photograph of small child peeking through his hands covering his face

Cartoon Network’s latest anti-racist PSA is undeniably clever. “See Color” takes place on the set of a PSA, where Amethyst, a Crystal Gem from the show Steven Universe (don’t ask me what this means), leads a couple of tots in a song about color blindness.

“Color blindness is our game, because everyone’s the same! Everybody join our circle, doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or purple!”

Amethyst isn’t buying it. “Ugh, who wrote this?” she says. “I think it kinda matters that I’m purple.” The children register their agreement.

“Well, I’m not an alien,” says the Black child, “but it definitely matters to me that I’m Black.”

“Yeah, it makes a difference that I’m white,” the white child chimes in. “The two of us get treated very differently.”

The Black child explains further: “My experience with anti-Black racism is really specific…But you won’t see any of that if you ‘don’t see color.’”

The idea that color blindness is deficient as a means of extirpating racism — because it blinds people to existing discrimination and invalidates legitimate race-based affirmative action — is not new. Indeed, the rejection of the philosophy and practice of color blindness has by now become the new orthodoxy in academic and left-leaning circles. That this rejection has trickled down to kids’ shows is surely a powerful measure of its success.

Conservative critics complain that the new anti-color blindness position is antithetical to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a society in which people are judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. This is a mistake. To see this, it is useful to understand the distinction in political philosophy between ideal theory and non-ideal theory. 

The distinction was first introduced by John Rawls in his classic A Theory of Justice. According to Rawls, ideal theory is an account of what society should aim for given certain facts about human nature and possible social institutions. Non-ideal theory, by contrast, addresses the question of how the ideal might be achieved in practical, permissible steps, from the actual, partially just society we occupy.

Those who reject color-blindness can see the color-blindness envisioned by King as a property of an ideal society, a society in which racism does not exist. In that society, the color of a person’s skin really does not matter to how they are in fact treated; hence, it is something we can and ought to ignore in our treatment of them. Unfortunately, we don’t live in this society, and in addition, we ought not pretend that we do. Instead, we ought to recognize other people’s races so that we may treat them equitably, taking into account the inequitable treatment to which they have and continue to be subjected.

But just as the norms which we must follow in a non-ideal society are perhaps different from those we ought to follow in an ideal society, so the norms we ought to teach our children should perhaps be different from the ones adults ought to follow. And there is a danger in teaching children to “see color” while also asking them, as we still do, to embrace King’s vision: it may very easily lead to confusion, or worse, a rejection of a color blindness as an ideal. After all, how many children are equipped to understand the distinction between ideal and non-ideal theory? Imagine white children criticizing King as a racial reactionary because of the latter’s insistence that in his ideal society, judgments of people’s merits would not take their race into account.

On the other hand, perhaps risking this outcome is better than the alternative: another generation of white children who believe that because race shouldn’t matter in some ideal society, it therefore ought not matter to us. Can we really afford to risk another generation of white people who believe that the claim that Black lives matter is somehow antithetical to the claim that all lives matter? Perhaps not.

There are good reasons to reject color blindness as a philosophy and practice for the real world: it leads us to ignore actual discrimination and vitiates the justification for race-based affirmative action. But there are limits to what children can be asked to understand, and ensuring that they are neither led astray nor confused requires careful thought.