Two studies conducted of people who are blind suggest that seeing racial differences may not be based simply on one’s visual sense alone.
One study of 25 people, who were either blind since birth, lost their sight later, or were severely visually impaired, was supervised by Asia Friedman, an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware. Friedman found that his subjects thought about race, but judgments based on race took them longer and were more ambiguous.
Five of the nine respondents, blind since birth or early childhood, said they did not consider how someone looked; but the respondents in general said they still categorized people by race by using nonvisual cues, including voices and names.
Friedman concluded, “I think blind people are inculturated into ideas about class and race.” He added that respondents focused on sounds and voices.
Another study of 100 blind people, conducted by Osagie K. Obasogie, a professor of law at University of California Hastings College of Law, corroborated that blind people thought about race. But that study differed from Friedman’s, as it found that its subjects did consider a person’s physical appearance and did make snap judgments about people based on that. Some of Obasogie’s subjects allowed that they might solicit others to inform them of a third party’s race before they met.
Obasogie used his results to posit that “colorblind” policies, pursued by the government, are ultimately misguided, arguing, “Race is a disease of society and the idea that the disease will go away by ignoring it is not the most sophisticated and proper way to deal with the problem.” In an excerpt adapted from his book, “Blinded By Sight,” he stated, “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”
Interviewed by The Boston Globe in 2014, Obasogie insisted that racism was endemic to American society, asserting, “If blind people are seeing race and organizing their lives around race, you can be damn sure that race is still an important part of other people’s lives.”