Cultural blindness is the idea that a person’s culture has no bearing on their worldview.
The term is related to the color blindness concept, where individuals argue they don’t see race, so they treat people of all different races in the exact same way.
In the context of cultural encounters, the term can be understood as the inability of the observer to notice or understand whether the meaning of a specific action in one cultural context has the same (and a corresponding) contextual meaning in another cultural context.
An example of cultural blindness can be found in the field of education: instructors or teachers can assume that the specific techniques used by the dominant culture are universally applicable among all individuals, irrespective of these individuals’ cultural backgrounds.
Definition of Cultural Blindness
Cultural blindness is defined by the American Psychology Association as:
“…the inability to understand how particular matters might be viewed by people of a different culture because of a rigid adherence to (…) one’s own culture” (APA Dictionary of Psychology, n.d.).
It is very similar to the idea of racial color blindness (Apfelbaum, Norton & Sommers, 2012), the widespread belief that “race-based differences should not be taken into account when decisions are made, impressions are formed, and behaviors are enacted” (p. 205).
Examples of Cultural Blindness
Cultural blindness can have many forms in diverse settings, ranging from education, demographic changes and justice to workplace and public policy.
1. Example of Cultural Blindness in Education
Some teachers’ educational approaches are blind to cultural, economic, and racial differences.
For instance, a teacher may have 5 children who newly immigrated from Vietnam to the United States. These children may have – up until now – learned almost entirely through oral instruction. That’s the way they’re most comfortable learning because it’s how things are done in their culture.
A teacher who believes in a culturally diverse pedagogy would recognize that these students learn best through oral instruction and differentiate their teaching to help those students learn in a way that’s most comfortable.
Instead, the culturally blind teacher expects the Vietnamese children to instantly assimilate into her way of teaching because she’s blind to cultural differences. This will put the Vietnamese children at a severe disadvantage and typecast them as unintelligent.
Similarly, the use of standardized tests (e.g., SATs) is subject to criticism because it doesn’t recognize that some cultural groups learn better through active learning rather than sitting in a school hall filling in paperwork!
2. Example of Cultural Blindness in Demographic Change
A study by Welton, Diem and Holme (2013) analyzed how a suburban school district handled rapid demographic shifts as more African-American children entered the district.
The authors found that the response of the school district “was racially conscious of changes in student demographics, but its practices to address these changes were race-neutral” (p.1 1).
In other words, while the administrators were aware of more African-American children coming into the area, but they did nothing about it because they were blind to the unique cultural needs of the students.
Here, effective administrators would have consulted with local elders to get an appreciation of the sorts of after-school clubs, social supports, and extracurricular activities that would most fit the cultural needs of the new demographic group.
3. Example of Cultural Blindness in Justice
Persaud (2012) argues that there are strong and dominant cultural values and morals that affect criminal justice. This is to say that “in legal matters involving culturally specific actions, the culture of the dominant societal group” clouds culturally competent policing.
For example, imagine a cultural group who, in their home country, spend a lot of time loitering outside where they socialize (for example, I recall going to Cuba where loitering on the street all day was a perfectly normal way to socialize).
Were this cultural group to do the same loitering outside shops in an upmarket mall in Hollywood, the police may see them as suspicious and harass them, looking for evidence of criminality.
Here, the group’s behavior would be ethnocentrically interpreted, and they would be placed under enhanced scrutiny not applied to them in their home country, and not applied to the dominant culture in America.
This cultural blindness is how, often, minority groups get over-policed. Were the police to develop good relationships with these groups and realize that meeting up outdoors is culturally normal behavior (and not at all suspicious), then culturally responsive policing would take place.
4. Example of Cultural Blindness in Media
Cultural blindness can also affect the media. Looking back at beloved sitcoms from the 1990s, for example, we see a representation of America that was overwhelmingly white, middle-class, and heteronormative.
Clearly, the media metanarrative constructed about America didn’t reflect the country’s great cultural diversity. In other words, the producers and directors appeared blind to cultural plurality when constructing their worlds.
Today, we see efforts to redress these problems, with shows like Survivor ensuring 50% of the cast are BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color).
5. Example of Cultural Blindness in Healthcare
A similar structural arrangement occurs in healthcare, where healthcare practitioners may characterize their work in universal terms and disregard the potential cultural and racial differences in healthcare provisions.
For example, healthcare practitioners need to know that certain racial and ethnic groups are more susceptible to certain diseases. By being aware of these cultural differences, they can more proactively seek out and prevent diseases in at-risk populations.
If the contextual differences among different cultural groups are disregarded, it is likely that societal-level problems are relegated to individual-level problems.
6. Examples of Cultural Blindness in the Workplace
Cultural blindness affects the workplace when policies don’t recognize the diversity of culture among its employees.
For example, the workplace may close down over Christmas so that the majority Christian (or Christian heritage) employees can celebrate their religious holiday.
But when Ramadan comes around, the Muslim employees may not have accommodations made for them. These employees may request to take leave during some of that period to be with family, have different arrangements during lunch due to eating and prayer requirements, and so on.
7. Example of Cultural Blindness in Public Policy
Our final example of cultural blindness comes from public policy. In her qualitative case study of Native American mothers in the United States, Kalyanpur (1998) showed that the assumptions of universal applicability can result in the exclusion of different child-raising practices other than the normative Anglo-American family structures.
For instance, Kalyanpur claimed that since children from Native American families are bilingual, their language developed at a different rate to other cultural groups. In the study, Kalyanpur argued that “professionals’ conclusion that the Native American children were language delayed was made on the basis of mainstream expectations of verbal skills.” This, she argued, “overlooked the fact that (…) the socio-linguistic patterns of this culture were different from those of the mainstream culture” (p. 328).
Arguments for Cultural Blindness
1. It Supposedly Ensures Equality
If you apply a cultural blindness lens, then your goal would be to treat all people exactly the same way, no matter what culture they come from.
This means that everyone is treated equally. You don’t give any individual a particular preference or special treatment. This, theoretically, means that everyone gets seen the same way and has a level playing field, whether it’s in education, sports, the courts, or any other area of social life.
Of course, there are arguments against this position (see arguments against cultural bias below).
2. It Beats a Cultural Differentiation Approach
The alternative to cultural blindness is cultural differentiation, where people will make adjustments to how they treat people based upon their cultural background.
For example, a judge might differentiate their punishments for defendants with the understanding that different cultural groups have their own beliefs and approaches to punishment.
However, detractors would say this approach leads to different treatment for different cultures, which leads us toward moral relativism. Therefore, cultural blindness is said to be necessary in order to prevent a slippery slope toward a society where all cultural values and beliefs are considered equal, with no moral foundation to our thoughts.
Arguments Against Cultural Blindness
1. It Perpetuates Inequality
Treating everyone the same – regardless of their culture – can simply put people of a culture different to yours at a disadvantage.
For example, if you’re a teacher who believes in cultural blindness, you won’t make an effort to include the cultures of minority students in class discussions. The history lessons would all be about the majority culture; language lessons wouldn’t include the slang and idioms of the minority students; and the minority students would feel excluded.
2. Cultural Blindness Isn’t Possible
Everything has a cultural slant – the language you use, the way you think, the values you have, all come from your culture. It’s impossible to turn that off.
Our cultural bias occurs mostly unconsciously. We’re so used to our own culture that we don’t realize we’re living it. For example, we sometimes think we don’t have an accent and everyone else does because we’re so used to our own accent. Here, we’re blind to the fact that we, too, have a culture.
So, if you claim to be culturally blind, you may actually saying that you’re culturally ignorant! You’re just going to embrace your culture as the ‘norm’ and all other cultures need to adhere to your culture’s ways of thinking and doing in order to understand you!
Cultural Blindness vs Cultural Imposition
Cultural blindness is the idea that we don’t see culture when taking action. Cultural imposition, on the other hand, is the idea that we impose our own cultural values on others.
In reality, cultural blindness has the effect of cultural imposition. It imposes cultural perceptions and expectations on those from non-dominant cultures, even if that isn’t the intention.
Thus, while cultural blindness is a vain attempt at equality that indirectly leads to inequality, cultural imposition usually refers to a more assertive and conscious attempt to impose the values and practices of one culture upon another.
In this sense, these examples demonstrate that an important result of cultural blindness is cultural imposition.
Cultural Blindness vs Cultural Diversity
Instead of the normative assumption that everyone should be treated in the “same” manner, cultural diversity emphasizes that everyone should be treated in an “equal” manner.
That is to say, cultural differences (just like every other difference) should be accounted for, and when necessary, explored.
One way of doing this is to acknowledge that the very definitions, perceptions, and needs of individuals can differ. These differences mean we need to think about the needs of each individual separately.
A culturally diverse approach can accommodate diverse needs without reifying cultural differences into an unchanging set of traits. Instead of reification, cultural diversity aims to achieve equality through cherishing the differences.z
Related Concept: Cultural Appropriation
In this article, we have defined cultural blindness as the inability to comprehend cultural differences and their consequences. In doing this, we have shown relevant examples in diverse social settings and argued that cultural blindness results in the omission of cultural perceptions and biases that have real-world implications.
Overall, cultural blindness, with the pretense of equal treatment, actually imposes dominant views and perceptions, which in turn results in the exclusion and discrimination of cultural minorities.
Therefore, cultural diversity is an important way of acknowledging cultural differences without reifying them.
American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Cultural blindness. In APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved June 16, 2022 from https://dictionary.apa.org/cultural-blindness
Apfelbaum, E., Norton, M. I., and Sommers, S. R. (2012). Racial Color Blindness: Emergence, Practice, and Implications. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 21, 3, 205-209.
Kalyanpur, Maya. (1998). The Challenge of Cultural Blindness: Implications for Family-Focused Service Delivery. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 7, 317-332.
Persaud, S. H. (2012). Is Color-Blind Justice Also Culturally Blind? The Cultural Blindness in Justice. Berkeley Journal of African American Law & Policy, 14, 1, 23-64.
Welton, A. D., Diem, S., & Holme, J. J. (2015). Color Conscious, Cultural Blindness: Suburban School Districts and Demographic Change. Education and Urban Society, 47(6), 695–722.