scientificamerican | 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.