Multiculturalism and Colorblindness: NONE of them is working

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To manage diversity in companies, two approaches have been proposed: multiculturalism and colorblindness. Both have been discussed a lot, from scientific congresses to companies. But it seems that neither is really satisfactory and that none of them is working.

Let’s do things step by step. What are multiculturalism and colorblindness? Why is neither approach really effective? And what new approach should we adopt to unleash the positive effects of diversity?

What are Multiculturalism and Colorblindness?

Colorblindness. The simple fact of perceiving differences between people (that is of being able to classify them between those who are ‘like us’ and those who are ‘different from us’) is enough to create discrimination. This has been shown by many experiences in social psychology [1].

If these differences are erased, discrimination should also disappear. This, in a nutshell, is what the colorblindness approach proposes. The idea is to consider each person as a unique individual, without taking into account his or her origins (from majority or from minority). All people are then considered as equal members of a large common group.

Multiculturalism. Social psychology also shows that we need to have a social image (called “social identity” by scientists) that is distinct and positive [2]. Because this image stems from our belonging to groups [3], we need to value these groups.

Thus, to avoid conflict and discomfort, we need to value differences to highlight what distinguishes people and, in the same time, valuing those differences to foster positivity. By doing so, multiculturalism creates identity safety.

Colorblindness and Multiculturalism are explained by the same theoretical field (social identity, social categorisation, …). However, these two approaches take almost opposite directions. As each have its own advantages and disadvantages, neither is fully effective.

Why neither Multiculturalism nor Colorblindness are effective?

Colorblindness and Multiculturalism have their own specific problems. They are also more or less preferred by majority and minority groups.

The problems with Colorblindness

First, by creating a common identity for all (majority or minority members), Colorblindness is moving towards a form of assimilation. The common identity is ultimately more or less that of the majority. Thus, this approach is rarely appreciated by minorities who see their identities erased and their independence threatened [4].

Second, Colorblindness neglects external factors. This approach places all people on equal terms. But people are not equal: minority members generally have access to fewer resources (financial, educational, …) than majority members. By hiding identities, Colorblindness also prevents seeing these differences and difficulties. Thus, this approach hinders the fight against discrimination and inequality [5] and promotes a sense of exclusion for minorities [6].

The problems of Multiculturalism

If Multiculturalism seems more promising, it has its own limits: inefficiency, threat against the majority, and even paradoxically an increase in discrimination.

First, Multiculturalism is often ineffective. The main reason lies in its poor implementation (yes, diversity management is complicated). This can take several forms: the project of change is carried by the majority without taking minorities into consideration, the project is carried out without real conviction or without sufficient resources, the project remains blind to resistance, etc. [7].

Second, initiatives based on Multiculturalism seek to be inclusive. But most of the time they focus on specific stigmatised groups. In doing so, they forget to include other minority groups (perhaps less visible or less ‘trendy’) and the majority. This oversight can create resentment among these forgotten groups and encourage resistance to change [7,8], and even paradoxically increase discrimination [9].

Third, by highlighting differences, Multiculturalism activates the mental constructs associated with them. When this phenomenon is mismanaged, it encourages the use of stereotypes and foster prejudices between people [10].

New perspectives

Scientific studies showed that neither Colorblindness nor Multiculturalism was fully effective for managing diversity at work. While the second approach seems more effective than the first one [11], it is counterproductive when it is badly implemented.

In light of these conclusions, the scientists proposed a more inclusive Multiculturalism, which would not only focus on a few minorities, but would pay attention to all groups, majority and minority. This all-inclusive multiculturalism allows all groups to affirm their identities, without the affirmation of one being harmful to the other.

However, its implementation is more complex and calls for deeper changes in companies. These changes concern both the way companies communicate internally and externally, and changes in the organisational structure.

However, diversity is an ambivalent phenomenon, whose impact on work teams is composite. A full understanding of diversity is necessary to unleash its positive potential of diversity. For this, a scientific-based approach is essential.


1. Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1 (2), 149–178. doi : 10.1002/ejsp.2420010202

2. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1986). The social identity theory of intergroup behavior. In S. Austin & W. G. Worchel (Eds.), Psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 7–24). Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

3. Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. (Basil Blackwell, Ed.). doi : 10.2307/2073157

4. Ryan, C. S., Hunt, J. S., Weible, J. A., Peterson, C. R., & Casas, J. F. (2007). Multicultural and colorblind ideology, stereotypes, and ethnocentrism among Black and White Americans. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 10(4), 617–637.

5. Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., & Saguy, T. (2007). Another view of “we”: Majority and minority group perspectives on a common ingroup identity. European Review of Social Psychology, 18(1), 296–330. Doi : 10.1080/10463280701726132

6. Markus, H. R., Steele, C. M., & Steele, D. M. (2000). Colorblindness as a barrier to inclusion: Assimilation and non-immigrant minorities. Daedalus, 129, 233–259

7. Thomas, K. M. (Ed.). (2008). Diversity resistance in organizations: Manifestations and solutions. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

8. James, E. J., Brief,A. P., Dietz, J., & Cohen, R. R. (2001). Prejudice matters: Understanding the reactions of whites to affirmative action program targeted to benefit blacks. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86, 1120–1128.

9. Linnehan, F., & Konrad, A. M. (1999). Diluting diversity: Implications for intergroup in organizations. Journal of Management Inquiry, 8, 399–413.

10. Wolsko, C., Park, B., Judd, C. M., & Wittenbrink, B. (2000). Framing interethnic ideology: Effects of multicultural and color-blind perspectives on judgments of groups and individuals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 635–654.

11. Dovidio, J. F., Gaertner, S. L., Ufkes, E. G., Saguy, T., & Pearson, A. R. (2016). Included but Invisible? Subtle Bias, Common Identity, and the Darker Side of “We.” Social Issues and Policy Review, 10(1), 6–46. Doi : 10.1111/sipr.12017

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.

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Benjamin Pastorelli, PhD

Benjamin Pastorelli, PhD

French PhD in social psychology ● Writing about inclusion, diversity and discriminations, in the light of social sciences.

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