Studying How the Blind Perceive Race

Law professor Osagie Obasogie walked into a movie theater to see “Ray,” a biopic about the musician Ray Charles, and walked out with a question that would drive eight years worth of research.

“I was really struck by how Ray Charles had this really interesting understanding of race throughout his life even though he was blind throughout his early childhood,” says Obasogie, who teaches at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “I just wanted to learn more about how blind people understood race. I never had thought about it.”

Obasogie started by interviewing 110 individuals who were blind since birth. His full research on the topic will be published in a book, Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race In The Eyes Of The Blind, that hits shelves in November.

The professor mentioned that some of the individuals he interviewed took offense at the notion that sighted people would think blind people are unaware of race. And that not being aware of race somehow made blind people morally superior.

Race factors into so much of our everyday lives, but as the professor discovered, it can mean even more to those for whom skin color isn’t readily apparent.

Beth Rival, president of the Connecticut affiliate of the National Federation of the Blind lost her sight at age 19. “You know, sometimes we’re more sensitive [to differences in race]. It doesn’t matter to me if someone’s black or orange or whatever. It never has, except I did grow up where my parents were in a white neighborhood … but those prejudices are with you depending on where you grow up.”

“What mattered to blind people most was the very trait that they could not directly perceive,” said Obasogie. “And the reason why it mattered to them so much was because they were part of the social process and part of the social influences that teaches us to treat these differences as particularly important.”

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