Visibility and Voice: A Call to Action in the Face of Invisibility and Resistance

Jan 7, 2015, 9:00 AM

Janet Chang, PhD, is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections Program and an assistant research scientist at the University of Connecticut. Chang received a PhD from the University of California, Davis, and a BA from Swarthmore College. She studies sociocultural influences on social support, help seeking, and psychological functioning among diverse ethnic/racial groups.

In the past year, there has been heightened national press coverage of anti-minority sentiments, and public outcry over discriminatory incidents in the United States. The publicized nature of these events stimulated intense debate. Some, especially those who believe in racial colorblindness, have argued that outraged individuals are overly sensitive and quick to assume that prejudice and discrimination are the cause. On the one hand, this perspective provides psychological comfort by downplaying the importance of race, minimizing the impression of bias, emphasizing our common humanity, and upholding egalitarian principles. On the other hand, it is upsetting and harmful because it denies the lived reality of racial/ethnic minorities. Colorblindness renders well-documented racial/ethnic disparities invisible.

Belief in colorblind ideologies perpetuates false notions that discrimination is rare. As a result, colorblindness, along with a complex host of factors, promotes ethnic/racial disparities in wide-ranging important domains, such as health and health care, criminal justice, housing, education, and employment and advancement in the workplace. Colorblindness reinforces the myth of meritocracy, which places value on individual effort and ability but overlooks structural factors that inhibit positive outcomes for vulnerable or disadvantaged populations.

The costs of colorblindness include adverse effects on individual experiences and health. Discrimination and internalized racial bias, as chronic stressors, have been found to be associated with health risks, including premature aging (Chae et al., 2014). Also, colorblindness may backfire. It has been shown to fuel rather than lessen racial bias (Richeson & Nussbaum, 2004) and to impair interracial interactions (Apfelbaum, Sommers, & Norton, 2008; Norton, Sommers, Apfelbaum, Pura, & Ariely, 2006). It creates roadblocks to ensuring a just and equitable society for all Americans.

In the face of blindness or resistance to inequities, storytelling has the power to make the invisible visible. At the 2014 Annual Symposium of the New Connections Program, I was moved by the ethnographic account of sociologist Alice Goffman, who recounted the time she spent in a disadvantaged, policed Philadelphia neighborhood and revealed the brutality of the penal system on the lives of young black women and men (On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, University of Chicago Press, 2014). Her poignant presentation elicited reactions from many of us in the audience, all scholars from underrepresented communities. It motivated scholars to share their stories working with disadvantaged communities. It also had the unintended effect of moving scholars to tell their personal stories of injustice.

The most vivid, troubling examples of injustice highlighted the ways in which researchers from underrepresented communities encountered parallel forms of bias. Some scholars described various situations in which they were questioned, interrogated, or jailed by police because their racial/ethnic background, evident in their physical appearance, raised suspicion, even in the absence of wrongdoing. Others described being perceived as outsiders in their institutions or communities. Given these examples of racial inequality, colorblindness obscures the reality of what some researchers and laypeople alike face.

I focused on two types of storytelling, one grounded in research and the other derived from personal experiences, because they both moved the audience. According to Maya Angelou, “people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Her words echo the action that we should take. By this, I mean we need to share the stories that move us through our teaching, research, and advocacy. Stories that evoke reaction and action will go farther in overcoming inequities than stories that remain on the page with emotions untouched. We can use our voice and our words to inspire a more inclusive culture of health and compassion for all Americans. Doing so makes the invisible visible.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.