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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Colorblindness: Implications for Youth Services

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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