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Can a Blind Person Be a Racist?
Scintific American ^ | Osagie Obasogie

Posted on 01/11/2014 5:11:21 PM PST by nickcarraway

In this adapted excerpt from a new book, a legal scholar and social critic documents that racist attitudes are not rooted in the ability to actually "see" the color of someone’s skin

Adapted from Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, by Osagie K. Obasogie.

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.


TOPICS: Culture/Society; Extended News
KEYWORDS:

1 posted on 01/11/2014 5:11:21 PM PST by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Didn’t Dave Chapelle do a skit on this?


2 posted on 01/11/2014 5:18:05 PM PST by Jack Hydrazine (Pubbies = national collectivists; Dems = international collectivists; me = independent conservative)
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To: nickcarraway

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vf17W212Ps0


3 posted on 01/11/2014 5:18:12 PM PST by FrdmLvr ("WE ARE ALL OSAMA, 0BAMA!" al-Qaeda terrorists who breached the American compound in Benghazi)
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Comment #4 Removed by Moderator

Comment #5 Removed by Moderator

Comment #6 Removed by Moderator

To: nickcarraway

Clayton Bigsby was a blind bigot.


7 posted on 01/11/2014 5:22:10 PM PST by ohiobushman ( If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?)
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To: nickcarraway

Our species, Homo-sapien-sapien, isn’t that long “out of the trees” and the veneer of civilization is very thin, to non-existent, upon us all. We’re all carrying the genes that got us here and some of those genes carry a very basic survival instinct that has allowed us to survive thus far.

This most basic of all survival instincts is self preservation and it’s the one that warns us to be very wary of those who are different than us, our family, and our tribe. Those who possessed this survival instinct survived and reproduced, and those who had no fear/distrust of strangers didn’t survive. Over the years, this survival instinct has been referred to as tribalism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, racism, and various other isms, but it’s an inborn instinct carried in our genes whether we like it or not.


8 posted on 01/11/2014 5:25:54 PM PST by DJ Taylor (Once again our country is at war, and once again the Democrats have sided with our enemy.)
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To: nickcarraway

Culture is what divides us. Cultures are not equal. Some cultures create and some destroy. Some are simply cultures of death. Culture defines how we interact with each other and is therefore easy to detect - with or without sight.


9 posted on 01/11/2014 5:29:45 PM PST by DB
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To: freedumb2003

No, that was Chris Rock.


10 posted on 01/11/2014 5:37:28 PM PST by Extremely Extreme Extremist (15 years of FReeping! Congratulations EEE!!)
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To: Extremely Extreme Extremist
No, that was Chris Rock.

I don't suppose I can get away with "they all..."

11 posted on 01/11/2014 5:38:49 PM PST by freedumb2003 (Fight Tapinophobia in all its forms! Do not submit to arduus privilege.)
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To: nickcarraway
Re: Can a Blind Person Be a Racist?

If you are a Republican or White, blind or not.... to the Democrats, yes, you are a racist--

12 posted on 01/11/2014 5:42:04 PM PST by Bender2 ("I've got a twisted sense of humor, and everything amuses me." RAH Beyond this Horizon)
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To: nickcarraway

Uh...This article totally lost credibility when it equated JZee with Mozart.


13 posted on 01/11/2014 5:46:35 PM PST by left that other site
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To: nickcarraway

Stevie Wonder.


14 posted on 01/11/2014 5:46:59 PM PST by vetvetdoug
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To: nickcarraway

If a blind person believes that one’s race determines one’s status then yes, a blind person is racist.


15 posted on 01/11/2014 5:55:22 PM PST by arthurus (Read Hazlitt's Economics In One Lesson ONLINEhttp://steshaw.org/economics-in-one-lesson/)
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To: digger48

That was his greatest bit ever.


16 posted on 01/11/2014 5:55:50 PM PST by miliantnutcase
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To: Jack Hydrazine
The black “white supremacist” it is hilarious
17 posted on 01/11/2014 5:58:18 PM PST by Figment
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To: nickcarraway
Mike King once said (or once plagiarized, I forget) that he looked forward to the day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Well today when blacks are judged by their character and determined to be deficient of character disproportionately more than whites it is considered racist and grounds for Federal prosecution.

Blind people can be great judges of character therefore they can be racist.

18 posted on 01/11/2014 6:05:41 PM PST by Count of Monte Fisto (The foundation of modern society is the denial of reality.)
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To: nickcarraway

Everything looks “black” to them.


19 posted on 01/11/2014 6:08:20 PM PST by Scrambler Bob ( Concerning bo -- that refers to the president. If I capitalize it, I mean the dog.)
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To: Scrambler Bob

Call a spade a spade and you will be called a racist, regardless of ADA.


20 posted on 01/11/2014 6:12:04 PM PST by bakeneko
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To: Jack Hydrazine

Didn’t Dave Chapelle do a skit on this?


Reminds me of a Play Boy cartoon from a loooong time ago......


21 posted on 01/11/2014 6:13:18 PM PST by S.O.S121.500 (Had Enough Yet ?..................... Enforce the Bill of Rights................... It's the LAW !!!)
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To: nickcarraway

I once read an interview with Ray Charles where he said that as a child he was sent to an orphanage for blind and handicapped children where he was stopped from entering a building and told it was for white kids.


22 posted on 01/11/2014 6:39:52 PM PST by Baynative (Got bulbs? Check my profile page.)
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To: Jack Hydrazine
Didn’t Dave Chapelle do a skit on this?

Clayton Bigsby

23 posted on 01/11/2014 6:51:42 PM PST by Hoodat (Democrats - Opposing Equal Protection since 1828)
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To: Hoodat

When comedy becomes reality!


24 posted on 01/11/2014 6:53:51 PM PST by Jack Hydrazine (Pubbies = national collectivists; Dems = international collectivists; me = independent conservative)
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To: Jack Hydrazine

Did you watch at the end when that guy’s head exploded?


25 posted on 01/11/2014 6:57:19 PM PST by Hoodat (Democrats - Opposing Equal Protection since 1828)
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To: Hoodat

Liberal’s head exploding?


26 posted on 01/11/2014 7:01:01 PM PST by Jack Hydrazine (Pubbies = national collectivists; Dems = international collectivists; me = independent conservative)
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To: Jack Hydrazine

Not a big Chapelle fan - most of his work doesn’t interest me - but that was one of the funniest skits ever.

(I also like his Prince basketball skit)


27 posted on 01/11/2014 7:29:25 PM PST by KosmicKitty (WARNING: Hormonally crazed woman ahead!!)
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To: Jack Hydrazine

yeah, it was actually salient.


28 posted on 01/11/2014 7:36:22 PM PST by Secret Agent Man (Gone Galt; Not averse to Going Bronson.)
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To: nickcarraway

Begs to ask the question can Scientists be Biased for global warming and against Humanity !

I say yes !


29 posted on 01/11/2014 8:32:44 PM PST by ATOMIC_PUNK (I'm not afraid to say what i mean nor should you be afraid of what you know to be true !)
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To: nickcarraway

By definition, a color-blind person cannot be a racist.

BTW, are either Revs. Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton color-blind?


30 posted on 01/11/2014 9:11:17 PM PST by Graewoulf (Democrats' Obamacare Socialist Health Insur. Tax violates U.S. Constitution AND Anti-Trust Law.)
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To: DB
Then why is U.S. culture dying out?


I guess Islamic culture is superior to Christian? Because it demolished Christian culture in the Middle East.

31 posted on 01/11/2014 11:05:29 PM PST by nickcarraway
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To: vetvetdoug

How is Stevie Wonder racist?


32 posted on 01/11/2014 11:07:43 PM PST by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Were did I say the one “winning” is superior?

Just because the Nihilest are currently winning doesn’t make them superior. It’s much easier to destroy than build. Envy and demanding “your fair share” is easier than working for it. Economic ruin will sooner or later bring its current run to and end. It seems some lessons just have to be relearned the hard way every so many generations no matter how many have to suffer as a result...


33 posted on 01/11/2014 11:40:41 PM PST by DB
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To: bakeneko

TO #20, an addendum.

Call a spade a spade and you will be called a racist, EVEN IF YOU ARE A GARDENER!

As Mr. Spock would say, “That’s logical”.

PS: There are millions of muslims in Indonesia and Pakistan who hate Jews yet they have never met one, don’t know what they look like, and have no idea where Israel is.

Are they racists? Calling the UN’s Human Rights Commission. Clarification needs in Aisle Pakistan.

PSS: While travelling around the Mekong Delta during the war, a group of we Americans dropped in, arbitrarily, on a So. Vietnamese farmer and his extended family (and chickens and pigs).

We were the first Americans they had ever met. Cool! Very enjoyable tea and discussion about local life. Nov. 1970 on a road less travelled.


34 posted on 01/12/2014 2:12:37 AM PST by MadMax, the Grinning Reaper
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To: nickcarraway
Can a Blind Person Be a Racist?

Sure, but only if they are white. Everyone knows that white people are born racist.

35 posted on 01/12/2014 3:23:14 AM PST by Right Wing Assault
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To: nickcarraway

I didn’t know Scientific American did satire. Or did they just release their April issue early?


36 posted on 01/12/2014 3:30:55 AM PST by Right Wing Assault
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To: nickcarraway
None are so blind as those who will not see.....

Eyesight is only one aspect of seeing.

37 posted on 01/12/2014 4:26:51 AM PST by trebb (Where in the the hell has my country gone?)
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To: nickcarraway
Did you not read all of the whining Wonder did during the Trayvon incident? Wonder didn't line up no Trayvon’s side because he was in the right, he did because he was black.
38 posted on 01/12/2014 3:45:29 PM PST by vetvetdoug
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To: vetvetdoug

I don’t see anything that indicates he is racist.


39 posted on 01/12/2014 3:48:50 PM PST by nickcarraway
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