by Julia Layton
October 9, 2015
Among those who make the claim “I don’t see race,” only one group actually doesn’t. Blind people literally do not see the physical differences that sighted people rely on to identify race.
And yet they perceive race, Dr. Asia Friedman reported at a meeting of the American Sociological Association in August. They just perceive it differently.
Friedman, a sociology professor at the University of Delaware, interviewed 25 blind subjects about the ways they experience race. Among the subjects, age of vision loss varied from birth to adulthood. Some had lost sight progressively, others all at once. Eleven subjects identified as “white,” 12 as “black,” one as “Asian” and one as “multiracial.”
What Friedman uncovered may help explain why, despite what many scientists call the “biological meaninglessness” of racial categories, those categories “continue to be used as if they were self-evident and real,” Friedman writes in an email interview.
It may, her study suggests, have something to do with vision.
Sighted people often assign racial categories using “automatic cognition,” according to a pre-publication draft of Friedman’s paper. Race determination happens instantly, without conscious thought. A sighted person can assign race to any person in sight without even being aware of it.
Friedman’s blind subjects described a slower, more deliberate process of relying on nonvisual cues to piece together a racial assignment. Most talked about the sound of someone’s voice or a person’s name. A few mentioned touch or smell.
Regardless of the senses used, the relative slowness of the process means “the assignment of race typically only occurs in contexts of direct interaction, not in situations of simple co-presence without interaction,” explains Friedman. Her subjects commonly didn’t know the races of the people around them. Sometimes, even with interaction they didn’t know. And often, even when they did make a determination through interaction, they weren’t totally sure.
Friedman believes that the combination of slower-emerging race cues and consistent uncertainty prevents automatic thinking in a blind person’s assignment of race.
Automatic thinking is more cognitively efficient, Friedman says, but “it does not acknowledge the complexities of race.”
Her subjects were not without racial bias. One blind-from-birth subject noted how “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.'”
Their first impressions, however, could be without racial bias, which may serve to weaken the importance of racial assignment.
“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,” one subject related.
Friedman’s findings point to a possible connection between automatic cognition and the persistence of racial categorization. They also point to a possible way to break the habit.
“Anything that shifts our thinking from automatic to deliberate modes of processing,” Friedman states, “may help increase mindfulness of the ambiguities and complexities of race.”
Everyone “sees race.” But, Friedman’s study suggests, if we shut our eyes for a while we might see it differently.