Picture of Howard Schultz with the words Bad Take and a thumbs down symbol in the foreground.

Dear Howard Schultz: Colorblindness isn’t a thing

“I didn’t see color as a young boy and I honestly don’t see color now.” One sentence from former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has again ignited a national debate about whether colorblindness is a thing. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) For many, colorblindness remains the go-to strategy when talking about race, namely because of the misconception that being colorblind is how you avoid being racist. But ironically, the opposite is the case: people of color see those who avoid talking about race as more prejudiced than those who openly acknowledge it.

Plenty of people have rightfully articulated elsewhere that claims of “not seeing color” are insulting. If someone doesn’t see color, that person can’t possibly be aware of the experiences of people of color. To be clear, these experiences are not all bad — Dr. Tiffany Brannon highlights this in her pride and prejudice approach to inclusion. But it is clear that there’s work to do in order to realize a society that truly values all groups. So here’s the kicker: if you “don’t see” race, but you say you care about inclusion, how can you advance inclusion efforts that will effectively target communities of color?

This is why it’s so bad when people pretend to be colorblind. We have REAL problems in our society that are undeniably rooted in racism, xenophobia, sexism, homophobia, etc. And these biases have stark consequences for the mental health, physical health, and workplace performance of people from these groups. Yet, a colorblind perspective about diversity (“I don’t see color”) will produce a colorblind — and imprecise — approach to inclusion (“We need to make sure everyone — whether they’re black, white, or purple — feels included”).

For example, when considering strategies for creating an inclusive workplace, leaders operating under a colorblind approach might understand that all their employees should feel included and valued. But, they might also wonder “if everyone deserves to feel like they belong and are included, what about the neo-Nazi employee in my organization? Should I work to make them feel included?” (Yes, this was a real question I got after one of my workshops. I am still not certain whether it was a joke or not.)

For the record, the answer is no. But what is striking is that many people would, and have, balked at the idea that not everyone gets to, or should, experience the benefits of inclusion. By championing colorblindness, it is easy to lose track of the real reasoning behind why diversity and inclusion are important: our responsibility as a society to create an equitable and just world. If the goal is to right historical inequities that still very much manifest today, we cannot take a colorblind approach to inclusion and thoughtlessly declare that yes, even the neo-Nazi should be included. We should remember that the reason we’re fighting for inclusion is that many groups have been denied access to justice and equity since the inception of this country.

What makes Schultz’s declaration that he has not, and still does not, see color most perplexing is that he absolutely does. Throughout his career, Schultz has advanced many initiatives that center talking about race as a way to right systemic inequities. And yet, when on a national stage, he fell back on the tired trope of declaring colorblindness. My caution to Schultz is this: a nation that buys into colorblindness is one that can’t differentiate between including people of color and including neo-Nazis. And that’s why it’s imperative that he, and others like him, boldly acknowledge and celebrate diversity, and eschew colorblindness for good. It’s the only way our society will be able to work toward meaningful inclusion and equity for the groups that need it most.