Perceiving race through blind eyes. Theout-dated belief that race is a reflection of innate biological differences andabilities has been refuted over time (Jorde & Wooding, 2004). However, onecommon assumption made by most theorists and lay people, is that racialcategories are based on phenotypic realities and visually obvious variances inskin colour and facial features (Cornell & Hartmann, 1998; Eberhard &Goff, 2004). This definition leads to the logical assumption that congenitallyblind people, who have never perceived these visual differences, must have adiminished understanding of race. This essay will critically evaluate the novelresearch investigating blind people’s perception of race (Obasogie, 2013;Friedman, 2016).
The conclusions of the research, that vision is not asufficient or necessary prerequisite for a meaningful visual understanding ofrace, sheds light on the way race is socially constructed to be visuallysalient for both blind and sighted people alike. These conclusions will be evaluatedaccording to the wider literature of the social component of vision and thevisual perception of race and discussed in relation to social implications(Eberhard & Goff, 2004; Friedman, 2016). This essay will argue that studieson blind people’s perceptions of race can begin to de-familiarise racialcategories that the sighted presume to be visual truths, echoing that ‘thefacts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes'(Lippmann, 1922, p.44). Oneof the most notable of the scarce number of studies investigating blindperceptions of race, found that blind people do in fact understand racialcategories and their associated visual characteristics. Obasogie (2013)investigated the understandings of race among 106 congenitally blindindividuals in America from a variety of different ages and backgrounds, with84% of the respondents identifying as white and 16% as non-white. This was aqualitative analysis based on open-ended questions navigating generalunderstandings and perceptions of race. Obasogie demonstrated, contrary to thebelief of the sighted controls, that blind people did not have a diminishedunderstanding of race.
In fact, blind respondents understood race in anequivalent way to their sighted counter parts: visually. Despite never havingvisually perceived racial categories before, they largely equated them withvisual cues such as skin colour and facial features. Research demonstratingthat blind people exhibit both superior processing of alternative senses andcompensatory activation of visual cortices during the processing of non-visualstimulus (James, 1950; Sadato et al., 1996),would hypothesise that blind people utilise these alternative senses for theperception of race. Although many blind respondents did describe using auditorycues such as accents and voice characteristics for racial attribution, manywere very sceptical of their subsequent classifications. These cues outside therealm of vision were largely used as secondary identifiers to indicate whatthey ‘would see if (they) looked at you.’ Obasogie concluded that blind peopledo not need vision to have distinctly visual conceptualisations of race. However,this proposed visual understanding of race may be critiqued by a widersentiment voiced by theorists tackling Molyneux’s question, regarding whetherblind individuals who are enabled to see will recognise objects previouslyknown exclusively by touch.
The depth of understanding of blind individuals,irrespective of their visual language is questioned; ‘despite using these wordsalmost normally, the blind do not understand the same by them as do sightedpeople’ (Morgan, 1977, p. 200). From this perspective, blind people may besimply parroting their sighted counterparts when describing race and its visualfeatures, without holding any significant understanding of these concepts. Yet,research has shown that blind people can have meaningful comprehensions ofinherently visual characteristics, particularly colour relations. Marmor (1978)compared the judgments of blind and sighted people regarding colour relationsand found that blind subjects were almost as precise as their sightedcounterparts in approximating Newton’s colour wheel. Additionally, Zimler and Keenan (1983) conducted anexperiment using a paired-associate free-recall task with words related tohighly visual images.
They found no significant difference between blind andsighted subjects for words grouped according to purely visual attributes, suchas the colour red (e.g. cherry and blood). These two studies demonstrate that visualexperience is not a prerequisite for comprehension of visual information andits associates, beyond a superficial repetition. These findings, coupled withObasogie’s demonstration that racial categories profoundly influenced blindrespondent’s daily engagements, provide evidence that the association of racewith visual characteristics were not meaningless nominal categories. Manyrespondents described how they actively sought racial information to inform thenature of social interactions. One white respondent described how he stoppeddating a woman when somebody informed him that she was black and otherrespondents also reiterated this change of intentions.
Hence, blind people donot need to have a visual perception of racial dividing lines to organise theirinteractions around these boundaries. This firmly undermines the insignificanceassumed by the parroting theory. Forcongenitally blind people to meaningfully understand intrinsically visualinformation, there must be an involvement of external influences outside visualexperience. Marmor (1978) attributes the understanding of colour relations tothe exposure of language and conversations based on colour vocabulary.Similarly, Obasogie’s respondentsdemonstrate that visual understandings of race were a result of early processesof socialisation and exposure to racialised language. One respondent describedhow when he ‘was first introduced to people of races other than his own. Theyused terms that had to do with skin colour’. Visual cues were filtered intoblind respondent’s racial lexicon, which in turn constructs racial boundariesas tangible realities.
Secondly, blindpeople were subject to social practices by family and friends, who often wentout of their way to highlight the social significance and norms of engagementassociated with people of different races. This every day socialisation, whichlargely began during childhood, ensured that blind respondents perceived visualracial differences as a lens from which to encounter the world. This supportsthe wider concept of the social construction theory of race; that the meaningssocieties attach to racialised bodies are derived from social forces as opposedto any inherent biological truth (Lopez, 1994). Various informal or formalrules on how to act and treat others according to observable characteristicsare committed to maintaining racial hierarchy. This theory secures credencefrom evidence of the plastic construct of race and the well-documented variancein racial categories across time and place. One such example is the fluctuatingracial categorisation of Mexican Americans since the 1930s in accordance tocurrent thought and prejudices of the time (Lopez, 1994). Obasogie’s findingsof blind perceptions of race illuminate the idea that the existence ofcategories based on race is paramount to a process of socialisation.
In oneof the only other studies to investigate the perception of race among theblind, Friedman (2016) explored perceptions of race within a sample of 25 blindindividuals, who, unlike Obasogie’s sample, were a mixture of both congenitallyand late blind. Friedman offers a critique of Obasogie’s study, suggesting thathis findings of the commonalties between sighted and blind represent acolonization of ‘an imperialistic sighted norm’ (p. 440).
Conversely, sheemphasises the need to focus on the uniqueness of blind people’s perception ofrace, which for a few respondents represent a ‘kind of intellectual’ concept,which is likely to be qualitatively different to sighted people. Thishighlights the caution when homogenising blind people and extrapolating thefindings based on one group to the wider blind population. Race in America istypically known for being based on a black/white dichotomy (Hartmann, 2015),which is reflected in the identities of the samples in both Obasogie’s andFriedman’s studies. However, in light of varying constructions of race aroundthe world, future research should explore the complexities and diverseness inblind people’s experiences of race amid different settings globally. DespiteFriedman’s focus on the uniqueness of blind perception common themes emergedwithin these experiences. Over two thirds of respondents in Friedman’s study, includingboth congenitally blind respondents and respondents with previous visualexperience of race, describe how they certainly did not live in an idealisedcolour-blind society and that blind people are socialized to learn about racemeanings in the same way as the sighted.
Friedman’s additional findings of theambiguity and uncertainty inherent to race attribution for blind respondents,further contributes to the social construction theory of race by throwing intoquestion the idea of any undisputable truths otherwiseassociated to visual cues. Yet,Obasogie’s findings regarding blind people’s perceptions ofrace go beyond demonstrating race as a social construct. Even within the socialconstruction paradigm, the dominant view remains that understandings of raceare largely signified by human differences that we see through our eyes.Obasogie seeks to extend this understanding to explore how racial categoriescome to orient around visual cues and become salient in the first place. If blind people have a visual understanding ofrace, which is a direct result of socialization by peers and family, then themost subtle yet significant inference is that sighted people are subject to thesame social process, which actually create the visual salience of race.
In turnthis is perceived to be a passive observation of reality. By empiricallyinvestigating both congenitally blind and sighted individuals, Obasogie’s studyis in a sense revealing the predictive value of socialisation even in theabsence of visual experience, for visual understandings of race. Obasogie concludes that, as opposed to racialboundaries being themselves self-evident, social forces actually construct raceto be visually salient in the first place, not only for blind people but forsighted alike. Obasogie’s conclusions canbe reinforced using the wider literature of the social component of visualperception. Stimulated by the ‘New Look’ movement, researchers acknowledgesthat vision comprises more than the un-mediated perception of reality (Bruner& Postman, 1948). Visual stimulus is intrinsically ambiguous and perceptionis based on expectations and motivations.
Pioneers of this movement demonstrated that respondents reliablyoverestimated the size of emotionally laden symbols, such as swastikas anddollar signs (Postman, Bruner& McGinnies, 1948). Although these earlystudies were largely discredited due to contradictory replications, more recentstudies resurrect the findings of the influence of emotion on size attributionusing improved methodology and study design (van Ulzen, Semin, Oudejans &Beek, 2008). Likewise, experience influences visual perception. One suchexample is radiologists who learn over timeto be able to perceive subtle outlines of organs with ease, unperceivable tothe average person (Groopman &Prichard, 2007). Habits of thinking stronglyinfluence habits of seeing. This corroborates with Berger’s exploration of art history and racialidentity (Berger, 2005), which explores how visual perceptions of race are notpassive engagements with reality but are contaminated by social practices thatconstitute a certain way of seeing.
Whilevision at its most fundamental level is the optical processing of light, visualperception cannot be disentangled fromour societal, cultural and personal positionalities. Thesocial influence on visual perception in general can be extrapolated to racialcategories. Although children do notice physical differences associated withracial categories, Hirschfield’s (1995) analysis of children’s perception ofrace argues that children learn the racial labels before they learn theperceptual differences attributed to race. In one study Hirschfielddemonstrated that four-year-old childrens’ representations of race held verylittle perceptual information and these were largely incoherent. This infersthat children are actively taught to associate certain visual cues to racialcategories. This argument is further supported by studies demonstrating thatyoung children attribute more relevance to category labels than to perceptualsimilarities when classing objects into groups (Gelman& Markman, 1986). Conceivably, these perceptual differences are thenengrained into habits of thinking and subsequently determine habits of seeingrace. Friedman (2016) has described amodel of a perceptual filter for the perception of race.
This model theorisesthat the race classification, involves a focused perception on a narrow numberof phenotypic cues that are socially constructed as racially relevant.Simultaneously, both physical similarities and features that are deemedracially irrelevant, such as height or hip width, are disattended to. Compellingevidence that visual racial cues are made salient via social influences, isthat visual perceptions of race are fluid across time. Jacobson (1998)describes how as the salience of a racial category increases within a period oftime, certain visual features will be increasingly perceived to be defining ofthat group.
This in turn fortifies the unmistakable salience of the racialcategory. For example when Jewish Americans were accepted as a white ethnicgroup after the holocaust, the idea that physical features were a definitivemarker for Jewish heritage was thrown into question. Jacobson does not denythat visual markers do exist between races, but that our conscious recognitionof what visual cues are relevant to a given race is dependent on historicalstandpoints. Our perceptual understandings of racial categories, manipulatesthe way we perceive such visual cues in the first place and then ‘the visual field powerfully confirms previouslyinternalized beliefs’ (Berger, 2005, p.1).
Understandings of race asun-mediated perceptual categories are further refuted by Obasogie’s findingsthat vision is not necessary to ‘see’ race. Obasogie’sfindings have important societal and legal implications. The prevalentcolour-blind rhetoric asserts that the way to eradicate racial discriminationis to ignore it and is positioned on the assumption that racial discriminationis a problem solely of visual recognition (Wise, 2010). The idea that ifsociety is blind to colour then justice will prevail, renders any affirmativeaction schemes that diverge from equal opportunities, as un-necessary andcounter-productive. However the findings that blind people still ‘see’ race andthat race is not simply an ocular phenomena, obscures the assumptions of thecolour-blind rhetoric and highlights its ignorance of deeply rooted socialstructures (Obasogie, 2015). Obasogie’s findings suggest that people cannot beblind to race and hence to eliminate discriminatory and inequitable structures,they must be confronted and not ignored (Siegal, 2000).
Throughthe study of congenitally blind respondents and their visual understandings ofrace, Obasogie opposes the idea that racial categories are visually obvious andare instead products of social mediations. This corroborates with theliterature on the social component of vision, which exposes that visualperception is rarely unmediated. Blind people are detached both from vision and the tendencyof sighted people to uncritically assume that race is a visually self-evidenttruth and that seeing race is effortless.
Obasogie’s findings conclude with the irony that sight blinds us fromthe social forces that make the visual differences of race seem obvious. Thissense of automaticity and certainty when seeing race is perpetuated by ourWestern cultural ocularcentrism; where visual information is privileged anddeemed more reliable in comparison to other sensory information (Jay, 1993;Kleege, 1999). This is particularly apparent inlinguistic terms as seeing is synonymous with understanding.. As opposed to homogenising the blind experience,Obasogie sets a precedent for the empirical investigation of the congenitally blindin order to unmask the socialisation that constructs understandings of humandifference. This research may motivate interesting replications in settings of differentialconstructions of race.
It may also extend to other categories of human differencethat may be socially constructed, such as gender or disability (Friedman,2016). Conflicting against what we perceive as true,Obasogie’s findings are inherently challenging. Yet, this has important implications concerning how we interact withand deconstruct our perceptual realities. Seeing, in its broadest sense, is theacceptance of practices that create our self-evident perceptions; to unpickthese is to unveil the intolerable (Foucalt, as cited in Rajchman, 1988).