
fer from racial categorization would prompt increased reliance
on strategic colorblindness.
Participants and Design
Participants were 91 White American undergraduates who
were enrolled in introductory psychology courses at a large
public university in the United States. They were randomly
assigned to a 2 (Experience of stereotype threat: Present v.
Absent) × 3(Harms of Racial Categorization: High v. Low v.
Control) between subjects factorial design.
Stereotype Threat Scale. Participants filled out an explicit
stereotype threat scale (STS; adapted from Goff et al., 2008) to
measure the anxiety about being perceived as racist. The scale
(α = .80) included 5 questions such as: “During this conversa-
tion, I worried that something I said might have been misinter-
preted as prejudiced.”
Strategic Colorblindness Scale. The authors developed the
Strategic Colorblindness Scale (SCS, = .91) to measure par-
ticipants’ beliefs about the value of enacting colorblindness.
Examples include: “Seeing people in terms of race is a signifi-
cant hindrance to racial harmony”, and “Ending racial catego-
rization would create a more just society”. The measure con-
tains 11 items that participants respond to on a 7-point Likert
scale (See appendix for full set of items). Higher scores on this
measure indicate that one strongly believes that racial categori-
zation has negative consequences.
Participants arrived individually and were greeted by a White
experimenter. After consenting to participate, participants were
told that the purpose of the study was to examine interracial
interactions. The experimenter then informed participants that
they would engage a Black student from the university in a
conversation about race and race relations. Participants were
told that before having the interaction, the experimenters
wanted to evaluate baseline racial attitudes. Participants were
then given the Attitudes Towards Blacks scale (ATB; Brigham,
1993), a measure of explicit anti-Black prejudice. Participants
were then given false feedback, such that half of the partici-
pants were told that they held low amounts of prejudice for this
college and the other half told that they had high levels of
prejudice for the college. Participants were then told that they
had one more preliminary packet to fill out, during which they
were given the second manipulation.
One third of participants were told that “people regularly
categorize others based on their racial/ethnic affiliations. This
racial categorization often contributes to various detrimental
effects such as depression, lowered self-esteem, academic un-
derachievement, and, in extreme cases, suicide.” This was in-
tended to persuade participants that racial categorization came
with high costs—particularly for non-Whites. One third of par-
ticipants were told that “people regularly categorize others
based on their racial/ethnic affiliations. Very few serious detri-
mental effects have been found to be associated with this type
Frequency of comments indicating strategic colorblindness.
P. A. GOFF ET AL.
of racial categorization.” This was intended to persuade par-
ticipants that racial categorization came with low costs. Finally,
in the control condition, participants were simply told that
“people in certain environments tend to have similar political
perspectives.” Participants then completed our measures of
stereotype threat and the devaluation of racial categorization.
Participants were then told that the conversation would not
actually occur and were fully debriefed.
Consistent with the comments observed in Study 1 indicating
egalitarian motivations, we predicted that, absent the anxiety of
appearing prejudiced, participants would employ strategic co-
lorblindness, but only when informed that there were high costs
to non-Whites as a result. However, we predicted that those
who were concerned about appearing prejudiced would employ
strategic colorblindness uniformly. That is, participants would
employ strategic colorblindness even when given information
that racial-awareness comes at no costs to non-Whites.
Stereotype Threat Scale. Participants experienced more an-
xiety about appearing prejudiced after receiving feedback indi-
cating high racial bias, relative to those told they held low racial
bias, F(1, 85) = 15.63, p < .001. No other main effects or inter-
actions were observed.
Strategic Colorblindness Scale. Analyses revealed a main
effect of stereotype threat,such that participants under threat
employed strategic colorblindness more than those that were
not under threat, F(1, 85) = 6.51, p = .01. Analyses also re-
vealed a main effect of harms due to racial categorization such
that participants devalued racial categorization more when they
were told it harmed others, F(2, 85) = 3.07, p = .05. These ef-
fects were qualified by the predicted two-way interaction: F(2,
85) = 4.22, p < .05 (see Figure 2).
Simple effects tests revealed that, absent stereotype threat,
strategic colorblindness was employed more when participants
believed race-consciousness harmed non-Whites than in each
other condition, F’s(1, 85) = 10.50, p’s < .005. Simple effects
tests also revealed that, for participants who received no in-
for-mation about racial harms, strategic colorblindness was en
dorsedmore under threat than in the absence of threat, F(1, 85)
= 7.21, p < .01. The same pattern holds for participants who
were told that racial categorization was not harmful, F(1, 85) =
6.77, p = .01.
We conducted mediational analyses to test whether the rela-
tionship between the feedback on the test of prejudice and stra-
tegic colorblindness was mediated by stereotype threat. We fol-
lowed the mediation procedure outlined by Baron and Kenny
(1986). The independent variable (feedback on test of prejudice
type) significantly predicted the dependent variable (strategic
colorblindness), B = .26, t = 2.50, p = .01. The independent
variable predicted the mediator variable (stereotype threat
score), B = .39, t = 4.00, p < .001. The mediator predicted the
dependent variable when controlling for comment type, B =
−.53, t = 5.42, p < .001. And lastly, controlling for the stereo-
type threat score, the independent variable no longer predicted
the dependent variable, B = .05, n.s. (Sobel, Z = 3.2, p = .001).
The observed pattern of data reveals a clear relationship be-
tween the anxiety with being seen as prejudiced and strategic
colorblindness. Specifically, the results suggest that when Whi-
tes experience stereotype threat, they employ strategic color-
blindness even when being told that racial categorization has no
impact on non-Whites. Study 2 also provides evidence that
White’s use of strategic colorblindness is closely related to their
concerns about non-Whites. This provides the first direct test of
the hypothesis that both egalitarian and self-protective motives
influence Whites’ responses to intergroup threat.
Across two studies, the present research finds consistent evi-
dence that Whites’ use of strategic colorblindness is motivated
by both self-protective and egalitarian concerns—in both labo-
ratory and field settings. Further, we have demonstrated that the
use of colorblindness as a discourse strategy is not simply a
function of demand characteristic in lab settings, but also oc-
curs spontaneously in everyday conversation about race. This
Average ratings of the endorsement of strategic colorblindness according to the level of concern
with appearing racist (threat) and perceived harms to non-Whites (harm).
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
P. A. GOFF ET AL.
research differs from previous work that focused on self-pro-
tective motivations without directly testing the possibility for
genuine egalitarian motives. The application of research on
strategic colorblindness to actual interactions has the benefit of
providing the literature with the ability to generalize beyond the
lab and, simultaneously, to advance our theoretical understand-
ing of Whites’ motives for endorsing colorblindness, itself an
important predictor of intergroup outcomes (Gutiérrez & Un-
Previous research has also demonstrated that adopting a co-
lorblind ideology can lead to elevated racial prejudice among
Whites’ (Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004; Morrison, Plaut, &
Ybarra, 2010). Future research, however, should examine whe-
ther this is the case regardless of the meaning of colorblindness.
That is, it may be the case that egalitarian and hierarchy-en-
hancing interpretations of colorblindness lead to different inter-
group outcomes, one increasing prejudice and intergroup ten-
sions, the other decreasing them.
Regardless, the present research highlights the importance of
translating research on intergroup relations to the worlds in
which groups actual interact—and suggests that this can be
done successfully. Doing so not only expands the boundary
conditions for theories of intergroup interactions, but, in the
case of the present research, provides information about the
mechanisms that underlie those theories. In the specific exam-
ple of strategic colorblindness, the present research suggests not
only that the phenomena occurs naturally in the world, but that
it can be motivated by nobler intentions than previously be-
lieved—a good thing for the future of intergroup interactions in
the real world and the laboratory.
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Appendix: Study 2. Strategic
1. Seeing people in terms of race contributes to racial tension
2. Seeing people in terms of race breeds interracial mistrust
3. Seeing people in terms of race creates inequality among
4. Categorizing people by race is in and of itself racist.
5. Seeing people in terms of race strips one of their individu-
6. Seeing people in terms of race is an injustice.
7. Ending racial categorization would create a more just so-
8. Seeing people in terms of race leads to stereotyping.
9. Racism and prejudice are products of racial categorization.
10. Recognizing racial affiliations prevents the United States
from moving towards a more socially just society.
11. Seeing people in terms of race is a significant hindrance
to racial harmony.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 339