The Grapevine

Colorblind In America: How Blind People Perceive Race Shows How Ambiguous Ethnic Classifications Actually Are

How you perceive race when you can't actually see? Philippe Put CC BY 2.0

Race is the lens with which we perceive those around us, and studies have shown that it is one of the first characteristics we notice when meeting someone new. But how do you perceive race if you can’t actually see it? In an attempt to answer this thought-provoking question, a recent study found that for those who can’t see, race plays a much less important role in their impression of others.

For the study, presented at the 110th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (ASA), Asia Friedman, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, interviewed 25 blind individuals from diverse ethnic backgrounds on their perceptions of race. The interviews were either done face-to-face or over the phone, and took place in a location of the respondent’s choice, most often their home or office. Respondents were categorized into two subgroups: those who had been blind since birth or early childhood (age 7 or earlier) and those who became blind as adults. Half of the respondents identified as white, half as black, one identified as Asian, and one as multiracial (black and white).

All of the respondents, regardless of when they became blind, reported using non-visual cues to help them group others into racial categories. Voice and name were reported as the most common non-visual racial cues, and a few of them reported using other senses, such as smell, to inform their categorization.

Unbiased First Impressions

Early on in the investigation, Friedman learned that without any interaction, blind individuals have absolutely no idea about the race of other people. Even when interacting, it takes time for the blind to determine the race of another person; 10 of the 25 respondents indicated that most of the time they are unable to attribute any race to new individuals. For the blind, “not knowing” the race of the people around them is an expected and normal part of life. Many of the respondents expressed that their delayed conceptualization of other people's race helped them to make unbiased first impressions.

“I think because I can’t see what that person is, until I know what they have done and how they have treated me and how they behave, then I have the ability to base my thoughts and actions and perceptions of them on something other than skin color,” explained Anna, a study participant who was white and had been blind since birth.  

Although race was largely unknown during first encounters, many respondents expressed desires to know and assign a race to others after repeated interactions. This would suggest that, even without sight, race played an important role in understanding who a person was. Results showed that many of the respondents who became blind in adulthood could still visualize other people’s races in their minds.

“I haven’t been this way all my life so I’ve known. … I grew up, I could see, and I still picture it, so it’s a visual thing, it’s always a visual thing in my mind’s eye,” explained Abigail, a black woman who lost her sight as an adult.

Stereotypes Still Exist

Although the blind-from-birth respondents understood the concept of race, they did not experience it visually in any way. Rather, for these individuals, race seemed to be more ambiguous. One white respondent who had been blind from birth explained how, as a child, she purposely touched the arm of a camp counselor to see if it felt any different, only to find that it “felt like anybody else’s skin.” However, as Friedman noted, although the respondent could not see racial features, her use of the word “different” to mean “black” indicated that to her, whiteness is “functioning as an unmarked norm” or default category. These subconscious racial biases were mentioned in various interviews with blind-from-birth respondents.

“I would say it depends. I mean, for me I might not even know,” Natalie, a white woman who had been blind from birth explained in her interview. “I might not even know and it could be that the person who’s ‘black’ and went to Harvard might sound ‘white’ and the person with a 10th grade education who’s ‘white’ might sound ‘black.”

What We Learned

The study’s results could have important implications for how we think about the social constructions of race in our everyday life, Friedman wrote. For example, nearly all of the blind respondents commented on the ambiguity of race and explained they were rarely certain about a person's race. Although being blind does not completely erase racial constructs, it does make them unclear, and most blind individuals have to actively work to decipher the race of others. This highlights how the idea of race is almost entirely based on visual perceptions. Take away the eyes and race becomes vague, abstract, and difficult to determine, suggesting that ultimately race is more closely tied to how we look than any other characteristic.

The fact that blind-from-birth respondents still made racially biased comments also shows that racism, or the idea that individuals possess superior or inferior characteristics specific to their race, is far less based on what we see and more closely based on what we learn from others.

Source: A Friedman.There are two people at work that I’m fairly certain are black: Insights from blind race attribution. American Sociological Association's 110th Annual Meeting. 2015