Perils of a Colorblind Psychotherapeutic Approach

In my training one thing that was hammered into us again and again is the importance of addressing diversity immediately and directly. This idea was challenged by an psychoanalytic supervisor who opined, “you’re going to scare her away” — by addressing the issue of race. Fortunately, this gentleman does not represent psychoanalysis.

I do believe that addressing the issue of race directly goes a long way to establishing trust and respect. Some of us have the luxury of ignoring issues of race (or pretending to). Some of us don’t realize we have the luxury. Addressing difference is important. The research backs this up.

In my own practice, people are sometimes taken aback when race is addressed directly. Later, they often say it was very helpful.

Recent issue of the Journal of Personality & Social Psychology includes: “Seeing Race and Seeming Racist? Evaluating Strategic Colorblindness in Social Interaction.” If you take the time to wade through the academese, there are some important points about race and social interaction.

From the abstract:

One strategy practiced by many Whites to regulate the appearance of prejudice during social interaction is to avoid talking about race, or even acknowledging racial difference. Four experiments involving a dyadic task investigated antecedents and consequences of this tendency. Observed colorblindness was strategic in nature: Whites’ acknowledgment of race was highly susceptible to normative pressure and most evident among individuals concerned with self-presentational aspects of appearing biased (Study 1). However, this tendency was often counterproductive, as avoiding race during interracial interaction predicted negative nonverbal behavior (Study 1), a relationship mediated by decreased capacity to exert inhibitory control (Study 2).


The present investigation identifies several factors that impact both the practice and the perception of a colorblind approach to social interaction. These studies demonstrate that the social consequences of Whites’ efforts to avoid talking about race differ depending on who their interaction partner is, how this partner talks about race, and the context in which this interaction takes place. Perhaps most notably, across four studies the data converge on the conclusion that White individuals’ intuitions regarding effective strategies for navigating the perceived minefield that is race-relevant interaction are sometimes inaccurate and can even be counterproductive. Whereas the attainment of a truly colorblind society remains an objective to which many continue to aspire, bending over backward to avoid even mere mention of race can create more problems than it solves.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

One thought on “Perils of a Colorblind Psychotherapeutic Approach”

  1. This is wild interpretation–introducing the therapist’s concerns based on the therapist’s worries rather than listening to the patient’s material for cues.

    To avoid matters pertaining to race when the patient’s material suggests difficulty with respect to race is a problem, as it is a problem when the therapist avoids anything that arises or is suggested by the patient’s material–whether it’s about sex, love, gender, jealousy, class–anything that is there should be dealt with.

    To bring it up any matter without any indication of a need to bring it up is also a problem. The therapist should be listening to the patient, not the statistical mean in a study they read.


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