Racism & Equality

How Do Blind People Perceive Race and Racism?

A look into the social effects of racism on those who can’t see it.

Imagine an alternate world, where humans live, and the vast majority possess six senses. You are born into this world, missing that sixth sense. All you’d have for reference is other people’s description of it. People would ask you lots of stupid questions about how you function without it.

Imagine further that a major social issue, something as significant as racism, was most commonly perceived through that 6th spectrum.

How well do you think you’d understand it? Would most people write you off and assume you didn’t get it? You probably get where I’m going with this.

So much of human interaction is affected by race. Meanwhile, race is mostly a hollow concept in science. More plainly, it’s just another label, a made-up thing we use to sort each other into boxes. Perhaps, like blind people, we shouldn’t see race at all. Yet even that assumption is problematic, in more ways than one would think.

How does a born-blind person perceive race and racism?

We misunderstand blind people’s race perceptions

Dr. Osagie Obasogie of UC Berkely interviewed 110 people, who were born blind, asking them questions about race. He also surveyed another 16 sighted people to get parallel data.

Notably, non-blind people were asked, “How do you think blind people perceive race?” Their answers were off the mark. Many assumed ‘the blind’ had minimized perceptions of race and racism, able to live free of it.¹

Blind people are actually acutely aware of race and often offended by this assumption. In fact, when asked to define race, most blind people described it using visual cues, stating skin tone and pigment as a key differentiator. They were also just as aware of the complexities of racism. Some even displayed racial bias.

For example, one blind woman, Susan, mentioned talking to a man and was potentially going to date him. She said they had great chemistry and was hopeful of their future.

Two weeks in, she realized he was black and backed out. She explained her reasoning rather broadly, saying, “That just wouldn’t work for me.”

This isn’t uncommon. Racial bias often manifests itself in the ‘blind dating scene’, which commonly happens at conventions for the blind. One research participant, Keith, who is black and blind, said that people usually identify race by your voice, but if they can’t do that, they’ll look for an excuse to touch your hair. People finding out he is black often kills their chemistry.

Racism is a charged issue in the blind community for this very reason. It revealed that blind people, from a very early age, are coached on how to guess person’s race. They are taught tired, old stereotypes about skin, hair, and smell, to determine a person’s skin color.

However, to assume the race experience is identical with the blind is a bit careless and broad. Many do have a unique escape.

A blind man who works on a visual platform

YouTuber, Tommy Edison, was born blind. His perspective on race is best understood through his broader world views. For example, he says he doesn’t understand beauty as most do, “You’re beautiful to me if we get along and you make me laugh and smile.”

His entire interactions and assessments of people have been shaped by non-visual cues. The women he dates, the friends he keeps, all completely free of so many cognitive biases that stem from our most coveted sense.

Tommy’s perspective was a pattern during interviews. So if there’s any subtle grace on this matter, it’s that the born-blind do seem less fixated on skin color.

Despite the flimsy scientific evidence of race, our goal to see people as free of any racial orientation is problematic. In fact, claims of ‘color blindness’ tend to receive very negative criticism in academic circles. It’s referred to as CBRI (Color Blind Racial Ideology), and often manifests when people say, “I don’t see a person’s color.” That earnest belief, though well-intended, can actually exacerbate racism in that it ignores its social construct and practices.²

Many academics argue we should accept race in its current form, with its history and constructs intact. To ignore them does a disservice to the efforts to deconstruct them.

The takeaway

‘Irony’ is one of the most misunderstood literary terms. Observers often misplace it upon things that are merely unfortunate or coincidental. One trick is to apply the phrase ‘the very thing’. In the case of racism and the blind, it works: the very thing that drives racism, is the very thing they can’t see, and yet they are just as prone to bigotry. It is a bitter irony.

This isn’t to harp on blind people. It’s merely a powerful sticking point to the pervasive nature of bigotry.

Like many, I came into these studies with this naive hope that the blind lived in a sort of racial oasis, where people have an almost childlike innocence. I’d hoped this might be the one place where people of all types mingled, free from unconscious bias creeping its vines into the recesses of their minds.

The thing that becomes most evident over time and with my own learning: racism is far more complex and pervasive than most would ever assume.

As is often said, nobody is born a bigot. It is taught. And so long as people with racial bias are raising children, skin-based bigotry will work its way into the minds of those who can’t see.

This article, like so many others, originated in a half-joking idea that floated through my head, “I bet blind people are confused by what racism is.”

It turns out, no — no they aren’t.

Sources

[1] Obasogie, Osagie (2014) Do the Blind Perceive Race?

[2] Nevile, Helen (2016) Has The United States Really Moved Beyond Race?

Quality over quantity. That guy from Quora. Enjoy? Follow for more. https://seanjkernan.substack.com/ Open to gigs seanjkernan@gmail.com

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