Stephen Colbert’s assertion notwithstanding, none of us is color blind. Not even the blind, it turns out. That’s according to the work of Osagie Obasogie, law professor at UC Hastings who earned his doctorate in sociology from UC Berkeley. In 2005, he began interviewing more than a hundred people who had been blind since birth, asking how they understood race. Were they conscious of it? Did it shape how they interacted with people? Could blind people, in fact, be racist?
Not only were the blind people he surveyed just as aware of race as any sighted person, they also conceived of race visually. “You ask a blind person ‘What is race?’ and he’ll say it’s skin color, it’s facial features, it’s all these visual cues,” says Obasogie.
The explanation, according to Obasogie, is simple: Blind people live in a culture of sighted people. Many respondents traced their perspectives on race to childhood experiences with sighted caretakers who passed along their own attitudes. But what Obasogie found surprising was just how starkly the family and friends of the blind drew racial boundaries in an effort to teach them about the world. Obasogie recalls the story of one white blind respondent who grew up in a quiet suburb, and detailed how “his parents would drive him and his siblings to the inner city, where he would hear the sounds and smell the smells of urban America. Their parents would say, ‘This is where black people live.’’’ This sort of anecdote came up repeatedly, leading Obasogie to conclude that the perception of race is learned. Racial attitudes, he says, can be seen as “the process by which we attach meanings to bodies.”
Obasogie is quick to point out that there is no genetic basis for race. The idea that race is biological emerged in the late 1800s, when European scientists tried to prove that Caucasian men had bigger skulls than their darker-skinned counterparts and were therefore “more evolved”—an idea that was used to justify slavery and, eventually, the eugenics movement. “There are certainly human population differences,” Obasogie says. “But the social categories of race that we use in everyday interactions don’t map onto human population differences.”
Now Obasogie researches DNA forensics, race-based medicines, and bioethics in order to combat the idea that race is based solely in genetics. This line of thinking, he says, still manifests in the marketing of drugs to target African Americans for conditions such as congestive heart failure. Efforts like these, he says, imply that all black people—a socially constructed group rather than a strictly biological one—are predisposed to these conditions. That line of thinking erases the social, political, and economic factors that contribute to health conditions.
Most people today would acknowledge that racism is a corrosive force in society. So why do we keep attaching “meanings to bodies”? In Are We Born Racist? a book published by Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske suggests that humans are hardwired for prejudice. “Conditioned by millennia of tribal warfare and fierce competition for limited resources,” she writes, “we are always looking for cues to help us make snap judgments of others.” In other words, stereotyping may be adaptive—predisposing us to use easily identifiable physical characteristics such as age, sex, and skin color to distinguish friend from foe.
Obasogie is skeptical of this narrative. “I think the idea that human evolution explains racial antagonisms is a bit overly simplistic,” he responds by email. “It doesn’t take full account of how social, political, and economic developments shape the incentives that groups and individuals have in making racialized judgments about others.” It’s the old nature-versus-nurture debate all over again, one that will probably never be resolved.
But being aware of where our prejudices come from—whether innate, learned, or, more likely, some of both—Fiske writes, is a “vital first step” to confronting them. On that count, Obasogie agrees.
Chelsea Leu is a former California intern based in Berkeley, where she lives, writes, and makes snap judgments of others.