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Color Blindness and The Controversy Over What Can Be Said – BCB #70
Also: people don’t want divisive content to spread & online communitarianism can fight violent extremism
Coleman Hughes, a Black man, gave a TED Talk promoting the case for color blindness as a path to racial equality, and condemned the use of race-based terms and policies. This proved controversial, perhaps much more controversial than TED staff had expected. In this new article, Hughes recounts the events:
TED draws a progressive crowd, so I expected that my talk might upset a handful of people. And indeed, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a handful of scowling faces. But the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
But the day after my talk, I heard from Chris Anderson, the head of TED. He told me that a group called “Black@TED”—which TED’s website describes as an “Employee Resource Group that exists to provide a safe space for TED staff who identify as Black”—was “upset” by my talk.
On the final day of the conference, TED held its yearly “town hall”—at which the audience can give feedback on the conference. The event opened with two people denouncing my talk back-to-back. The first woman called my talk “racist” as well as “dangerous and irresponsible”—comments that were met with cheers from the crowd.
Two weeks later, Anderson emailed to tell me that there was “blowback” on my talk and that “[s]ome internally are arguing we shouldn’t post it.”
After much back and forth, TED eventually posted the talk months later, but only on the condition that it was accompanied by a further debate on the topic, which Hughes called “an asterisk next to it.”
Americans have long argued whether color blindness is or isn’t the best approach to racial equality. This divide plays out in national politics as well, where post-1960s American politics polarized into “colorblind” vs. “race-conscious” coalitions. Today we’re likely to hear these factions described as “anti-racist” vs. “racist.” The idea, as Ibram X. Kendi puts it, is that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Is it therefore racist to advocate for the advantages of colorblindness? Is this no longer a discussion that can be had in good faith?
Hughes and Anderson wrestled with this issue in a series of posts and tweets, and ultimately pointed to the same research to support their case for or against color blindness. This 2020 study is a comprehensive review of the effect of different diversity ideologies—color blindness, meritocracy, assimilation, and multiculturalism— on intergroup relations. It’s probably the best evidence we currently have on these questions.
And as often happens in conflict, both sides found evidence to support their position. Huges pointed out that this study found a correlation between “colorblind” ideology and modest reductions in prejudice, discrimination, and negative stereotyping. Anderson pointed out that it also found a somewhat larger correlation between “multicultural” ideology and these same positive outcomes. The available evidence doesn’t show a clear win for either side of the argument, especially because these are all correlations—we don’t know if promoting either colorblindness or multiculturalism will actually cause a reduction in prejudice or discrimination.
At the same time, it’s important to remember that for many people this discussion is not academic at all, but deeply personal. Echoing sentiments from TED’s Black staff, Anderson recognized that promoting the color blindness argument could be hurtful.
Many people have been genuinely hurt and offended by what they heard you say. This is not what we dream of when we post our talks.
We should not question the reality of this pain, or the long sorry history behind it. Yet we must question to what extent painful experience should decide what can and can’t be said publicly. Conflict cannot be resolved by avoiding difficult topics; we actually have to talk through our differences at some point, even if it’s hard.
What people think goes viral and what people believe should go viral are very different. A survey of 511 U.S. participants found a bipartisan belief that social media platforms amplify divisive content.
Red and Blue participants showed striking similarities in what they prefer to go viral—more nuanced, educational, positive, and factual content. Some small differences include Red being slightly more accepting of misinformation going viral, a result we’ve seen before, possibly because they tend to distrust current institutions. Yet, both want greater transparency from social media, more regulations on algorithms, and increased user control over the content shown to them. People’s perceptions about what goes viral are often accurate too—other research found that content with more moral-emotional words is 12% more likely to be shared.
In Bangladesh, researchers tested messages countering violent extremism using three videos: (1) highlighting how all religions promote peace, (2) discussing the costs of terrorism, and (3) advocating for the protection of Bangladesh’s multi-faith community against terrorism.
Contrary to prior studies and the researchers’ own hypothesis, the third video, promoting community harmony was the most effective in generating positive engagement and resistance to violent extremism. It received the least amount of “angry” and “sad” emojis, and inspired prosocial emotions of hope and pride, as measured by survey responses.
The researchers caution that their findings might not apply to Western contexts. Yet, given the increasing value Americans have placed on community, there’s hope that videos emphasizing community-based peace might mitigate polarization as it did for violent extremism.
Quote of the Week
We're all so conditioned to expect bad faith and manipulation everywhere that we don't celebrate where us imperfect humans are actually *trying.*
Considering the circumstances, you [Anderson] did an important and brave thing not only inviting [Hughes] to TED but also negotiating with civility both internally and externally as conflict arose. And in the public firestorm, you haven't raged or blamed. You've looked to understand. I see the same desperately needed instincts at play in Coleman's responses.
I see the striving all this represents to me as serious progress — not failure — and I thank you for your role in it.
- Mónica Guzmán of Braver Angels