“I don’t see color” is sometimes viewed as a non-discriminatory, “politically correct” approach to interactions with people of color. But in reality, there’s a difference between understanding a person’s inherent value and being mindful of the challenges and perspectives each unique identity brings to the conversation.
To help us unpack this phrase, Host Larry Baker (he/him) is joined by Critical Conversations Consulting, LLC Founder and Owner Paul Ladipo (he/him), who will use their own lived experiences to explain how the phrase actually perpetuates racism through willful ignorance.
Meet Our Guest
Paul has a combined ten years of experience in academia, non-profits, and faith communities, becoming well-versed in the DEI challenges and needs of each sector. In higher ed, he has facilitated bystander intervention and sexual misconduct trainings with athletic teams, discussed systemic racism with faculty, and led full-day workshops on building inclusive cultures with student leaders. For non-profits, Paul has developed curriculum to center the needs of persons with disabilities, survivors of intimate partner violence, and survivors of sexual assault. Within faith communities, he has given presentations and led discussions on breaking racial barriers to create multi-ethnic ministries.
Show Notes & Highlights
5:03 Paul shares a personal story about the phrase “I don’t see color.”
8:04 Paul calls in “colorblindness” as an easy conversational out
12:03 Larry and Paul discuss the importance of self-reflection in brave conversations
17:04 Paul gives three tips to people targeted by the phrase “I don’t see color”
18:02 Paul and Larry give advice on how to help allies dig deeper in conversations
20:08 Larry shares a story explaining the different experiences and color
Larry Baker: Hello, and welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. I’m your host, Larry Baker, and I use he/him pronouns.
For those of you unfamiliar with LCW, we are a global DEI training, consulting, and translation firm that partners with organizations to develop mindsets, skills, and systems to succeed in a culturally diverse world.
This season we’re unpacking coded language in the workplace. “Coded language” refers to phrases that could be potentially masking bias, or quips that may have unintended negative impact. Each episode we’ll discuss the real meaning and implications of a new coded phrase, how it connects to larger systemic issues, and then hear personal stories and some tips to help us notice and call in bias.
Welcome to Decoded: Brave Conversations with LCW. My name is Larry Baker, and I use the pronouns of he and him. I am your host for our session on today, and our session today is probably the phrase that inspired me to want to engage in these conversations to decode some of these phrases: and that phrase is “I don’t see color.” That phrase is sometimes viewed as non-discriminatory, politically correct; it’s an approach to interaction with people of color. But in reality, there’s a difference between understanding a person’s inherent value and being mindful of the challenges and perspectives each unique identity brings to the conversation.
I am joined today to help break down this phrase with Paul Ladipo, and he is from Critical Conversation Consulting, LLC—he is the founder and the owner, and I will give Paul an opportunity to introduce himself in a moment. But again, this is a conversation, Paul, that I have been super excited to have, so we’re gonna jump in with you giving your introduction, telling people who you are and what you do, and then we’ll jump into this topic. So Paul, if you would.
Paul Ladipo: Thank you very much, Larry. My name is Paul Ladipo, and I’m based in the Twin Cities in Minnesota. I’ve been doing DEI worked roughly 10 years.
I firstly got to the place where I started my own consulting because as much as I love DEI, I don’t like nine-to-five DEI. And a lot of people have said on LinkedIn and elsewhere that nine-to-five DEI is overly political and, not necessarily red versus blue, but maybe in terms of office politics and lack of support and just all the hoops and hurdles in the office spaces. So I was like, “You know what? I don’t like this. I don’t wanna do this. I wanna do it on my own.”
So I decided that, I took my little money, and I’m like, “I’m gonna start my own gig.” And, you know, business is slow, but it’s probably the best professional decision I’ve made is to start my own. That way I can do it my way, cuz I tell people I don’t do fluff. Upfront, I tell clients and prospective clients, “I don’t do fluff, I don’t do kumbaya.” I’m a firebrand, and if I say things that are uncomfortable and that’s too much, that’s okay. We can part ways early. Because I’ve tried to do fluff and I’ve watched people try to do fluff and it doesn’t work, and so I just kind of tell like it is.
Larry Baker: Yeah. And Paul, you know what? We are speaking from the same hymnal because I do the exact same thing, and I absolutely appreciate that perspective that you bring to the table.
And with that being said, as we jump into this conversation about this phrase, I do want to kind of acknowledge the fact that when this phrase is often said by people, they can be extremely well intentioned, right? They could have the best intentions to engage in this conversation. I just need them to understand that there is a better conversation that we need to have.
So that’s how I’m gonna kick this off, Paul. I’m gonna ask you to start sharing with me some stories that you have around this phrase, and just like you are going to do, make it raw. Tell me how you feel about this phrase.
Paul Ladipo: The one example that comes to mind was… this was 20 years ago, if I’m dating myself here. I was sitting in a friend’s dorm room, and it was three of us: myself, a white woman, and a biracial man, you know, Black-white mixed. And he and I were talking about race frequently, us being men of color. And my friend was like, “Oh, I don’t see color.” She said that, and it surprised me, and it stuck. And I remember that 20 years later—I don’t remember being offended, but it just caught me off guard.
And then a number of years later, fast forward 10 or so years when she and I were at a pub because we were celebrating me getting married soon to somebody else. She was in town visiting, and she made a comment about, “Oh, Paul, you don’t have your Black card.” Cuz to her I acted like a white Black person. And so when she said that—even though it was 10 years apart or 12 years apart—I’m like, “Wait a minute, didn’t you tell me you didn’t see color like 10 years or so before?”
And then also just doing DEI work, a number of presenters and DEI professionals and staff and experts have said the same thing that you’re saying, Larry, that’s like, wait a minute… it sounds PC. You may mean PC, but it’s something you’re BS-ing us here, you know?
Larry Baker: I love that, Paul, because it relates to me so well. Honestly, when I hear people say that phrase, automatically red flags pop up, right? I know that at least initially I can’t trust you. It says to me that your feelings are more important than my lived experiences. And from that moment on, we’re off to a bad start, so we’re going to have to remove some barriers so that we can progress in our relationship.
And that’s just me, right? I’m not saying that this is universal for every person of color, when they hear that statement that’s how they react. But for me personally, that is a red flag that means we’re starting off on the wrong foot, and it’s gonna take a little bit of work to regain that trust.
So I’m glad you shared that story. And Paul, you mentioned that you do work with organizations but also work outside of organizations. So talk to me a little bit about how this phrase connects, in your opinion, to a larger systemic issue in our society. But of course, things that impact us in society can kind of spill over to the workplace. So I want you to touch on how does this phrase impact systemic issues in society, but then in the workplace as well?
Paul Ladipo: So the first question, I think about police brutality. I’ve been in the church for a number of years, and I remember a pastor—he wasn’t my pastor, but he was a visiting pastor to the church I attended—he once bragged on saying… he would give his background, he was like, “Yeah, I marched with the brothers.” This white pastor, he even said “march with the brothers,” you know? And then I found out this guy founded a leadership institute that was colorblind or that attempted to erase identities of its participants.
His line of reasoning was that it’s trying to remove identities that have served as motivations for hate and dispute some more different groups of people. And I understood where he was coming from, but when I first saw that on a website, like you described it as, the trust, the wall went up between him.
Like you say you “marched with the brothers” and now you’re saying you found an institute that erases my identity. I’m like, “Dude, no. We cannot do this.”
Larry Baker: Conflict.
Paul Ladipo: And to make it worse in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered, I decided just to google this dude cuz he came back to my mind. So I Googled him, and he is like, “Okay, was George Floyd murdered beacause he was Black? Maybe. But colorblindness is the way to fight this police brutality.” And I’m thinking, “Man, you being colorblind is turning a blind eye to the injustice that Black men and women and trans people will face at the hands of the police.”
And so you’s talking about I don’t see color/being colorblind, but you’re being woefully ignorant of the oppression that we face. And it’s like, “You know what? I’m done. I’m done with this dude.” I wish I could sit down with this dude, but he’s like 75+, he’s not gonna change. I mean, chances are…
Like on Facebook especially and Twitter, it’s like people will bring up race or racism. It’s like, “Oh, I’m colorblind. I don’t see color.” And it’s like… Look, you can say that all you want to. It doesn’t change who I am. You can say you don’t see color, you don’t see that I’m a Black man. I’m still one, okay? I’m still Black. You know, it ain’t going away. Don’t BS me. So it’s an easy out of a difficult conversation. They’re trying to be PC, but what they’re doing is it’s a get out of jail free card. It’s like, let me just get outta this conversation. Boom. Back to the side. I don’t have to talk about it.
To the second part of the question in the workplace, I think when it comes to hiring people—say colorblind hiring or even like trying to abolish affirmative action and saying colorblind admissions—here’s the thing though: it still protects white supremacy. It upholds and protects white supremacy because the colorblind approach favors white applicants because they’re the default, especially with college admissions. And so rich kids are disproportionately white. And so rich kids have to pick when it comes to colleges.
If you would do a colorblind admissions policy, you would leave out a lot of Black and Latino and Indigenous students cuz they’re on average poorer than their white and Asian counterparts. And so this whole race-neutral whatever policies for higher ed would really be devastating to students of color, I’m gonna be honest.
In the workplace, you say being colorblind, but when you do that you’re ignoring the needs of different populations. I work retail on the side to supplement my income, and we have a large Somali population here in Minneapolis. But my boss does a good job of not being colorblind, and she’s aware that them being Somali, them being Muslims, they have different needs than other workers and other customers. To be colorblind is neglecting Somali people and their heritage and their religion and their needs and whatnot.
Larry Baker: Yeah. And Paul, to me that really ties into my interpretation of why this phrase is so harmful. Because my main responsibility in the work that I do is to create that awareness, which ultimately I hope will cause you to do some self-reflection, which will ultimately cause you to some type of action, right?
And when you use that phrase, it tends to automatically shut down the individual’s need for introspection, which is what I ultimately need you to have because even if you think that you treat all people fairly or without any bias, you know that there are other people that do not. You probably eat dinner with them. You probably take them to the show. You probably go to church with these people, and those are the people that I need you to talk to. So the reason why I’m so passionate about getting people to understand how this phrase is so harmful… because I’m trying to equip you for those conversations that become more difficult if you cannot let your guard down and deal with your issues first.
So for me, that phrase, it takes on multiple levels that I need to dissect and break down because ultimately I need you to understand why this isn’t effective. Because I need you to talk to other people that I never get an opportunity to talk to about why that phrase is so harmful. If that makes sense, if that resonates with you.
Paul Ladipo: Yeah, yeah. I would also say that what really bugs me is like… maybe you’re gonna ask this at some point, but like if I can be a little forward here, what really bothers me about this phrase, I feel like it’s a perversion of Dr. King’s “do not judge by the color of their skin.”
Larry Baker: Oh my goodness.
Paul Ladipo: So what I’ve learned was that, yes, Dr. King did say “do not judge a person by the color of their skin, but by the content of the character.” But it doesn’t mean that Dr. King wasn’t aware of color because Dr. King spoke a lot about race in his writings and in his speeches.
Larry Baker: Absolutely. Yeah.
Paul Ladipo: I think in the sixties with all the turmoil, a lot of white families listened to his “I have a dream” speech or even that section of his speech, and they clung to it for dear life. They’re like, “Okay, let’s not judge people by the color of skin. So now I’m colorblind.”
It’s like, wait a minute… now you’ve taken what he said, and you perverted it and distorted it. So that’s what makes it really difficult because they, in addition to being colorblind, they misquote Dr. King, and they reinforce each other. And really, you have like a two-headed beast that’s hard to defeat, you know?
Larry Baker: Absolutely. And what’s interesting about that quote or the speech from Dr. King is that shortly before he passed away, he came out and said, “I regret that I even said that because it is more of a utopia state than what I’m actually seeing happening.” So it was almost as if he regretted saying that particular part of it because it’s just like you said—too many people latched onto that and took that mindset of “I’m a good person because I’m doing what Dr. King said, and I don’t judge people by the color of the of their skin.”
But what it also does is it gives them this crutch or it creates this lack of an ability to acknowledge that they may have some opportunities open to them that I will never have open to me. And that’s part of that shield that I think they use to kind of protect themselves and say, “But I don’t see color.” No. I need you to understand that our experiences are a hundred percent different.
So let’s dig into some other questions. I want you to talk about in two different phases: what advice do you have, Paul, for people who are targeted by this phrase or people that are impacted by this phrase? What advice do you have for them? And then I’m gonna ask you to flip it and talk to the ally, which I like to use the phrase accomplice, but we can talk about that a little bit later. But talk about advice that you would give to an ally when they hear another non-person of color use this phrase— what advice would you give to them?
So start with the person that is targeted by this phrase. But then for the ally/accomplice that hears this phrase and how would we recommend that they attack that?
Paul Ladipo: To the target, I would say first of all is pick your battles cuz if you battle everybody, you’re gonna be exhausted. We don’t need battle fatigue. Protect your peace. Secondly, I would say that that should be an indication to you that they’re blowing smoke up your butt. When they’re saying “I don’t see color,” that’s their way of saying “I don’t want to. I don’t either know how to have this conversation, or I don’t want to have this conversation, or I don’t wanna sound racist.” That’s their mental gymnastics they’re pulling here.
And so when they say that, keep those three things in mind. Pick your battles. Is this relationship or person worth having this conversation or argument with or if they’re not? Cuz some people you just cannot have this conversation and you have to leave them or just leave it for the time being. So know that’s their motivation. That’s what’s going on in their head. That’s their discomfort coming out. Know where you stand with this person and then from there, choose your battle. Pick your battles.
To the ally, when they hear another white person, or sometimes it’s people of color—I’ve heard people of color say this too.
Larry Baker: Absolutely.
Paul Ladipo: To this person, how do you not see color, or how did you learn this phrase, or are you uncomfortable acknowledging the diversity? Ask them clarifying questions to get them to think a little, dig a little. There’s a way to ask that’s not accusatory, but you can ask questions to get people to dig a little bit, do their own digging.
Larry Baker: Yeah, I love that. And that ties into some of the things that I think about when I give advice to people who are targeted by this phrase. I love how you said pick your battles, right? Because I understand that the primary reason why… well, they’re several reasons why Black people don’t want to talk about racism. I mean, first and foremost, we’re tired of dealing with it. So that’s one of the main reasons why we don’t want to talk about it. And another reason that I think surfaces is that we’re too busy trying to survive in it and thrive in spite of it to sit here to have conversations about it. So I absolutely appreciate your comment about maintain your own peace and pick your own battles.
The piece of advice that I tend to give people that are targeted by this phrase is to at least tell that individual how you interpret that statement. Because remember, you said that even some Black people say, “I don’t see color.” And that’s fine. But to engage in that conversation, I would recommend just at least tell them how you interpret that statement. And I said this in a lot of my presentations. One of the biggest things that I say is it initially tells me that you don’t see me. You tend to think that all of our experiences are the same.
So the advice that I give to my allies/accomplices, I’m gonna tie it into a story that I had with a neighbor of mine who is a white gentleman, and I would refer to him as an associate. I mean, every time he walks his dog, he comes past my house, I’m getting the mail, we engage in a conversation. So he knows the work that I do. And he was brave, I’ll admit it. He asked me. “So Larry, do you think that this work that you do is divisive? Because I think more people should be not seeing color.”
And here’s the scenario that I gave to him—his name is James. I said, “James, lemme give you a scenario. So let’s say you’re driving down the street and you are coming up to a stop sign or a stop light, and it turns red and you run through it and you didn’t notice an unmarked police car. And that police officer flips on the lights, pulls you over to the side, and then they say to you, ‘Hey, I’m pulling you over because you ran through a red light.’ If your response to that officer is, ‘Officer, I don’t see color,’ how effective is that argument going to be with that police officer? Because at the end of the day, that police officer needs you to understand that your experience with a red light is different than your experience with a green light.”
Paul Ladipo: Bam.
Larry Baker: It absolutely is. So when I said that to him, I could almost see his demeanor change. Yeah. Because now I gave him a concrete example… I don’t know if it changed his behavior. As a matter of fact, I don’t think I’ve seen him walking his dog past my house in the last couple of weeks. But at the end of the day when I gave him that scenario that if you tell that officer, “Officer, I don’t see color,” you as an individual are failing to understand the basic thing that I’m trying to tell you, that you have a different experience with a red light than you do with a green light. So understand that my experience as a Black man is different than your experience as a white man.
And that’s all that I’m saying that that phrase negates us from engaging in that type of conversation. Again, I don’t know how it changed his perspective, but like I said, I haven’t seen him walk his dog past my house in a couple weeks. But I’m looking forward to having that conversation with him again.
But until you give those types of illustrations, it doesn’t become tangible. It’s almost as if this is such a foreign concept for individuals that aren’t experiencing this, and that their life is actually shaped because of this. It’s hard for them to grasp that concept.
Paul Ladipo: So your neighbor, he’s kind of exhibiting… if I dare say, I see it like textbook white fragility. It’s kind of like you brought up something, made him uncomfortable, and his response is to get out of there, not talk. And in some cases the fragility is hostile, in some cases fragility is running a direction. Another manifestation of that is that you be appease or freeze. And some people get flat out hostile. So in my posts, people have gotten straight up hostile, like I’ve had to block them or they block me, but they got really mad. I’m like, “Look, I’m just telling you. I’m not here to hold your hand. So like it or leave it, you know?”
Larry Baker: Exactly, exactly. And I’m not saying that he’s avoiding me, I’m just saying that I haven’t seen him come this way, but I’m pretty sure that if he was, you know what? I actually appreciate the fact that you asked me this question, right? Because it has given me the opportunity to share with you a perspective that nine times outta ten you probably would never get if you didn’t run into me in this scenario. So I absolutely appreciate that.
Like I said, I’ve recently become a follower of you over LinkedIn, and I’ve seen some of your content and there’s a lot of things that really jump out and resonate with me. So I am super excited that you took this opportunity to share your thoughts around this phrase, and I think you’ve done an excellent job at helping me decode this phrase. But Paul, I know, just like you said, you’re an independent businessperson, and I wanna give you the opportunity to tell folks, our listeners, how they can get in contact with you, what types of services you provide. So take a moment and share with folks who you are and what you do and how to reach you.
Paul Ladipo: Yeah. So like I said, I’m based in Minneapolis—the Twin Cities. I do remote and in person, so if you want to fly me out to your city or state or whatever, I’m down. I don’t know about Texas or Florida (laughs). But anyway, I love remote and in person consultations, and so I’ve done both. I do all sorts topics: I talk about like white privilege, white supremacy culture, psychological safety, ageism, Title IX matters, so sexual misconduct. I’ve done safe zone trainings. I do bias awareness training.
And where to find me? You can go on my website. It’s CriticalConversationsConsulting.com. I know, that’s a whole lot of breakfast there, but CriticalConversationsConsulting.com and look at what I offer. You can also check me out on LinkedIn, so look my name up on LinkedIn—Paul Ladipo, so L A D I P O. I’m on LinkedIn and my LinkedIn profile has a link to my site on there. You can access it from there. And if you like what you see, fill out a form and we can have a conversation.
Larry Baker: Awesome, Paul. I absolutely love what I saw. So that was one of the main drivers to get you in to engage in this conversation. I absolutely thank you and appreciate the time that you gave me on today. But I absolutely want to acknowledge that this is a phrase that it’s one of my personal missions to have no one say this anymore.
Paul Ladipo: Yeah, same.
Larry Baker: Or at least have a deeper understanding of the impact that this phrase has on people of color. So Paul, thank you so much for joining us on today. And for those of you that listened, thank you so much for your time.
Thank you all so much for joining us for another episode of Decoded. And to all of you who are listening, we want to know—what were your biggest takeaways from this conversation? What coded language do you want us to unpack next? Please share with us on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn at Language and Culture Worldwide or LCW.
Until next time, I’m Larry Baker, and this has been Brave Conversations with LCW.