Have you ever wondered what race would mean if you couldn't see?
Asia Friedman did, and, because she's a cultural sociologist at the University of Delaware, she could do what most people wouldn't. She asked 25 blind people, most of whom lived in Pennsylvania and Delaware, whether race mattered to them.
"They do try to assign race, and I also found that they're not color-blind in that idealized sense of not having race matter in any way," said Friedman, who presented her study Tuesday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago.
However, figuring out how to categorize the race of others they encountered was a slow and inexact process for the blind, which Friedman thinks may hold lessons for those who quickly make assumptions about people based on how they look.
For an earlier study, Friedman asked blind people about gender. She found that they often were unsure whether people they met were male or female. As a result, they tended to focus more on the similarities between men and women rather than to think of the sexes as opposite.
Sighted people, Friedman said, size others up instantly. Things are much more ambiguous for the blind.
Consider what one of her study subjects, a white man, told her: "If you're sitting in a crowded room, and let's say it's filled with white people, Asian people, black people, Hispanic people, and blind and sighted people - all kinds of people from races and origins, and nobody's saying a word.''
The blind people are all wondering, he said, "who the hell's in the room? . . . Are they Asian or Hispanic or black?"
Friedman said blind people want to know about race largely because everybody else does. Yet they rarely ask, because it would draw attention to their disability.
As a sociologist, Friedman is interested in why the concept of racial differences persists even as evidence grows that race is not scientifically meaningful. Is it because race is a visual thing and we value what we see above information we gather through other senses? Sociologists call this "ocularcentrism."
While Friedman, who is white, would like to "undo" the idea of race, she thinks that's unlikely in the short run. She thinks her research is an interesting "thought experiment" for people who take their way of "seeing" for granted.
She interviewed people who had been blind since birth as well as those who lost their vision later in life. Those who had once seen maintained an interest in how people looked. Those who had always been blind said they had no concept of color or physical beauty. In fact, she said, "they have no concept of physical appearance."
One of her white interview subjects told of touching a black camp counselor because she was curious about whether her skin would feel different. "Skin feels like skin," she concluded.
The blind people told Friedman they saw race as primarily cultural. They used names and accents to categorize people, an approach they realized was fraught with potentially embarrassing errors. Biases crept into how they evaluated cultural differences; they knew that class and education are easier to hear than race.
"I might not even know," one woman said. "It could be that 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.' "
Friedman said some of her subjects were reluctant to view the fact that race reveals itself to them more slowly as superior, while others saw some advantages. "I think some people felt that it did give them a unique and uniquely positive perspective," she said.
Anil Lewis, executive director of the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, has experienced a complicated interplay between race and blindness. Blinded by an illness at 25, he grew up in a largely African American community in Atlanta, and did not feel he was in a minority until he went to the Georgia Institute of Technology.
While he thinks he's pretty good at distinguishing by voice whether Southerners are black or white, he can't do it with New Yorkers. He is often the only black person in a room, but knows it only because a sighted person tells him.
He likes to have as much information as possible about people, because it helps him deliver his message effectively. But, he said, it generally works just fine to be himself.
"The only time race matters is when there is an obvious issue around race that requires a degree of sensitivity," he said.
Lewis said he is just as capable as sighted people of making quick decisions about others, but his are based on tone of voice and word choice. "I can make the same snap judgments," he said. "It's just using different information to make those."
Asked whether he felt more discrimination as a black man or a blind man, Lewis said racism manifests as hatred or fear, while what many people feel for the blind is pity. It doesn't feel good to be on the receiving end of any of those emotions, he said.
He told of walking down a street in Baltimore, where he lives, at night about a year ago. He's 6-foot-2 and weighs 250 pounds. "I think I'm fairly intimidating," he said.
He heard a woman's heels in front of him. "OK," he thought. "She's going to see the black man. She's going to cross the street."
Instead, she slowed down. She asked him if he needed help at the intersection.
He knew she meant well, but his "whole presence as a strong black man" was threatened.
"I felt neutered," he said.