Q: We tend to think of racial identification primarily in visual terms (black, white, etc.)–but the premise of your research strips away that too simple, reductive marker. The title of your book alone forces us to consider the multiplicity of factors we unconsciously use to identify not just racial differences, but all the distinctions we make. What kind of assumptions do (sighted) people routinely make that they would be surprised by?
A: Probably one of the most basic assumptions that we make in our daily interactions is that social categories of race are meaningful and salient because race is visually obvious. That is, we think that racial differences are particularly striking because they reflect self-evident distinctions between groups (skin color, facial features, etc.) that may ultimately serve as a proxy for understanding other types of so-called “natural” group differences, whether it be disease susceptibility, propensity to violence, or aptitude. Thus, the idea that race is salient because it is visually obvious is central to a core tenet in American race relations: that visual cues regarding the body can tell us something about group and therefore individual character.
In my new book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, I question this narrative concerning the self-evident nature of seeing race by asking: how do blind people understand race? Since race is thought to be primarily a visual experience, it is largely assumed that blind people have a diminished understanding of race or no understanding at all. However, after over 100 interviews with individuals who have been totally blind since birth, I came to a startling finding: blind people understand race just like anyone else, i.e. visually. Ask a blind person what is race, and they are likely to reference skin color, facial features, and other visual traits. What’s more, this visual understanding of race shapes their daily interactions such as who they date, where they live, and much more. This finding draws attention to the idea that “seeing race” is a social rather than ocular phenomenon; race is salient because social practices train our eyes to see the world in particular ways, not simply because it is obvious. And these practices are so strong that even blind people, in a sense, see race. In the rest of the book, I use this empirical finding to rethink the meaning of race, particularly in light of the rise of “colorblindness” as a normative ideology in law and society.
—Osagie K. Obasogie, J.D., Ph.D., is Senior Fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. He is also Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law in San Francisco. Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind is published by Stanford University Press.