Perceiving sighted controls, that blind people did not have

Perceiving race through blind eyes.

 

The
out-dated belief that race is a reflection of innate biological differences and
abilities has been refuted over time (Jorde & Wooding, 2004). However, one
common assumption made by most theorists and lay people, is that racial
categories are based on phenotypic realities and visually obvious variances in
skin colour and facial features (Cornell & Hartmann, 1998; Eberhard &
Goff, 2004). This definition leads to the logical assumption that congenitally
blind people, who have never perceived these visual differences, must have a
diminished understanding of race. This essay will critically evaluate the novel
research investigating blind people’s perception of race (Obasogie, 2013;
Friedman, 2016). The conclusions of the research, that vision is not a
sufficient or necessary prerequisite for a meaningful visual understanding of
race, sheds light on the way race is socially constructed to be visually
salient for both blind and sighted people alike. These conclusions will be evaluated
according to the wider literature of the social component of vision and the
visual perception of race and discussed in relation to social implications
(Eberhard & Goff, 2004; Friedman, 2016). This essay will argue that studies
on blind people’s perceptions of race can begin to de-familiarise racial
categories that the sighted presume to be visual truths, echoing that ‘the
facts we see depend on where we are placed, and the habits of our eyes’
(Lippmann, 1922, p.44).

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One
of the most notable of the scarce number of studies investigating blind
perceptions of race, found that blind people do in fact understand racial
categories and their associated visual characteristics. Obasogie (2013)
investigated the understandings of race among 106 congenitally blind
individuals in America from a variety of different ages and backgrounds, with
84% of the respondents identifying as white and 16% as non-white. This was a
qualitative analysis based on open-ended questions navigating general
understandings and perceptions of race. Obasogie demonstrated, contrary to the
belief of the sighted controls, that blind people did not have a diminished
understanding of race. In fact, blind respondents understood race in an
equivalent way to their sighted counter parts: visually. Despite never having
visually perceived racial categories before, they largely equated them with
visual cues such as skin colour and facial features. Research demonstrating
that blind people exhibit both superior processing of alternative senses and
compensatory activation of visual cortices during the processing of non-visual
stimulus (James, 1950; Sadato et al., 1996),
would hypothesise that blind people utilise these alternative senses for the
perception of race. Although many blind respondents did describe using auditory
cues such as accents and voice characteristics for racial attribution, many
were very sceptical of their subsequent classifications. These cues outside the
realm of vision were largely used as secondary identifiers to indicate what
they ‘would see if (they) looked at you.’ Obasogie concluded that blind people
do not need vision to have distinctly visual conceptualisations of race.

 

However,
this proposed visual understanding of race may be critiqued by a wider
sentiment voiced by theorists tackling Molyneux’s question, regarding whether
blind individuals who are enabled to see will recognise objects previously
known exclusively by touch. The depth of understanding of blind individuals,
irrespective of their visual language is questioned; ‘despite using these words
almost normally, the blind do not understand the same by them as do sighted
people’ (Morgan, 1977, p. 200). From this perspective, blind people may be
simply parroting their sighted counterparts when describing race and its visual
features, without holding any significant understanding of these concepts. Yet,
research has shown that blind people can have meaningful comprehensions of
inherently visual characteristics, particularly colour relations. Marmor (1978)
compared the judgments of blind and sighted people regarding colour relations
and found that blind subjects were almost as precise as their sighted
counterparts in approximating Newton’s colour wheel. Additionally, Zimler and Keenan (1983) conducted an
experiment using a paired-associate free-recall task with words related to
highly visual images. They found no significant difference between blind and
sighted subjects for words grouped according to purely visual attributes, such
as the colour red (e.g. cherry and blood). These two studies demonstrate that visual
experience is not a prerequisite for comprehension of visual information and
its associates, beyond a superficial repetition. These findings, coupled with
Obasogie’s demonstration that racial categories profoundly influenced blind
respondent’s daily engagements, provide evidence that the association of race
with visual characteristics were not meaningless nominal categories. Many
respondents described how they actively sought racial information to inform the
nature of social interactions. One white respondent described how he stopped
dating a woman when somebody informed him that she was black and other
respondents also reiterated this change of intentions. Hence, blind people do
not need to have a visual perception of racial dividing lines to organise their
interactions around these boundaries. This firmly undermines the insignificance
assumed by the parroting theory.

 

For
congenitally blind people to meaningfully understand intrinsically visual
information, there must be an involvement of external influences outside visual
experience. Marmor (1978) attributes the understanding of colour relations to
the exposure of language and conversations based on colour vocabulary.

Similarly, Obasogie’s respondents
demonstrate that visual understandings of race were a result of early processes
of socialisation and exposure to racialised language. One respondent described
how when he ‘was first introduced to people of races other than his own. They
used terms that had to do with skin colour’. Visual cues were filtered into
blind respondent’s racial lexicon, which in turn constructs racial boundaries
as tangible realities.  Secondly, blind
people were subject to social practices by family and friends, who often went
out of their way to highlight the social significance and norms of engagement
associated with people of different races. This every day socialisation, which
largely began during childhood, ensured that blind respondents perceived visual
racial differences as a lens from which to encounter the world. This supports
the wider concept of the social construction theory of race; that the meanings
societies attach to racialised bodies are derived from social forces as opposed
to any inherent biological truth (Lopez, 1994). Various informal or formal
rules on how to act and treat others according to observable characteristics
are committed to maintaining racial hierarchy. This theory secures credence
from evidence of the plastic construct of race and the well-documented variance
in racial categories across time and place. One such example is the fluctuating
racial categorisation of Mexican Americans since the 1930s in accordance to
current thought and prejudices of the time (Lopez, 1994). Obasogie’s findings
of blind perceptions of race illuminate the idea that the existence of
categories based on race is paramount to a process of socialisation.

 

In one
of the only other studies to investigate the perception of race among the
blind, Friedman (2016) explored perceptions of race within a sample of 25 blind
individuals, who, unlike Obasogie’s sample, were a mixture of both congenitally
and late blind. Friedman offers a critique of Obasogie’s study, suggesting that
his findings of the commonalties between sighted and blind represent a
colonization of ‘an imperialistic sighted norm’ (p. 440). Conversely, she
emphasises the need to focus on the uniqueness of blind people’s perception of
race, which for a few respondents represent a ‘kind of intellectual’ concept,
which is likely to be qualitatively different to sighted people. This
highlights the caution when homogenising blind people and extrapolating the
findings based on one group to the wider blind population. Race in America is
typically known for being based on a black/white dichotomy (Hartmann, 2015),
which is reflected in the identities of the samples in both Obasogie’s and
Friedman’s studies. However, in light of varying constructions of race around
the world, future research should explore the complexities and diverseness in
blind people’s experiences of race amid different settings globally. Despite
Friedman’s focus on the uniqueness of blind perception common themes emerged
within these experiences. Over two thirds of respondents in Friedman’s study, including
both congenitally blind respondents and respondents with previous visual
experience of race, describe how they certainly did not live in an idealised
colour-blind society and that blind people are socialized to learn about race
meanings in the same way as the sighted. Friedman’s additional findings of the
ambiguity and uncertainty inherent to race attribution for blind respondents,
further contributes to the social construction theory of race by throwing into
question the idea of any undisputable truths otherwise
associated to visual cues. 

 

Yet,
Obasogie’s findings regarding blind people’s perceptions of
race go beyond demonstrating race as a social construct. Even within the social
construction paradigm, the dominant view remains that understandings of race
are largely signified by human differences that we see through our eyes.

Obasogie seeks to extend this understanding to explore how racial categories
come to orient around visual cues and become salient in the first place. If blind people have a visual understanding of
race, which is a direct result of socialization by peers and family, then the
most subtle yet significant inference is that sighted people are subject to the
same social process, which actually create the visual salience of race. In turn
this is perceived to be a passive observation of reality. By empirically
investigating both congenitally blind and sighted individuals, Obasogie’s study
is in a sense revealing the predictive value of socialisation even in the
absence of visual experience, for visual understandings of race. Obasogie concludes that, as opposed to racial
boundaries being themselves self-evident, social forces actually construct race
to be visually salient in the first place, not only for blind people but for
sighted alike.

 

Obasogie’s conclusions can
be reinforced using the wider literature of the social component of visual
perception. Stimulated by the ‘New Look’ movement, researchers acknowledges
that vision comprises more than the un-mediated perception of reality (Bruner
& Postman, 1948). Visual stimulus is intrinsically ambiguous and perception
is based on expectations and motivations. Pioneers of this movement demonstrated that respondents reliably
overestimated the size of emotionally laden symbols, such as swastikas and
dollar signs (Postman, Bruner
& McGinnies, 1948). Although these early
studies were largely discredited due to contradictory replications, more recent
studies resurrect the findings of the influence of emotion on size attribution
using improved methodology and study design (van Ulzen, Semin, Oudejans &
Beek, 2008). Likewise, experience influences visual perception. One such
example is radiologists who learn over time
to be able to perceive subtle outlines of organs with ease, unperceivable to
the average person (Groopman &
Prichard, 2007). Habits of thinking strongly
influence habits of seeing. This corroborates with Berger’s exploration of art history and racial
identity (Berger, 2005), which explores how visual perceptions of race are not
passive engagements with reality but are contaminated by social practices that
constitute a certain way of seeing. While
vision at its most fundamental level is the optical processing of light, visual
perception cannot be disentangled from
our societal, cultural and personal positionalities.

 

The
social influence on visual perception in general can be extrapolated to racial
categories. Although children do notice physical differences associated with
racial categories, Hirschfield’s (1995) analysis of children’s perception of
race argues that children learn the racial labels before they learn the
perceptual differences attributed to race. In one study Hirschfield
demonstrated that four-year-old childrens’ representations of race held very
little perceptual information and these were largely incoherent. This infers
that children are actively taught to associate certain visual cues to racial
categories. This argument is further supported by studies demonstrating that
young children attribute more relevance to category labels than to perceptual
similarities when classing objects into groups (Gelman
& Markman, 1986). Conceivably, these perceptual differences are then
engrained into habits of thinking and subsequently determine habits of seeing
race. Friedman (2016) has described a
model of a perceptual filter for the perception of race. This model theorises
that the race classification, involves a focused perception on a narrow number
of phenotypic cues that are socially constructed as racially relevant.

Simultaneously, both physical similarities and features that are deemed
racially irrelevant, such as height or hip width, are disattended to. Compelling
evidence that visual racial cues are made salient via social influences, is
that visual perceptions of race are fluid across time. Jacobson (1998)
describes how as the salience of a racial category increases within a period of
time, certain visual features will be increasingly perceived to be defining of
that group. This in turn fortifies the unmistakable salience of the racial
category. For example when Jewish Americans were accepted as a white ethnic
group after the holocaust, the idea that physical features were a definitive
marker for Jewish heritage was thrown into question. Jacobson does not deny
that visual markers do exist between races, but that our conscious recognition
of what visual cues are relevant to a given race is dependent on historical
standpoints. Our perceptual understandings of racial categories, manipulates
the way we perceive such visual cues in the first place and then  ‘the visual field powerfully confirms previously
internalized beliefs’ (Berger, 2005, p.1). Understandings of race as
un-mediated perceptual categories are further refuted by Obasogie’s findings
that vision is not necessary to ‘see’ race.

 

 

Obasogie’s
findings have important societal and legal implications. The prevalent
colour-blind rhetoric asserts that the way to eradicate racial discrimination
is to ignore it and is positioned on the assumption that racial discrimination
is a problem solely of visual recognition (Wise, 2010). The idea that if
society is blind to colour then justice will prevail, renders any affirmative
action schemes that diverge from equal opportunities, as un-necessary and
counter-productive. However the findings that blind people still ‘see’ race and
that race is not simply an ocular phenomena, obscures the assumptions of the
colour-blind rhetoric and highlights its ignorance of deeply rooted social
structures (Obasogie, 2015). Obasogie’s findings suggest that people cannot be
blind to race and hence to eliminate discriminatory and inequitable structures,
they must be confronted and not ignored (Siegal, 2000).

 

 

Through
the study of congenitally blind respondents and their visual understandings of
race, Obasogie opposes the idea that racial categories are visually obvious and
are instead products of social mediations. This corroborates with the
literature on the social component of vision, which exposes that visual
perception is rarely unmediated. Blind people are detached both from vision and the tendency
of sighted people to uncritically assume that race is a visually self-evident
truth and that seeing race is effortless. Obasogie’s findings conclude with the irony that sight blinds us from
the social forces that make the visual differences of race seem obvious. This
sense of automaticity and certainty when seeing race is perpetuated by our
Western cultural ocularcentrism; where visual information is privileged and
deemed more reliable in comparison to other sensory information (Jay, 1993;
Kleege, 1999). This is particularly apparent in
linguistic 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 blind
in order to unmask the socialisation that constructs understandings of human
difference. This research may motivate interesting replications in settings of differential
constructions of race. It may also extend to other categories of human difference
that 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 with
and deconstruct our perceptual realities. Seeing, in its broadest sense, is the
acceptance of practices that create our self-evident perceptions; to unpick
these is to unveil the intolerable (Foucalt, as cited in Rajchman, 1988).