Adapted from Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, by Osagie K. Obasogie. Published by Stanford University Press © 2013 Osagie K. Obasogie. Excerpted with permission from the publisher. All Rights Reserved.
Do blind people understand race? Given the vast and sprawling writings on race over the past several decades, it is surprising that scholars have not explored this question in any real depth. Race has played a profound and central role to human relationships. Yet how is it possible that this basic question has escaped deeper contemplation?
This gap in the scholarly literature and public discourse points to a fundamental assumption that we almost all make about race, its significance, and its salience. Race has been central to human relationships. Yet, there seems to be at least one thing that most people can agree upon: that race is, to a large extent, simply what is seen. There are surely many variables that inform individuals’ racial consciousness, such as religion, language, food, and culture. But race is primarily thought to be self-evidently known, in terms of reflecting the wide variation in humans’ outward appearance tied to ancestry and geographic origin such as skin color, hair texture, facial shapes, and other observable physical features. Thus, race is thought to be visually obvious; it is what you see, in terms of slotting visual engagements with human bodies into predefined categories of human difference, such as Black, White, and Asian. Given the dominant role these visual cues play in giving coherence to social categories of race, it is widely thought that race can be no more salient or significant to someone who has never been able to see than the musical genius of Mozart or Jay-Z can be salient to someone who has never been able to hear. Therefore, one plausible explanation for why questions concerning blind people’s understanding of race have not been explored is that, from a sighted person’s perspective, the answer seems painfully obvious: blind people simply cannot appreciate racial distinctions and therefore do not have any real racial consciousness.
This pervasive yet rarely articulated idea that race is visually obvious—a notion that I call “race” ipsa loquitur, or that race “speaks for itself”—has at least three components: (1) race is largely known by physical cues that inhere in bodies such as skin color or facial features, (2) these cues are thought to be self-evident, meaning that their perceptibility and salience exist apart from any mediating social or political influence, and (3) individuals without the ability to see are thought, at a fundamental level, to be unable to participate in or fully understand what is assumed to be a quintessentially ocular experience. Through this “race” ipsa loquitur trope, talking about race outside of visual references to bodily differences seems absurd, lest we all become “colorblind” in the most literal sense. Much of the ideological value in the emerging colorblindness discourse works from the idea that race and racism are problems of visual recognition, not social or political practices.
But, how much does the salience of race—in terms of it being experienced as a prominent and striking human characteristic that affects a remarkable range of human outcomes—depend upon what is visually perceived? To play upon the biblical reference to 2 Corinthians 5:7, do we simply “walk by sight” in that the racial differences are self-evident boundaries that are impressionable on their own terms? Or, is there a secular “faith” about race that produces the ability to “see” the very racial distinctions experienced as visually obvious? And if we take this idea seriously, that the visual salience of race is produced rather than merely observed, precisely what is at stake—socially, politically, and legally—when we misunderstand the process of “seeing race” as a distinctly visual rather than sociological phenomenon?
In my work, I have pushed the boundaries of the “race” ipsa loquitur trope by investigating the significance of race outside of vision. I critique the notion that race is visually obvious and suggest that the salience of race, in terms of its visually striking nature and attendant social significance, functions more by social rather than ocular mechanisms. Though perhaps counterintuitive, I begin with the hypothesis that our ability to perceive race and subsequently attach social meanings to different types of human bodies depends little on what we see; taking vision as a medium of racial truth may very well obscure a deeper understanding of precisely how race is both apprehended and comprehended, and thus how it informs our collective imaginations and personal behaviors as well as how it plays out in everyday life.
I have explored this issue through a series of interviews with people who have been totally blind since birth. Since race is strongly connected to visual cues, it is largely assumed that race must be of diminished significance to blind people’s daily lives. But this may not necessarily be the case. All things being equal, race may very well be as significant—even visually significant—to the blind community as it is to sighted persons. Moreover, it is likely that the social, cognitive, and other nonvisual interactions shaping blind people’s racial experiences are not unique to them. A comparative approach that analyzes the racial experiences of blind and sighted people can offer important insights into the ways in which fixing race as a visual experience may limit a deeper understanding of the extent to which race shapes everyday life, and everyday life shapes our ability to see race. Therefore, exploring blind people’s racial experiences and understandings may provide a rich grounding from which to appreciate how race is not simply what we see. Rather, there may be social practices that produce our very ability to see race.
The findings from this research are quite surprising. After conducting over a hundred interviews with blind individuals—people who have never seen anything, let alone the physical traits that typically serve as visual markers for racial difference—one consistent theme resonates throughout the data. Blind people understand and experience race like everyone else: visually. That is, when asked what race is, blind respondents largely define race by visually salient physical cues such as skin color, facial features, and other visual characteristics. But what stands out in particular is not only blind people’s visual understanding of race, but that this visual understanding shapes how they live their lives; daily choices, experiences, and interactions such as where to live and whom to date are meditated by visual understandings of race in the blind community as much as they are among those who are sighted. Despite their physical inability to engage with race on the very visual terms that are thought to define its salience and social significance, blind people’s understanding and experience with race is not unlike that of sighted individuals.
These data present a tremendous challenge for existing lay and scholarly conceptions of race. How can it be that individuals who cannot see have a visual understanding of race? And how is it possible that this visual understanding is so significant that it fundamentally shapes their everyday lives just as it does for anyone else? How can someone not have vision, but be able to, for all intents and purposes, “see” race? Blinded by Sight unravels this mystery so as to understand this phenomenon as an empirical matter. Through qualitative research methods, I capture these experiences and unearth the broader sociological patterns that give rise to blind people’s ability to “see” race. These empirical findings can have wide-ranging implications for rethinking the relationship between race, legal doctrine, public policy, and social relations. This research ventures into an area that many assumed did not exist in any meaningful sense—the racial lives of blind people and, moreover, the visual acuity with which they experience race—and uses the empirical data to discuss this discovery’s implications for reconceptualizing the ways that race plays out in law and society.
I have leveraged these empirical findings to intervene in scholarly conversations relevant to race, law, and society. At the broadest level, this book offers a fresh intervention into a concept that is so prominent and unthinkingly accepted across almost all areas of race scholarship that it is rarely subject to any meaningful critique: the social construction of race. The idea that race is a social construction is often meant to convey that the meanings placed upon particular racialized bodies are not caused by nature or driven by inherent biological differences. Rather, these meanings and their attachment to specific groups are a product of social, economic, and political forces. Social constructionists have paid painstaking attention to this meaning-making process and how specific concepts come to attach to certain groups, whether it is eastern European immigrants “becoming” White or the racialization of Mexican Americans. However, this emphasis on meanings attaching to bodies has obscured a more fundamental question: how does race itself become visually salient? More so than meanings adhering to bodies, there seems to be an underlying social process that produces the visibility of group difference. It is largely assumed that racial differences become salient merely because they are self-evident and visually obvious, but my work challenges this idea and contributes to broader constructionist debates by developing a constitutive theory of race that highlights the way in which social practices produce the ability to see and experience race in particular ways.
I have used the data collected on blind people’s visual understanding of race to discover critical new insights and interventions into law—specifically Equal Protection jurisprudence. Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection jurisprudence has offered the most robust legal mechanism from which to advocate racial equality for disadvantaged minorities. Equal protection has been at the heart of the United States’ most heated and divisive debates on race, from school desegregation to affirmative action. However, what is uncovered is that despite shifting understandings and applications of the Equal Protection Clause, a basic assumption about race has been enmeshed throughout the jurisprudence: that it is visually obvious and its salience stems from self-evident visual cues. This understanding of race drives the legal and moral basis for the Court’s ability to review and strike down laws that impermissibly categorize individuals by race. I would argue that this limited understanding of how and why race becomes salient warps Equal Protection jurisprudence by treating race as a visually obvious and self-evidently knowable trait, which fails to take account of the sociological factors that produce our very ability to see racial differences.