Dis/ability, Race, and the Power of Language: Part II

by Maggie Beneke, Ph.D.

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Name Label from Wikimedia Commons, Open Source

In this post, Dr. Maggie Beneke extends the discussion around language use that began during her virtual conference presentation on Dis/ability[1], Race, and Equity.  In part one of her blog last week, Dr. Beneke discussed person-first vs. identity-first language.  Here in part two, she covers her own position in relation to language use and the use and consequences of the term “colorblind.”

What We Say Matters

Through language, speakers construct identities, roles, and relationships. Language is bound up with power in any interaction, because language use, in context, has ideological consequences. Indeed, language choice not only impacts moment-to-moment communication, but also who is recognized by whom through language (Alderman, 2016) as well as how meanings are attached to words over time (McLaren & Giroux, 2018). To be clear, I write this post as a white, nondisabled, cisgender woman. I state these identities and others (i.e., I am a U. S. citizen, I speak English, I have a regular income, and it goes on) not to simply declare my unearned privilege and move on, but to take responsibility for undoing power inequities that continue to be played out in my own realm of influence. It is important I explicitly state how, whether I am conscious of it or not, my own identities are regularly centered and upheld in institutional spaces. Therefore, in discussing language use with regard to identity groups that I do not belong to (i.e., people with disabilities, people of Color) – and especially given the ways powerful groups have historically used naming/labeling as a way to secure the oppression of marginalized groups (Alderman, 2016) – I take seriously the question, “Who gets the power to name?” In what follows here and in part two, I respond to this question by focusing on the voices and experiences of individuals who are directly affected by dis/ability and race talk. As I discuss language use in relation to dis/ability and race, I intentionally cite (and suggest literature written by) people of Color and individuals in the dis/ability community.

From “Colorblindness” to Color Consciousness

The use of the term “colorblind” can be traced back to Justice Harlan’s Plessy vs Ferguson 1896 dissent (Stafford, 2015). The idea of being “colorblind” has regularly been applied today as a way in which individuals signal their rejection of overt racism (Wingfield, 2015). Well-intentioned individuals who embrace this popular ideology may believe that the best way to end racial inequities is to ignore race and treat everyone equally (Perez-Isiah, 2018). Yet, many critics of such an approach argue that claims to be “colorblind” actually perpetuate racial inequities.

First, to claim “colorblindness” is contradictory, because in saying one does not see race, race has already been acknowledged (University of Kansas, 2017). Additionally, taking a “colorblind” approach allows individuals to ignore how racism has operated historically and in the present day (Stafford, 2015). For professionals, taking a colorblind approach may mean avoiding conversations about race with children and families. By willfully ignoring ways that racism continues to be perpetuated in the lives of children and families, taking a “colorblind” approach does little to disrupt the status quo (Bonilla-Silva, 2017, Marcano, 2016).  Moreover, the term “colorblindness” is problematic in that it equates “blindness” (i.e., lack of eyesight) with lack of knowing (i.e., ignorance; Annamma, Jackson, & Morrison, 2017). Instead, Annamma and colleagues (2017) suggest that “color evasiveness” more accurately describes the ways individuals intentionally choose not to recognize race and racism. As an alternative to evading race and racism, color consciousness or race consciousness can better support movements toward racial justice (Park, 2018Tatum, n.d.).  Directly engaging in conversations about race can lead individuals (and young children!) to better understanding and ownership over the realities of structural racism, encouraging shifts in everyday actions (Narjala, n.d.Wingfield, 2015). I provide additional resources for understanding perspectives on language use and race below.

Further Reading: From Colorblindness to Color Consciousness


Alderman, D. H. (2016). Place, naming and the interpretation of cultural landscapes. In B. Graham & P. Howard (Eds.), Heritage and identity (pp. 195-213). London, UK: Routledge.

Annamma, S. A., Jackson, D. D., & Morrison, D. (2017). Conceptualizing color-evasiveness: using dis/ability critical race theory to expand a color-blind racial ideology in education and society. Race Ethnicity and Education, 20(2), 147-162.

Bonilla-Silva, E. (2017). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in America. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield.

Marcano, S. (2016). The myth of ‘colorblindness’: The problem with making race invisible. Daily Kos. Retrieved from https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2016/1/27/1475695/-The-Myth-Of-Colorblindness-The-Problem-With-Making-Race-Invisible

McLaren, P. & Giroux, H. A., (2018). Writing from the margins: Geographies of identity, pedagogy, and power. In P. McLaren (Ed.), Revolutionary multiculturalism (pp. 16-41). New York, NY: Routledge.

Narjala, S. (n.d.).  Why colorblind isn’t the goal when teaching kids about diversity [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.mother.ly/parenting/speaking-to-our-kids-about-diversity

Park, S. (2018). Talking about race and the importance of parent communications [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.raceconscious.org/2018/06/talking-race-importance-parent-communications/

Perez-Isiah, R. (2018). The myth of colorblindness. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/identity-education-and-power/the-myth-of-colorblindness-9ee6604766d1

Stafford, Z. (2015). When you say you ‘don’t see race,’ you’re ignoring racism not helping to solve it [Blog post]. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/26/do-not-see-race-ignoring-racism-not-helping

Tatum, B. D. (n.d.). Color blind or color conscious? Retrieved from http://www.aasa.org/SchoolAdministratorArticle.aspx?id=14892

University of Kansas (2017). Claims of being ‘colorblind’ implies race does not matter, leads to unequal education, professor says. Retrieved from https://specialedu.ku.edu/claims-being-color-blind-implies-race-does-not-matter-leads-unequal-education

Wingfield, A. H. (2015) Color-blindness is counterproductive. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/09/color-blindness-is-counterproductive/405037/

[1] Following Annamma (2018), I use the slash in dis/ability to highlight ways in which this label is connected to socially constructed values through everyday processes (including language) and which re-inscribe “ability” as a normative, desired standard.


This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells, Program Coordinator for the OneOp FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, onTwitter, and YouTube.

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