White people often avoid mentioning race because they fear that even noticing skin color might somehow make them appear racist, but two new studies from psychologists at Tufts and Harvard universities show that such “strategic colorblindness” can backfire. White participants studied a batch of photographs, then tried to deduce, as quickly as possible, which picture a black partner was holding by asking questions about each one in succession. Asking whether the person pictured was black or white would have sped up their performance, yet subjects—adults in one study and children as young as age 10 in the other—rarely mentioned race unless their partner did so first. Black observers who watched the recorded interactions perceived whites who avoided talking about race as more prejudiced than the intrepid few who acknowledged skin color. And blacks who watched silent video clips of the interactions even rated whites who avoided mentioning race as having more unfriendly nonverbal behavior.
This article was originally published with the title "Speaking of Race" in SA Mind 20, 1, 12 (February 2009)