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Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind

Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind

by Osagie Obasogie


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Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind

Colorblindness has become an integral part of the national conversation on race in America. Given the assumptions behind this influential metaphor—that being blind to race will lead to racial equality—it's curious that, until now, we have not considered if or how the blind "see" race. Most sighted people assume that the answer is obvious: they don't, and are therefore incapable of racial bias—an example that the sighted community should presumably follow. In Blinded by Sight ,Osagie K. Obasogie shares a startling observation made during discussions with people from all walks of life who have been blind since birth: even the blind aren't colorblind—blind people understand race visually, just like everyone else. Ask a blind person what race is, and they will more than likely refer to visual cues such as skin color. Obasogie finds that, because blind people think about race visually, they orient their lives around these understandings in terms of who they are friends with, who they date, and much more.
In Blinded by Sight , Obasogie argues that rather than being visually obvious, both blind and sighted people are socialized to see race in particular ways, even to a point where blind people "see" race. So what does this mean for how we live and the laws that govern our society? Obasogie delves into these questions and uncovers how color blindness in law, public policy, and culture will not lead us to any imagined racial utopia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900804772791
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 12/11/2013
Pages: 287
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Osagie K. Obasogie is Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law with a joint appointment at UCSF Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Genetics and Society. Named one of 12 Emerging Scholars in Academia under 40 by Diverse Issues in Higher Education , his research and writing spans Constitutional law, bioethics, sociology of law, and reproductive and genetic technologies. He has written for Slate , the Los Angeles Times , The Boston Globe , the San Francisco Chronicle , and New Scientist.

Read an Excerpt


Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind

By Osagie K. Obasogie

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Osagie K. Obasogie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7279-2


Critiquing the Critique

Beyond Social Constructionism

In the midst of the great depression and World War I's aftermath, 1930s American foreign policy could best be described as isolationist; neither politicians nor the American public had much of a stomach for getting involved in then-emerging global conflicts across Europe and the Pacific. While the United States offered various forms of aid to countries like England to assist in fending off German aggressions, America remained formally neutral as the world entered the Second World War. That is, until December 7, 1941, when Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor led to over two thousand casualties. Isolationism, as a foreign policy, was no longer a viable or desirable option.

While the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the United States' approach to international politics, it also had a distinct impact on the country's racial politics. Surely anti-Asian and specifically anti-Japanese sentiments existed prior to 1941, but Pearl Harbor changed and intensified the underlying social meaning of what it meant to be Japanese. Susan Moeller notes,

The whole cartoon aspect of the Jap changed overnight. Before that sudden Sunday the Jap was an oily little man, amiable but untrustworthy, more funny than dangerous. After December 7, the Japanese were depicted by stereotype. The Japanese, noted eminent columnist Ernie Pyle, "were looked upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people felt about cockroaches or mice." The Japanese were routinely referred to and pictured as literal or figurative animals, something less than human—at best credited with "child minds." The Japanese were compared to rats and ants, and, most consistently, considered ape-like, "almost simian." Liberty Bond Drive posters depicted the Japanese as leering monkeys raping and pillaging Western women and civilization. [Internal citations omitted]

In many ways, Pearl Harbor demonstrates the instability of racial meanings and how they are always in flux in relation to broader social and political dynamics. This singular act radically deepened Americans' pejorative sentiments toward Japanese people, leading to them being perceived as a distinct group with intrinsic tendencies toward treachery and duplicity. Vestiges of Pearl Harbor as an example of the social construction of race and ethnicity persist to this very day. For example, in 2004, Bill Parcels—then head coach of the Dallas Cowboys—characterized the secret plays developed by his competing offensive and defensive coordinators during practice as "Jap plays ... surprise things." But while the attack on Pearl Harbor shifted and intensified the social meaning of being Japanese among Americans, there remained one broader issue: if Japanese people ostensibly constitute an inherently duplicitous subgroup, how does one distinguish them from other Asian populations?

Much like reported incidents of post-9 /11 attacks on Sikhs who were mistaken for Muslims, the bombing of Pearl Harbor also led many Americans to engage in acts of vigilantism against persons thought to look Japanese. The December 22, 1941, edition of Life magazine that shortly followed the Pearl Harbor attacks took this to be a serious problem; the editors saw it as their patriotic duty to help the American public direct its hostilities to the right ethnic group. In an article titled "How to Tell Japs from the Chinese," Life lent its photojournalistic credibility and reach into millions of American homes to teach the public how to visually differentiate Japanese from Chinese, the latter being our ally during the war. The Life article is fascinating in many regards. But what perhaps stands out the most is how it acknowledged the problematic myths surrounding various notions of racial purity and inferiority that drove Nazism and eugenics, yet ultimately saw its journalistic project of "seeing racial difference" as distinct from and innocent of this form of racism. This move—stigmatizing Japanese people as a group while self-consciously distinguishing such racial and ethnic stigmatization from that which was used by Nazis—was not uncommon during this period. A prime example occurred in Korematsu v. United States, the 1944 Supreme Court decision upholding the Executive Order excluding Japanese Americans from parts of the West Coast and permitting their internment during the war. In the decision, Justice Black took great pains to distinguish the United States' internment camps from German concentration camps. Similarly, the Life article noted, "To physical anthropologists, devoted debunkers of race myths, the difference between Chinese and Japs is measurable in millimeters.... Physical anthropology, in consequence, finds Japs and Chinese as closely related as Germans and English. It can, however, set apart the special types of each national group" (emphasis added).

From this perspective, race myths are a presumably illegitimate product of subjective racial prejudice, which is wholly distinct from the ability to use visual cues to objectively appreciate scientific and measurable differences between Japanese and other Asian groups. What remains resilient in this formulation is the notion of racial typologies—that humans can be divided into basic racial groups that are biologically distinct—which itself promotes racial hierarchy by substantiating the idea that social categories of race reflect natural "types" of human groups with inherent abilities and disabilities. The Life article constructs racial and ethnic differences as being quantifiable down to the smallest units of measurement, suggesting not only that racial and ethnic difference are an objective reality but also that the lay eye can detect such visually obvious differences—that is, if it knows what to look for. Life happily assumed the responsibility of training Americans' visual sensibilities through a series of images that attempted to mark out the obvious visual distinctions one should look for to properly differentiate friend from foe. Life described "the typical Northern Chinese ... [as being] relatively tall and slender built"; "his complexion is parchment yellow, his face long and delicately boned, his nose more finely bridged." The first set of images focused primarily on facial distinctions, where in contrast to Chinese traits, Life described Japanese people as having "a broader, more massively boned head and face, flat, often pug, nose, yellow-ocher skin and heavier beard." But, as shown in Figures 1 and 2, these physiological descriptors were not enough; the images themselves were marked by Life editors to specifically point out the visual cues that distinguish each group, whether a "more frequent epicanthic fold" or a "broader, shorter face."

A second set of images focused on physical differences in Chinese and Japanese bodies. The text of the Life article noted that the Chinese brothers pictured in Figure 3 represent a typical "lanky, lithe build," while Japanese people, as shown in Figure 4, "exhibit squat, solid, long torso and short stocky legs." The Life article even went so far as to claim that when Chinese become "middle aged and fat, they look more like Japs." But Life cautioned its readers to pay attention not only to visual cues of a physiological nature, but also to those that manifest themselves through cultural differences: "an often sounder clue [to distinguishing between Chinese and Japanese] is facial expression, shaped by cultural, not anthropological, factors. Chinese wear rational calm of tolerant realists. Japs ... show humorless intensity of ruthless mystics."

These images and descriptions link the politically driven stereotype of treachery and duplicity to a visually distinguishable body that ultimately produced an understanding of the Japanese as a subhuman group. The visuality of group difference emphasized by the Life images played an important role in the construction of racial difference by reasserting the centrality of racial typologies or the idea that distinct, biologically different racial groups exist. Part of emphasizing Japanese difference from both ourselves as Americans and Chinese as Allies is to suggest that their inherently duplicitous nature manifested itself in or correlated with physical differences that are visually obvious if you know what you're looking for. That was the point of the Life magazine photo spread: to teach Americans how to visually distinguish human bodies to ascertain these typologies and tendencies.

Such efforts impacted Americans' view of the Japanese and Japanese Americans. In many ways, Americans despised the Japanese more than other nationalities we were at war with; the idea of racial difference played a distinctive role both in how the Japanese were understood on their own terms and, in a comparative sense, in relation to Germans and Italians. Not only were Japanese dehumanized by cartoonists, journalists, and others as being apes, monkeys, and rodents—whereby their seeming physical distinctions blurred seamlessly with the bestial form to which they were being compared—but the comparative political rhetoric surrounding discursive references to America's enemies during World War II treated the Japanese as a separate and monolithic group. Germans and Italians, on the other hand, continued to enjoy the perception of being diverse in temperament. This shaped policy choices during the war, such as the widespread exclusion and interment of Japanese Americans without any similar treatment to German or Italian Americans.

This slice of World War II history introduces a key concept at the heart of almost all modern race scholarship: the social construction of race. The rapidly shifting meanings and ideas surrounding race and ethnicity in the wake of the bombing of Pearl Harbor shows how racial meanings are neither static nor timeless. Rather, they are constructed by social, economic, and political developments that can rapidly attach new meanings to racialized bodies with a power and force that can make these newly constructed meanings seem like an essential aspect of group membership. This, in short, is the social constructionist thesis: social forces—not nature or anything intrinsic to racial groups—produce the meanings that come to be associated with racial difference. The constructionist project largely involves fleshing out the social processes—such as the politics of war—leading to the creation of social meanings, their attachment to bodies deemed racially different, and the subtle dynamics leading these meanings and attachments to be rearticulated as a natural, inherent, and timeless group traits.

But the Life magazine images bring another dimension of racialization to the forefront: the extent to which constructed meanings are assumed to be both essential to racial difference and visually obvious at the very same time that these ostensibly self-evident traits require meticulous policing, training, and visual instruction in order for differences to become publicly visible in a presumptively consistent and coherent manner. Thus, not only are racial meanings such as Japanese duplicity constructed, but social forces (such as photojournalism) also produce the very ability for individuals to clearly see racial differences in a manner that is experienced as being self-evident.

This other dimension regarding the productive forces behind racial difference becoming visible (rather than simply being visually obvious on its own terms) has not been a significant part of the social constructionist project. These productive forces leading up to race becoming visible yet experienced as self-evident is what I identify as the constitutive theory of race. An important though usually ignored tension within the social constructionist perspective is that it assumes that the visual salience of race is largely obvious; race is thought to speak for itself. The visibility of racial difference—hair color, facial features, and other visual cues thought to definitively mark group membership—is largely conceptualized as existing anterior to any social process; both lay persons and race scholars tend to treat race as something that is coherent and "known" through mere observation. The social constructionist literature has paid exhaustive attention to situations such as how the politics of war lead pejorative social meanings to attach to Japanese physiological distinctions such as the flat nose and broad face marked out by the photos in Life. But less attention has been paid to how social forces such as the Life magazine photo spread produce the very ability to see race in particular ways that come to be experienced as visually obvious yet require remarkable amounts of work to create salient and coherent boundaries of visual (and visible) difference.

By drawing attention to the constitutive social practices that give rise to individuals' ability to see race in certain ways, this book intervenes into the existing theoretical and conceptual gaps in race scholarship that largely frame racial difference as being self-evident and visually coherent on their own terms. In addition to exploring the contributions and limitations of the social constructionist literature, this chapter puts the existing literature in conversation with other perspectives not typically part of the race canon that are more sensitive to the ways in which social practices produce the ability to see human difference. This provides the theoretical orientation for the empirical project—teasing out blind people's understanding of race—that is at the core of this book that, in itself, generates a new standpoint from which to both critique and expand social constructionism in order to understand the social practices behind visual experiences.

The theoretical project of destabilizing the presumption that race is visually obvious and the empirical project of assessing blind people's understanding of race are tightly connected. Qualitative research on blind people's understanding of and experiences with race permits an empirical basis from which to rethink the obviousness that envelops the process of "seeing race" so as to better understand the social forces that influence our visual engagements. An empirical assessment of blind people's visual understanding of race can challenge the intuition that the visual salience of race—why it is conspicuous, why it seems to visually stand out as a coherent marker of human difference—stems not from it being visually obvious but rather from constitutive social practices that produce our ability to see the world in racial terms. This works from and extends existing claims regarding the social construction of race to the extent that "seeing race" is not merely a neutral observation concerning the way social meanings attach to racialized bodies. Rather, this book highlights the extent to which our eyes are trained to see race in particular ways—so much so, that even blind people see race. This has important social and legal implications; the empirical data belie the assumption that race is visually obvious—an assumption that ultimately frames important legal and policy choices in a manner that inhibits racial justice. But before moving to this empirical work and its ramifications, it is useful to situate the empirical project in the existing literature on the social construction of race that anchors almost all race scholarship while also putting this dominant approach in conversation with literatures on the social processes behind seeing difference. This allows for a better conceptual basis from which to understand this book's empirical component and broader implications.

Rarely do we dissect with any precision what social constructionism means, from what previous concepts of race the constructionist thesis emerged, and the "work" that the constructionist thesis does in modern times. In order to fully articulate the claims being made in this book, this chapter discusses the significance of the social constructionist thesis in terms of the social, political, and ideological contexts giving rise to its prominence in postwar race scholarship and public policy. Once this backdrop is established, the core contribution of the constructionist approach is brought to the forefront: to expose how social meanings attach to various bodies. I then discuss how the constructionist thesis is operationalized in current race scholarship in law and the social sciences to highlight a glaring tension: the extent to which race, as both a theoretical and an empirical matter, is assumed to be a visually stable, self-evident, and obvious variable that freely exists in the social world with a visual salience that is separate from any social process.

In other words, the constructionist approach provides a theoretically rich account of how meaning attaches to bodies and offers robust mechanisms to decouple these assumed connections to rethink the possibilities for human interaction and the social order. Yet it has not offered an empirically nuanced account of how bodies become visually salient in the first place. The gap in the literature exposed in this chapter gives rise to the constitutive theory of race proposed by this book. But first, let us spend a few moments exploring social constructionism.

Excerpted from BLINDED BY SIGHT by Osagie K. Obasogie. Copyright © 2014 Osagie K. Obasogie. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface xiii

Introduction 1

Part I "For We Walk by Faith, Not by Sight"

1 Critiquing the Critique: Beyond Social Constructionism 11

2 Theory, Methods, and Initial Findings 39

3 Visualizing Race, Racializing Vision 72

Part II " 'Twas Blind But Now I See": Social and Legal Implications

4 Revisiting Colorblindness 109

5 Race, Vision, and Equal Protection 138

6 On Post-racialism 163

Epilogue: Rebooting Race 177

Appendix A Critical Race Theory-Background and Critiques 183

Appendix B Further Considerations on Methods and Research Design 205

Notes 215

Index 261

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