ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 11:06am


posted by
Ariel Rodríguez, Ph.D.,
Assistant Professor
ASU School of Community
Resources & Development

The ideology of being colorblind within youth service provisions suggests an agency, and by extension, the agency’s service providers, do not consider the color of a youth as a precursor to participation in any unique services or programs. It further suggests an agency which strictly adheres to colorblindness does not provide segregated services, which were in large part eliminated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

While the prevention of discrimination based on color may have been the initial intention of the concept of colorblindness, this concept has commonly been extended to include other physical and social characteristics such as ethnicity, culture, age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. Within nonprofit agencies which provide youth services, there are, however, exceptions to the colorblindness rule. When a specific characteristic conflicts directly with the mission of the service provider, agencies have been allowed to use the respective characteristic as a criterion for participation in their programs and services.

In essence, the ideology of being colorblind is viewed as a critical practice when ensuring equality of both access and, ultimately, service outcomes for youth participants. Every youth is treated equally; everyone gets the same service, has the same access to services, and thus is expected to have the same outcomes from participating in the respective programs.

In principle, colorblindness is an attractive concept. Who would not want or does not think our youth should be treated equally? However, there are at least three fundamental issues with colorblindness which youth service providers should note: differing needs, value expectations, and historical context.

Different Needs
Being a girl between the ages of 5 and 17 are the two primary requirements for participation in the Girl Scouts of Arizona. Young boys are generally not allowed in the Girl Scouts, as noted by Girl Scouts of Southern Alabama: “Our many years of experience shows that girls have unique needs and interests that are best met in a program designed especially for them, delivered in an all-girl setting.”

The bottom line is that youth are not a homogeneous group. Treatment of this population as a homogeneous group neglects their unique needs. Treating girls like boys by providing them with the same programs and services neglects the fact that both require different services if the goal is to optimally develop their capacities. Similarly, individuals of minority groups, such as youth of Latin American descent, have a variety of developmental needs which are not found in their Euro-American counterparts.1

Value Expectations
Treating all youth the same ultimately rests on someone (or group of individuals) deciding on what this “same” will be. So how should youth then be treated if they are all to be treated the same? From the perspective of a service provider, one of the most politically correct answers is simply to treat others the way "I" would like to be treated. But what does this actually mean? At its core, it means to treat others as if they hold your same attitudes, values, beliefs, social norms, and cultural preferences.

If you greet someone, do you extend a hand to greet them? Most Euro-Americans would as this is a common manner of greeting a person for them. However, attempting to shake a person’s hand with the left hand may be viewed as insulting if they have Muslim religious beliefs. Among many individuals of Latin American descent, shaking of the hand signifies there is an emotional space between the two individuals, a lack of connection. A more proper greeting would be kissing on the cheek.

The point is that treating everyone the way you would like to be treated (or having expectations for others that you deem appropriate based on your cultural beliefs) may deny others of that very right: to be treated in the way they would like to be treated. When working with a culturally diverse set of youth, it is critical to make efforts to understand their culture and to incorporate it into the organization’s programming. This does not mean that the best approach is to solely provide services which are more consistent with one culture or another. However, it does mean that if cultural differences are not taken into consideration, many youth who do not fit the “standard norm” established by the agency may not wish to participate in its programs due to not fitting in.

Historical Context
A basic assumption of colorblindness is that all individuals are the same. As such, they should all be treated equally. However, when providing services, disregarding historical contexts may lead to service providers shaking their heads as to why certain groups of individuals consistently do not participate in their programs. Worse yet, it may lead to false stereotypes of this targeted group.2

Let’s take swimming as an example. Many nonprofit youth serving agencies, such as the Y, provide swimming education programs. There is a high likelihood that agencies which provide swimming education services have very few African American or individuals of Latin American descent (unless that agency provides services in a community predominantly composed of this population) participants. A study by USA Swimming in 2010 found that 70% of African American children and 58% of Hispanic children had low or no swimming ability. So why don’t either of these minority groups tend to participate in swimming programs?

To understand this reasoning, one must understand the historical context of being African American or a person of Latin American descent just a few generations ago. Years of oppression left individuals from both of these minority groups largely in poverty or in communities with little quality public resources. With no real access to these facilities, there was not a viable mechanism for swimming to become part of their culture.

A second reason may be fear based. One must understand that most grandparents today, who have played a role in helping raise their children and grandchildren, lived through horrendous overt discrimination which greatly played a role in how they felt and acted. Attempting to enter community facilities, such as pools, where Whites lived meant placing one’s life in danger. Therefore, parents learned to fear swimming and these fears were passed on to subsequent generations. Findings from the 2010 USA Swimming study found that parental fear was one of the major contributors to a child’s swimming ability.

Therefore, considering the historical context is critical if participation rates are to change with these respective programs.

The issue of colorblindness plays an important role in the provision of youth services. While colorblindness has been identified as a positive component in advocating for equality, at least three areas of concern were identified when applying this ideology to youth programs and services: differing needs, value expectations, and historical context. Not addressing these issues may have negative consequences for youth participants, including not meeting the necessary needs of certain youth populations, placing unreasonable expectation for youth, and alienating certain youth populations.

Ariel Rodríguez is an assistant professor at ASU in the School of Community Resources and Development. Dr. Rodríguez’s research focuses on youth of Latin American descent, community recreation, and quality of life.


[1] Rodríguez, A., Larsen, D., Látková, P., & Mertel, S. J. (2012). Development of Latino youth: Implications for park and recreation programs and services. Journal of Park and Recreation Administration, 30(1), 85-106.
[2] Fleming, S. (1994). Sport and South Asian youth: The perils of 'false universalism' and stereotyping. Leisure Studies, 13, 159-177.

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I completely agree with your stance on the idea of colorblindness. When the mission is to treat everyone the same, many times certain individuals or groups feel the program or organization does not apply to them. There is never a time where every person will fit into a perfect idea of what they should want, Every person, every group etc will want different things, will want to be treated a certain way or will hold ideals that do not blend with the norm. Programs should be tailored to the individual, of course there could and should be broad similarities such as the Girl Scouts, but after that initial requirement individuals involved should be treated in a way that fits their culture, background, religion and most of all their personality. The statement Treat others how you would like to be treated should definitely be revised because everyone does like to be treated in different ways or find one thing completely fine while someone else may be insulted or hurt by that treatment. Again, this was a great observation and I truly enjoyed your insights on the issue.

Dr. Rodriguez,

"Colorblindness" as a concept being extended to other characteristics such as ethnicity, culture, age, gender, religion, and sexual orientation has brought about some interesting challenges. For example, where does one draw the line? Girl Scouts really wouldn't be the same program if boys were allowed in, but what about the boys that feel more comfortable with girls? What about the boys that always dreamed of being a Girl Scout, for whatever the reason? Is it fair to deny them access based on something they have no power to change? Obviously it's a loaded and complicated issue.

I do agree with you that each individual has their own needs, culture, and expectation, and that these should all be respected. Certainly if you design a program expecting each child to have the same results in the same way you're likely to be ignoring the needs of a portion of your group. But how realistic is it to design a program that will fit every single client's needs? At what point do we draw the line and say that our program is for youth with THESE characteristics and not THESE characteristics because changing the program to include EVERYBODY would make the program a completely different program?

I am often frustrated by this issue because I do think that a little boy who desperately wants to be a Girl Scout SHOULD be able to join the Girl Scouts, but I ALSO think that the girls in the program deserve to have that sacred place where they can feel comfortable being a girl around other girls without the pressure that having a boy around can create.

For programs that CAN include youth of all genders, races, etc., I agree that the best approach is to make efforts to understand other cultures and needs and to incorporate it into the organization’s programming.

A great and necessary post, Dr. Rodriguez! I hope that more discussion of this topic happens within the sector, especially regarding the historical perspective because I think it's a factor in this issue that is often overlooked and forgotten about, or even not considered a valid factor because it is in the past. I've heard and read arguments from people who say that racism doesn't exist anymore and that we're a more tolerant society now which is far from the truth. Just because we have a person of color in office did not make us into a so-called "colorblind" nation (which was an argument that I read sometime ago in a thread of comments regarding racism in our country). I feel that this topic should not only be discussed more in the sector, but should be a part of mandatory training for organizations. I have been in "culture sensitivity" trainings before, but I remember one instance where it was given only as a reactionary response after an ignorant comment was made rather than as a preventative action. For someone to say that they are "colorblind" and that they don't see race, in my opinion sounds like a cop out and an avoidance/ignorance of recognizing cultural individuality; to me only signals that really the only thing that person is "blind" to is oppression.

On a side yet related note, I think accessibility should be included in the list of physical and social characteristics mentioned in the extension of the "colorblindness" ideology. We in the field should also remind ourselves to take into consideration the different needs, value expectations and historical contexts of youth with different physical abilities (development disabilities, visual and hearing impairments, etc.) in our programs. I think the same logic applies to this population as well.

This came to mind while reading this article because right now I am working at a camp for visually impaired teens, and just recently there was a discussion amongst the whole group of youth (28 teens to be exact) that turned into a venting circle about the way they are treated everyday by folks who apply the same sort of "colorblind" logic of everyone is treated the same. They discussed how they don't want to be singled out in a group or treated like special cases, yet at the same time they do have different needs and abilities than their peers that should be addressed when necessary. In a place like the camp where I'm at, this situation isn't really a problem because the space is set up specifically just for this population (just like how the Girl Scouts is a space just for girls), but what about when these youth are in a general youth program that is not geared towards any specific population? How are these youth treated and what do they get out the program if they decide to continue to participate? And like cultural-awareness trainings, how often do organizations train for accessibility-awareness? We have to remind ourselves that not all accessibility needs are visible to the naked eye and we can't just assume, as stated earlier in your post, that all individuals are the same. Of course, people of color have accessibility issues, too! Just the other day, while having a conversation about hate speech and oppression with some of the youth, one teen blurted out, "I'm blind and I'm brown, I'm double screwed!" It was said in sarcasm, but it's a reminder that there can be more than one so-called "strike" against someone when it comes to societal oppression.

Great post Prof. Rodriguez and very thought-provoking comments as well! As a lifelong Girl Scout and Adult GS volunteer and camp director, I have seen the very positive effects, again and again, of an all-girls environment that addresses girls' specific needs, values, and experiences. Someday we may not need or want this separate program space for girls, but we are far away from that day now. And within our programs for girls, we have the challenges you discuss here: how we also address girls' additional specific needs, values and experiences based on culture, race, ability, etc. And it certainly starts with an open mind and open arms, not a blind eye. Thanks for your wonderful contribution!

This was an extremely well written and thought out post. The idea behind color blindness does make sense, and even comes from the beginning of our country "all men are created equal". When you are looking at children, and the needs that they have each child is different. You also gave some unique examples of the difference between different cultures, but it comes down to the fact that every person in this world is unique. This person or child could be white, black or brown. When you are helping people half the battle is the strategy of how you do it.


In your post you brought up the idea that the kids you are working with "don't want to be singled out in a group or treated like special cases, yet at the same time they do have different needs and abilities than their peers that should be addressed when necessary."

This is so interesting to me. At first glance seems almost paradoxical. How are these two desires to be handled appropriately? Where does the responsibility lie in addressing these conflicting desires--with the people who harbor the feelings or with the people who help create those feelings? Most likely both, I suppose.

In the past few years I have noticed within myself (someone of almost COMPLETE English decent) a feeling of being "colorless" and, maybe incorrectly, holding the opinion that I have no ethnicity or culture. The colorblind reaction just seems to be, as Dr. Rodriguez put it, how we would act out the Golden Rule. Caucasians imagine this is how others want to be treated because that is what we would like ourselves. Obviously this point of view has its massive flaws and is continually being addressed.

As someone who always strives to be teachable and continually discover truth, I think all of these great conversations and eye-opening discussions ultimately lead me to ask, "So how should all these principles be implemented? What should I personally be doing/thinking differently?"

Dr Rodriguez,

I am often challenged with the idea of colorblindness being a Latina who works with immigrant right groups. Ideally, we hope for the full integration of all immigrant youth in society and sometimes face the issue of how to succesfully do that in a country where European culture, language, and history is mainly taught. I do believe certain children depending on the need in terms of gender and age may be better served separetely, however, in terms of historical education, I believe this subject should be treated equally across all categories.

The great example which you provided in terms of swimming, I believe can fairly suggest that education is needed in order to undertstand the need of swimmiming education amongst Latino and African American communities. However, such educational historical background should always be provided across every ethnic backround, gender, etc, in order to create a society where there is more understanding of why certain gorups may only focus on certain populations within our communities.

I do appreciate your post, the idea of colorblindness is often mistaken or mis-understood in the non-profit sector, and so I hope this would provide future clarity of where the need is actually at and why certain groups of children will be focused on more than others.

Dr. Rodriguez,

The way you explain the layered limitations of "colorblindness" was very intriguing. In particular, I like that you tied in the historical context of this issue. It plays a huge role in how this concept is interpreted. As an idealistic notion, "colorblindness" should be the great equalizer--but the problem is, absolute equality cannot exist simultaneously with true diversity. The issue here, I think, is that there is a significant difference between "equal" and "equitable" treatment. To me, the latter is more practical, realistic, and better serves the core value behind the "colorblind" perspective. The whole point of "colorblindness" in all variations of the term is to prevent harmful or unfair exclusion. Flipping the definition around, the central purpose of "colorblindness" is to promote inclusivity and diversity that enhance the quality of interaction within a community or group.

Although real-world application of concept of "colorblindness" can result in confusion and sometimes creates other unintended complications, in my opinion the good intentions behind it are an asset in developing strong, diverse programs. It's more a matter of retraining the use and interpretation of the word. Much like how the term "nonprofit" misleads many to think that entities of the Third Sector cannot generate profits, the term "colorblindness" itself is a quasi-misnomer for its intended purpose. The main reason we have policies and ideologies reflecting things like this is to offer the best services possible with the least amount of discrimination. My perspective: programmers, nonprofit leaders, and the general public should definitely be cautious of the limitations of "colorblind" and similar policies. However, they should also take into consideration that the focus shouldn't be on striking down a controversial term, but instead work towards the adoption of a more applicable one--one that hones in on the equitable treatment of participants instead of just doling out cookie cutter solutions and assuming those will be the best option for the majority.

Thank you for your post! I really enjoyed reading it. Hope you're having a good summer!

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