Colourblind vs Colour Competence

As a result of conversations I have had since publishing this I want to contextualise the following.  We are in a racially diverse, adoption is common as are cross cultural, transracial families community.  These questions and thoughts aren’t because we are isolated, they are in fact provoked in part because of my exposure to different kinds of normal. The race incident referenced below happened less than 7 years ago in a city which is said to be one of South Africa’s most cosmopolitan ciities.  This is important context I have realised and recognise that it doesn’t mean you will agree with all my stances below or see value in them.  Thank you for reading anyway!

We are on an adoption journey and are preparing to parent a future black man in South Africa. This is some of my processing and I am by no means claiming to have all the answers – however, I am wrestling and wanting to know how we do this well.
I have realised that anytime someone mentions race, there is a HIGH risk of people thinking ‘political’, ‘liberal’ and a whole lot of other not always positive words.
Being colour competent isn’t a political statement. It’s a skill needed in today’s world.

Colour competency is a term I saw mentioned recently in an adoption group. It was in response to a mom of colour asking people to be mindful of the implications of race for their children.

Conversations with friends of colour, reading well researched (sadly all US based) books and observing what I see in my day to day work space are things that have informed some of my thinking. I speak as a white person who grew up in an English/ Afrikaans mixed home – but none of that overtly impacted my social interactions. I WANT to learn from my friends of colour and from people who have grown up in transracial homes, adopted transracial homes how to better navigate these spaces.

A (black) friend recently said to me that she wishes we would use other words- so cross cultural rather than transracial families. I hear her. I concur –but I just wish we would actually more actively engage and talk about this in any form so that the things that for many of my same race peers don’t seem necessary can be understood well and that some of my different race peers can actually engage and tell their stories too and be heard.

I have heard it said by a few of my (white) friends who are parenting (black/ mixed race children) that they are colour blind. Their child is just their child and they don’t think about this. I have struggled with this as our racial features are a part of who we are. Our stories of origin include our culture and race of origin.

A friend from the long ago past grew up as a black man in a white home – on reflecting parts of his story a (white) friend expressed that he wished that there had been a way in adulthood for this friend who has sadly passed away to not have had to have such boxed/ split realities. Until we explore more colour/ race/ cultural competent ways of engaging with each other I am not sure how we are going to get this right going forward.

My child will be my child. I want the best for him. I want him to be the best version of himself. I want him to know that we embrace him, not just for who he is, but for the fullness of who he is- which includes the culture and race group that he comes from. I ALSO want to know how to help him build racial self-esteem – which is a part of his sense of self – and to equip him to deal with the challenges that will face him as sadly the world still does see in colour and race and not always as a celebration of difference.

Recently I have had a few conversations (with white friends and family) where children were said to not see colour – in direct contrast to sitting in a class room 3 months ago where a (black) child was told he couldn’t use the “skin”colour crayon because he was a black man – this child was 9 years old and while he didn’t know necessarily what the meaning of that was to his friend, his immediate response was:

“It’s not nice to call me that”

Note it wasn’t about which crayon wasn’t being shared with him, it was the racial reference that he responded to.

Children do see difference- we need to help them navigate what to do with it – whether from being very short or very tall, super bright to not so sporty or an inclusion point of view with disability, children notice difference.

A friend tells a story of how her black child was pointed at by a white child who questioned her father as to why this child didn’t look like the rest of the family – the friend stepped in and helped navigate this space, while the dad cringed and wasn’t sure how to respond – the dad gratefully thanked this friend! Colour competence and adoption language were both needed in this.

I have sat in restaurants with my white family and ‘my’ black ‘little brother’ child, where we have had poor service: this to the point of having cutlery dumped on our table, and our table being used as a service station by staff. We never went back there. This was in the last 10 years. He was fairly oblivious at the time as he was fascinated by the restaurant’s parrot and just thought that we were going elsewhere to get ice-cream – but what would have happened had he been a bit older and more aware of what was going on?

My white friends have asked if this really is an issue. My black and coloured friends have nodded in agreement that I need to figure out how to manage this.

This means that the following future decisions matter to us:
– Where we will sign up for schools? Will our child be in the minority? Or will he be able to choose friends who are diverse and represent our family values? Will his teachers see and embrace his potential? Will he have extra pressure on him because he has white parents?

– Where we will buy a home – Are there people around our home who look like all of our family?

– Who are the people in our world who can help us navigate this space from an inside understanding of some of the challenges our child will face? Language skills (for all of us), being black but being raised by white parents, expressions of faith and personhood.

– The story books we read: from children’s bibles, to stories to pictures to posters to heroes. Are there people who look like him in the story? Or are all the people in the stories people who look like his mom & dad and nothing like him? What unspoken message is being communicated in terms of what is normal?

Micah Bourne has a brilliant youtube clip entitled “normal hair’’ – how often do we of ‘white hair’ use the word normal to describe hair care etc? (

How do we engage with colour competent skills to help understand that normal is a range of different things and that different doesn’t mean not normal?
There is some emerging research and acknowledgment of this but that’s because our world isn’t colour blind. The reality is that we can’t protect our future children from all of these things but if we don’t equip them to deal with these challenges and create a new normal in terms of how we do things, we aren’t really helping them be the best them either.

I am learning. I am listening. I am hopeful.

5 thoughts on “Colourblind vs Colour Competence

  1. Great, and i’m sure helpful [to others who might be there] piece Alexa. i imagine i would have been advocating for ‘colourblind’ a few years ago but in recent years i’ve come to change that to something else – not even sure what the something else is. But as you say, colour and culture are part of our heritage and so should be something to be celebrated not pretend-to-not-see’d – i think we are looking for a term that says we see the difference but we don’t prejudice because of it.

    Not sure if you’ve seen this one but there was a TED talk about being colour brave that at the time of watching i clearly felt was a good thing:

    i was excited by the questions you had at the end in terms of school and place to live and so on – those feel like great intentional questions for everyone to be asking, not just those who adopt across colour lines.

    so super stoked for you guys and can’t wait for your journey to really begin in this area and looking forward to the lessons you will be able to teach and wrestle out along the way.

    love brett fish

    • Hey Brett Fish..thank you for your ongoing support – both you and Val! Colour brave is good… feel free to post in the comments on the blog if you want to?
      SOO grateful for the people doing this journey with us.


    • I really like “I think we’re looking for a term that says we see the difference but we’re not prejudiced against it”. So aptly put! I am also against colorblindness when it comes to seeing race. It’s a sttate of denial that’s not good for any of us.

  2. Hi Lex – thank you for sharing. Colour blindness is definitely a fallacy. I would love to live in the world where we don’t have to do the race-talk with our children but we are so not there yet. Thank you for talking about it and sharing your journey. I love it when people engage in a constructive manner and build bridges.

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