To say we ‘don’t see colour’ is extremely unhelpful

Instead we must recognise our superficial impressions of people and then look beyond them, says Shakil Butt

I loved musicals growing up and one of my favourites was the 1968 film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I loved all the songs as a child but as an adult one in particular has taken on new meaning. It’s near the end and called Doll on a Music Box. In it one of the lead characters sings the lines: “What do you see, you people gazing at me?”

It’s a question I ask people who don’t know me when I deliver sessions on diversity and inclusion (actually I sing the question – or try). I get all the answers I would expect to hear: I am bald, I am well dressed, tall or short (depending on your viewpoint), I am a professional, I am confident, I am smiley. After a few prompts and probing questions I get more: I am educated, I am married, I have children, I am a man, I am physically able, I am of a certain age range. And finally, it always takes a brave soul to say: I am brown or Asian.

The truth is we all do this – but we shouldn’t. When someone says to me ‘I don’t see colour, I see the person’, I respect their viewpoint but disagree wholeheartedly. Of course we see colour; we see gender, we see age, etc. And in the absence of knowing any more, we do form our judgement of the other person based on our perception. When we hear the other person speak we add to our judgement and so it goes on as we note behaviour and continue to create a narrative in our heads.

Supposedly it takes less than seven seconds to form a view of another person, but it can be as little as one-tenth of a second (Willis and Todorov, 2006). Which is not great news for anyone sat before a recruitment panel. It means for the remainder of the interview the interviewer is fighting that first impression, which may be a fair reflection of who someone is, but is unlikely to be a complete one.

For example, I am all the things you can see, but also so much more. I am a son, a brother, a husband, a father, an uncle, a gym enthusiast, a singer (depending on your definition of singing), a clown, a nerd, a writer, a fool, an emotional wreck, a pain, an HR and leadership consultant, an accountant, a non-executive director, calm, loopy, a mess, loud, a Brummie, a royalist, British.

I started with a song so wanted to finish with a lyric from another one. “Do you see what I see?” from the 1962 song Do You Hear What I Hear? It’s a poignant song as it was written as a plea for peace during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The truth is you don't see what I see. The real question is: can we see past this perception?

Given we are all different in some shape or form and we all make judgements based on our initial perception of the other, let’s all accept that and then try to really see the person beyond the surface. It’s OK that we make these judgements. But it’s not ok to hold onto them. We need to remind ourselves they are based on perception only, which is quite a superficial thing and influenced by society, culture and the media. 

Let’s encourage each other to dig deeper and get to really know one another while all the time accepting we are different.

And if you haven’t seen Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, do yourself a favour and be transported away to a far more innocent time. (Although Truly Scrumptious, the name of the leading lady, speaks volumes about a bygone politically incorrect age – but that’s a whole other article in itself...)

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire