Scholar Strike 1: I Don’t See Color

“I don’t see color.”

We’ve all heard this line in conversations about race. It is almost a standard response to accusations or insinuations of racism or racial prejudice. It is the mantra of so-called “Colorblind Ideology,” the belief that the best way to end racism is to stop considering race altogether.

The assumption, I guess, is that racism stems directly from the perception of skin color, and simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

I have a problem with this. You see, I don’t see color.

No, but like, literally. I really don’t see color, not real color anyway. Sometimes my visual field pulses with red and blue light, or turns entirely pink for no apparent reason, but those are artifacts of my optic nerve and brain. Colors from the outside world don’t make it inside. Not anymore.

I grew up with color perception, so as a child and young adult I could see skin tone as well as anyone else. But as my vision has deteriorated, I find myself less and less able to tell the color of a new person’s skin. My color perception is nonexistent, and even my ability to tell contrast is greatly diminished. 

Often, I find myself a bit adrift, thinking that some information about someone’s racial or ethnic identity would be useful. So despite being literally colorblind, I cannot deny the importance of race.

But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just used to thinking about race because I grew up sighted. Maybe I’m just missing the visual information that once came so easily. Wouldn’t people who had always been blind be free from concerns about race? Wouldn’t they “not see color” in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense?

Good question., Luckily someone did some research on that.

In his 2015 book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, legal scholar Osagie Obasogie undertook to discover the link between the visual stimulus of skin color and the social and legal phenomena of racial classification, prejudice, and discrimination.

Obasogie was motivated by the basic question “how do blind people understand race?” (p. 1).

and he is reacting against the naive general assumption that “blind people simply cannot appreciate racial distinctions and therefore do not have any real racial consciousness” (p. 2).

This assumption rests upon a common sense view of race that he calls race ipso loquitor, or “race speaks for itself” (). That is, race is an obvious category that derives directly from salient visual markers such as skin color and physical features. If race is visually self-evident, how important can it be to the blind? In interviews with sighted participants, Obasogie found that most thought race would be irrelevant or unimportant to the way blind people live their lives.

Interviews with blind people showed something quite different.

Obasogie interviewed 106 participants from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds who had been totally blind from birth. Unlike me, they had never had vision and thus had never experienced race as a visually self-evident phenomenon. 

It was striking, therefore, that the blind participants defined race primarily in visual terms. Despite having no direct access to visual information on skin tone and other physical characteristics, most participants initially described race in terms of color, and then supplemented that definition with other factors such as ethnicity, ancestry, geography, and genetics. Some described their attempts to use other other information—accents and speech patterns, hair texture or body odor—as proxies for visual information when trying to ascertain peoples race, but noted also the high error rate in attempts to do so.

Regarding the significance of race, understandings varied more across lines of race than across lines of visual acuity. That is, blind white people and sighted white people had more similar views on race than blind people of different races or sighted people of different races. Most notably, blind white people across the board tended toward a view of “white racial transparency”—that is, they thought of race as something that other people had, not themselves. This view has been characterized as a view of white as the default—a baseline to which “ethnic” attributes are either added or subtracted. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to see race as an attribute possessed by and significant to everyone. 

Blind white participants were also the only ones to use discrimination against disabled people (ableism) as an analogy for racial discrimination, and to understand the struggle for civil rights by both racially minoritized and disabled communities as essentially the same. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to frame disability and race as two entirely different and separate experiences and identities. As a side, note, this has long been and continues to be a common point of strife in the disability activist community, which skews heavily white and has historically marginalized the voices and perspectives of disabled people of color.

So far, the findings show more similarity than difference between blind and sighted people of the same racial background. This alone calls into question the notion that race visually speaks for itself, since blind people tend to share the same racial identities and assumptions as the rest of their racial group.

This became explicitly apparent when participants were asked to describe how and when they became aware of the existence and significance of race, and how it factors into their everyday living and decision making. Participants told story after story of parents and authority figures who made sure to instill racialized knowledge in blind children and, to some extent, in blind adults as well. 

Sighted children can pick up on racial cues non-verbally, noting in course of regular events the correlation between racial identity and adult attitudes, body language, and types of speech. Blind children cannot correlate behavior with visual features in the same way, and thus did not generally come to awareness of race on their own. Instead, many adults felt compelled to make the implicit explicit—to ensure that blind children receive the racial information that they deem necessary to live within their place in society.

Blind participants recounted common experiences in their childhood, wherein they would meet and converse with someone without knowing their race. Afterward, and adult would inform them of the person’s race and perhaps give cues about whether the person was suitable to socialize with or not. Such experiences reinforced the idea that race was an important marker not only of identity, but also of status.

White parents also made sure to highlight the racial housing segregation that still exists in many cities and towns across the United States. They would inform their child when they would cross over the line dividing white and Black sections of town, emphasizing that Black people lived in separate areas, that the conditions in these areas were inferior, and that these inferior conditions resulted from the inherent shortcomings of their race.

Racial boundaries were drawn and enforced with special vigor when it came to romance, particularly for young blind white women. One participant related a story in which she brought home a picture of her third-grade boyfriend. Her parents looked at it and said “Crystal, he’s colored.” 

Confused, she confirmed that it had been taken with color film.

They then gave her a lecture on race and the unsuitability of Black boys as romantic partners. She describes the potent mixture of bewilderment and shame that she felt, driving her to destroy the photograph and cease speaking to the boy completely.

Quite a few participants reported that these childhood lessons stayed with them and still guided their behavior. Many were uncomfortable dating across racial lines, and made special efforts to ascertain the race of the people they dated before committing. 

Blind people’s experience with race is not a mere curiosity. It cuts to the heart of the illusion that underlies colorblind ideology. It shows that race, though understood visually by sighted and blind alike, is not an obvious or self-evident characteristic. It is not learned by observation, but by implicit and explicit instruction from a very young age.

The example of the blind throws the disconnect between colorblind ideology and social reality into stark relief. The racial distinctions, classifications, and hierarchies that sighted children learn implicitly from observation must be actively and intentionally taught to those who cannot perceive visual cues.

In some cases, parents went to extreme lengths to impress the importance of race on their blind children. Leaning into the apparent impunity with which they could lie about visual matters, they said things that would be amusingly bizarre if they were not so damaging. One mother told her daughter that mixed race relationships would lead to polka-dotted children. A small blind black girl was told she should not bathe with her white friend, because her black would rub off on her. 

As strange as these lies are, they are no more strange than the counterfactual definitions of race we use without question every day. No person has truly black skin, or truly white skin. Skin tones exist along spectra of colors and tones, which do not divide neatly into clear categories. Consider how often people are described as racially ambiguous, or the recent cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, two white women who successfully pretended to be Black for years. If race were a self-evident function of skin color, these cases should not be possible.

Race is not color, and color is not race.

Race is a socially created and maintained classification scheme with no defensible biological basis. The social processes that construct and perpetuate racial categories are not straightforward or empirical, but they cast themselves as such. Thus, colorblind ideology manages to hide its social construction behind a veil of straightforward common sense. Race becomes obvious. It becomes what is seen, not what is made and reinforced over centuries of social relationships and representations. 

But this is an illusion. Behind the common sense of racial self-evidence, the social creation and perpetuation of racial divisions and hierarchies continue. Racism cannot be undone simply by not seeing it, or by pretending not to see it. The next time you hear someone say they do not see color, or the next time you are tempted to say it yourself, think of me. Think of those who cannot see color in the most literal sense, but still recognize that they are not exempt from the racialized system in which we live. Race is all of our responsibility, and the first step toward dismantling racial injustice is recognizing its foothold in our minds.

 ***

For further reading on the shortcomings of colorblind ideology, see here and here. Also read Part Two of Obasogie’s Blinded by Sight and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

For further reading on the experience of blind people of color, see this recent piece by Anil Lewis: Being Black Helped me be Blind and Being Blind Helped me Realize that #BlackLivesMatter.”

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