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Blind People Can Still Identify Race (And Be Racist)

[Quotes CGS's Osagie Obasogie]

by Rose EvelethSmithsonian
August 22nd, 2013

A woman blindfolded
Image: Crazy Fast

Many non-racist people like to call themselves “color blind,” as in “blind to the color of someone’s skin.” But what about people who are actually blind? Does removing the ability to identify a person’s race on sight remove the ability to define others by their race? The answer is no. And now we have research to prove it.

Researcher and lawyer Osagie K. Obasogie has looked at this question for years. In 2010, he published a paper on whether or not blind people are capable of seeing race. He writes:

I not only find that blind people have as significant an understanding of race as anyone else and that they understand race visually, but that this visual understanding of race stems from interpersonal and institutional socializations that profoundly shape their racial perceptions. These findings highlight how race and racial thinking are encoded into individuals through iterative social practices that train people to think a certain way about the world around them. In short, these practices are so strong that even blind people, in a conceptual sense, ‘‘see’’ race

It turns out that people’s idea of race has far less to do with what people look like, and far more to do with what society teaches us about what people are like. Now, that’s not to say that they don’t see race as a visual identity. The majority of blind people, when asked to define race, talked about skin color and other visual traits. They might not be able to see them, but they are aware that that is how most people talk about race. Betsy, one blind woman, said race was “‘‘a way of dividing up human beings according to the color of skin.’’ Tony said that race ‘‘is color. Even though I can’t see, that’s what I tend to think of.’’

Not only did Obasogie’s respondents understand the way that sighted people tend to see race, but they also find it interesting that anybody would assume anything different. Mickey, a blind man, said:

Race is very often not a mystery to blind people. Which is in a sense kind of sad. I think that sometimes [sighted] people look at blind folks and they think well, these people can show us the way to a kind of Star Trek race-blind society. And it would be great if we could do that. But we’re just as much a victim of racial prejudice, stereotypes, and misconceptions as anybody else. And the fact that we’re not clued to it directly by vision doesn’t, in my mind, change that a bit.

Just like the average American, blind people are raised with beliefs about race—many of which are divisive. One blind man told Obasogie that his father taught him to identify black people by smell. (In fact, the idea that black people smelled badly featured in many of the responses in Obasogie’s paper.) Another man was dating a black woman, but dumped her when he found out she was black. Here Obasogie explains his work to Hastings Law:

So no, blinding everybody will not create a racism free society. Time to move on to a new plan everybody.

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