Colour blind?

Colour blind?

Do people who have been blind from birth still understand themselves to be raced as black or white or coloured, and do they understand other people as being raced in this way?

Perhaps like many people, tucked away at the back of my mind has been the idea that, while not entirely free of prejudice, people blind from birth would likely be prejudiced in a way that is much more about how other people behave themselves, and less about racial categories. And certainly not visual ones. An intriguing piece of research by  Osagie Obasogie (2010) indicates quite firmly that this is a misconception, and that not only are people who have been blind from birth as racially prejudiced as other people, but prejudiced in the same way, because they ‘see‘ race, both their own and other peoples. He writes,

“Although the meaning, significance, and definition of race have been debated for centuries, one thread of thought unifies almost all of the many diverging perspectives: a largely unquestioned belief that race is self-evident and visually obvious, defined largely by skin color, facial features, and other visual cues. This suggests that “seeing race” is an experience largely unmediated by broader social forces; we simply know it when we see it. It also suggests that those who cannot see are likely to have a diminished understanding of race” (585)

Obasogie’s research carried out in-depth interviews with a large group of black and white people who have been blind from birth and another fully sighted group. Its results demonstrate that blind people over and over articulate both positives and negatives about racial categorisations as applied both to themselves and to other people in visual terms and predominantly in terms of skin colour and tone, hair, bodily smells and so on, and these mundane but highly consequential categorisations are articulated in constitutive terms. They do and they ‘see’ in the same ways as the fully sighted cohort. So how can this be? The longer answer is contained in the details of this extremely interesting article, while the shorter answer goes along the following lines:

“…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… these practices are so strong that even blind people, in a conceptual sense, “see” race… race becomes visually salient through constitutive social practices that give rise to visual understandings of racial difference for blind and sighted people” (585)

In essence, people become racially prejudiced – in positive as well as negative ways – through the process of seeking to find cues that differentiate other people and ourselves. And what is used for this is the most obvious basis for doing so. We build up understandings of the social world and other people, and ourselves within this, in an iterative and constitutive way using what people say, what people do, what people look like, what some people say other people of particular kinds or types look like. So for the over-psychological term ‘socialisation’, swap social relationships, social interaction, as well as social practices and the moral order.

But for me the puzzle of why difference should be interpreted in terms of othering and othering be most often composed by negatives remains.

Osagie K. Obasogie (2010) Do Blind People See Race? Social, Legal, and Theoretical Considerations Law & Society Review, Vol. 44, No. 3-4, pp. 585-616.

Last updated: 7 February 2020