After seeing the movie, I did research to see what was in the published literature about blind people’s understanding of race. I assumed that people had already written on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. However, I didn’t find anything. I wasn’t able to find anyone who had simply asked blind people: What is race? What are your experiences with race? How do you think about race? This oversight reflects the deep assumption we have in society that race is a visual phenomenon that blind people aren’t able to understand and that race is not a significant part of their lives. 32 FALL 2013 * * * * Q Based on your research, how do blind people “see” race? A Just like everybody else. More often than not, blind respondents talked about race in terms of skin color, facial features, and other visual cues— just like sighted people. To be clear, my research focused on people who have been totally blind since birth. These were people who hadn’t seen anything, let alone the visual cues that sighted people associate with race. Some blind people wouldn’t date outside their race while others didn’t want to live in neighborhoods that were deemed to be different from where a person of their race should live. One blind respondent said “Most black people look pretty much the same;” another said blacks’ skin “wasn’t as smooth” as whites; others said blacks and Hispanics “had a distinctive odor.” Still others recalled how family members acquainted them with racial slurs and to whom, exactly, they apply. But the common theme among the blind respondents is that they understood race visually. * * * * Q Don’t blind people use nonvisual characteristics as a proxy for what they can’t see—like differences in voice and vocal inflection? A Yes and no. The research showed that blind people often distrust these nonvisual cues. A number of blind respondents said they have been wrong enough times by mistakenly relying on voice that they no longer use vocal differences as a key indicator of racial difference. Voice can play a secondary role, but race is primarily understood in terms of visual differences. Moreover, several respondents said they appreciated my research because they had experiences where sighted people assumed that because they were blind that they were also colorblind— in a sense, that race was “I think color- blindness is a noble idea, but so are unicorns and tooth fairies. The data show that it is simply a misleading and, indeed, harmful way to frame how race plays out in today’s society.” About Science and Race Osagie K. Obasogie’s scholarship also looks at the role of science in constructing racial meanings and explaining racial disparities. His second book is under contract with the University of California Press: Beyond Bioethics: Towards a New Biopolitics (with Marcy Darnovsky).
Hastings Alumni Mag-Fall 2013
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