Blind People Can Be Racist Too, Study Shows

October 30, 2015 | Kelly Tatera

Photo credit: Ahmed Sinan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Although the blind experience race in a much different way than the sighted, they have other ways of passing judgements on the people they encounter.

For sighted people, the visual process works instantaneously when meeting others. When you don’t know someone, your brain naturally makes its initial judgments based on what you see. But the blind have a much different experience when meeting someone for the first time. So, if they can’t base their judgments in appearances, can they be racist?

According to research conducted at the University of Delaware, far fewer blind people instinctively categorize people by race than sighted people. The study found that, in general, the blind assign race only after having extensive interaction with others. Instead of experiencing race as a fleeting moment of subconscious deliberation, the blind depend on lengthier conversations. They also use other senses, like hearing and touch, to come to conclusions about others.

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However, the study determined that people don’t have to see color in order to pass racial judgements. Although it takes the blind longer to form their opinions about other people’s race, they still have racial stereotypes. Participants admitted to placing people in racial categories based on nonvisual cues, like voices and names. This leads to other predictions about the person’s lifestyle, behavior, and socioeconomic class.

The study discovered that, logically, blind people who were blind from birth experienced race differently from those who lost sight at later ages. Of the nine participants who had been blind their entire lives, five claimed to not think about physical appearance and reported being unable to make snap judgements about race.

Nonetheless, even those who didn’t think about physical attributes reported that they eventually racially categorize others based on other nonvisual cues. One of the respondents even said that being blind doesn’t mean that blind people are, “absolved from being a racist.”

Asia M. Friedman, the lead of the study and an assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at the University of Delaware, said in a press release, “The process is much slower as they piece together information about a person over time. Their thinking is deliberative rather than automatic, and even after they’ve categorized someone by race, they’re often not certain they’re correct.”

Friedman also stated that her subjects thought that being blind made them less likely to develop stereotypes. However, the interviews revealed that many of them did indeed hold racial and cultural stereotypes or assumptions. Even though their definition of race was not based on appearance, they developed their own ways of constructing race.

Osagie K. Obasogie, a professor of law at the University of California Hastings College of Law, wasn’t involved in Friedman’s study but has researched how blind people perceive race. “I would push back against the idea that blind people somehow enter every social interaction with a blank slate,” he told CNN.

Obasogie interviewed over 100 blind people, and he said some admitted to asking others to tell them about a person’s race before meeting them. Otherwise, many of them said they would try to figure out someone’s race during an initial interaction rather than keeping an open mind.

“If race is such a strong and deep part of our social order that blind people who have never seen anything can see and pay attention to race… It shows how deep the problem is,” he said. “Blind people understand race the same way as sighted people.”

Although the blind are often unable to make snap judgements based on appearance, the feeling of an innate inclination to judge people based on race is still there. Based on the scientific evidence, the racial constructs of society affect everyone— even those who can’t see the color of someone else’s skin.

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