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How blind people see race

Osagie K. Obasogie set out to find out what ‘race’ means to people who’ve never been able to see skin color.

Arthur Chang

In Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech, he yearned for a time when Americans would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King’s language drew on a metaphor for fairness as old as the image of blindfolded Lady Justice, one that has long held a seductive appeal in America’s conversation on race: that of blindness. If we could just stop seeing color, the logic goes—if we could truly be race blind—we might at last move beyond the sins of slavery and prejudice, and reach a kind of utopia in which racial differences are emptied of meaning.

But what happens when the metaphor of colorblindness is tested literally? For lifelong blind people, who have no ability to sort people by skin color, does race become as meaningless as we might hope? Or do they in fact “see” race? And if they do—if they are no less race conscious than the rest of us—what might that tell us about an ideal that anchors our most basic sense of racial equality?

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Those questions lie at the heart of “Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind,” by legal scholar and sociology professor Osagie K. Obasogie. In a study eight years in the making, Obasogie, who teaches at the University of California Hastings, set out to document how blind people experience race. He found that even without visual cues, they experience the same divisions and prejudices as anyone else.

In all, Obasogie interviewed 106 subjects who had been blind since birth—white, black, male, female, young and old, urban, suburban and rural. Their stories ranged from the commonplace to the surreal: We meet a blind black man named Keith, for whom romantic interests rise and then abruptly fall the moment a blind white woman discovers the texture of his hair. We meet Laura, who recalls the morning as a young girl she asked her mother why she was cleaning the kitchen counter. “‘Well, because black people smell, and your baby sitter was here last night,’” Laura recalled. “And I said, ‘That’s interesting,’ and filed that away.”

Indeed, Obasogie argues, it is that continual filing away of information, and not any visually obvious reality, that trains us to see race and attach meaning to it. “We are all socialized to see race. But it’s only by talking to blind people that we really get a true understanding of how strong that socialization practice is,” Obasogie said. “What this study highlights is how the things that we think are obvious are often things that society works very hard to teach us.”

Ideas spoke to Obasogie by phone from his office in California.

IDEAS: You started your research after seeing the 2004 film “Ray” [about the life of blind soul music legend Ray Charles]. What about the movie led you to these questions?

‘If blind people are seeing race and organizing their lives around race, you can be damn sure that race is still an important part of other people’s lives.’ -- Osagie K. Obasogie

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OBASOGIE: I guess what initially struck me about the movie was how Ray Charles had this really interesting and deep understanding of race ever since he was a little boy....After a few weeks of research, I found that no one had really asked the question to blind people, what is race? How do you understand race and what does it mean to you?

IDEAS: What was the most surprising finding in the study?

OBASOGIE: What these interviews really highlight is the fact that being able to see actually has very little to do with understanding what race is....Blind people have a very visual understanding of race. And blind people use these visual understandings of race to guide them through life, just like everyone else does, in terms of where they live, who they date, and so on.

IDEAS: What do you mean when you say they understand race visually?

OBASOGIE: Oftentimes, sighted people think that blind people either have no understanding of racial difference, or that their understanding can only be limited to some secondary sensory evaluation, such as hearing accents. What my research shows is that those kinds of secondary experiences do not come to define what race is for blind people. Rather it’s this knowledge that what’s important about race and what defines race is the fact that people look different. It’s about a visual difference that they can’t appreciate directly, but yet they are socialized to appreciate and react to.

IDEAS: Some of your subjects described startling introductions to race bias from a young age; one boy’s father drove him from their suburban home to an urban area and instructed him to “smell the smell of [n-word] town.” How much of this can be attributed to subjects recalling memories from an earlier time?

OBASOGIE: There were certainly some stories that come from a particular time. So when people talk about going to segregated schools for the blind, we’re talking about people who went to certain schools before the 1950s. However, a number of experiences—such as blind people saying they met somebody, they thought the person was really cool, and then they found out the person was black and they couldn’t date that person anymore—those were from respondents who were in their 20s and 30s.

IDEAS: Often, sighted people have an instinctive reaction to protect a blind person—making sure they cross the street safely, for example. How did that instinct play out in terms of race?

OBASOGIE: One of the things that struck me the most about these interviews was the way that racial boundaries get patrolled, primarily in the realm of dating. So you have parents making sure their children know that it’s not appropriate for them to date outside their race. And then secondly you have these strangers, for example, coming up to a woman [shopping with a black male friend in a store] and saying, “Do you know your husband is black?” which is an unbelievable statement on so many levels. You had another situation where a landlord saw a black person walk into a white [blind] woman’s house, he goes and rings the doorbell and asks, “Is everything OK? I saw a black person walk in your house.” It comes from the same sentiment of seeing a blind person and thinking they may be taken advantage of—and for some people, that involves making sure that quote-unquote vulnerable white blind people are aware that there are black people out there [who] pose a certain threat to white people.

IDEAS: What, if any, are the broader societal implications flowing from the findings that blind people are not colorblind or racially oblivious?

OBASOGIE: We kind of live in this world now where people think that everything is now postracial. With the election of Barack Obama, we assume that well, we have a black president, racism is over, the end. And I’m really trying to challenge that notion....If blind people are seeing race and organizing their lives around race, you can be damn sure that race is still an important part of other people’s lives.

IDEAS: One focus of your book is the powerful metaphor of colorblindness in the law. How does studying race among the blind relate to that?

OBASOGIE: In short, colorblindness is simply this idea that government should not be in the business of using race or racial classifications in any way, that the role of government is to be blind to race, and that by being blind to race, justice and fairness will follow....On the one hand, that’s in general a good idea. Part of the reason we’ve had so many problems with race, from the founding of our country up until recent times, was that government was using racial classifications to discriminate against certain groups of people.

But the other end of colorblindness is that it’s been used as an ideology to prevent the state from engaging in forms of affirmative action or other forms of government-based assistance programs that would help make up for past forms of discrimination. So at the crux of this notion of colorblindness is this metaphor, that being blind to race necessarily leads to fairness. And the way this study interacts with that claim is by asking, well, does blindness necessarily lead to fairness? Does it prevent people from being able to act in a discriminatory manner?...By looking at how blind people actually think about race, it can provide an empirical basis for us to rethink some of the policies we’ve developed on the back of that metaphor.

Francie Latour writes about race and culture for The Boston Globe, Essence, and The Root. She can be reached at franciewrites@gmail.com.
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