American Sociological Association

Don’t Know or Won’t Say? Exploring How Colorblind Norms Shape Item Nonresponse in Social Surveys

Colorblind norms play an important role in shaping how people discuss race. There is reason to believe that these norms also affect the ways respondents interact with social surveys. Specifically, some respondents may be using nonresponse as a tactic to not discuss race in social surveys. If this is the case, very different demographics of respondents would be most prone to nonresponse, and the phenomenon should also vary on the basis of the interviewer’s race. The author conducted bivariate and multivariate analysis of the Chicago Area Study to examine whether colorblindness may be promoting “don’t know” responses and item refusals. The author finds that nonresponse to a perceived race of interviewer item follows a distinct pattern consistent with previous research on colorblind norms. For example, white respondents have nearly five times the rate of nonresponse compared with blacks and Latinos. Bolstering the colorblindness theory, an interracial interview context nearly triples the nonresponse rate compared with same-race interviews. Findings of this research have important implications for both survey researchers using social surveys to examine race and racial attitudes and race scholars who seek to understand the prevalence of colorblind norms across society.


Elizabeth C. Alexander





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