Books & Ideas

What Can Blind People Tell Us About Race?

January 08, 2014

For several years now, a quiet revolution has been underway in consumer electronics. Gadgets that are a part of our everyday lives have learned to see. Relying on optical devices and software that can detect faces and track body motions, cameras, gaming systems, phones, and other tools have gained access to the mechanisms of visions and recognition that were once considered the unique province of sentient beings.

But some of these technologies have a problem: they have a hard time seeing people of color.

In December 2009 Wanda Zamen and Desi Cryer, two employees at a camping supply store in Waller, Texas, noticed something peculiar about an HP computer at the shop. The computer featured a digital camera that detected and tracked human faces. The system had no problem identifying and following Wanda, who is white, but it could not do the same for Desi, who is black. He demonstrates the glitch in a YouTube video that has been viewed almost 3 million times. “As you can see, the camera is panning to show Wanda’s face. It’s following her around. But as soon as my blackness enters the frame, . . . [the camera] stops,” he says.

A similar bug was found in the Nikon Coolpix S630 digital camera. Designed to overcome the timeless challenge of a blinking subject, the camera detects faces and alerts the photographer when it senses closed eyelids. But when Joz Wang, a young Taiwanese woman from Los Angeles, tried to take pictures of her family, the camera kept showing the same error message: “Did someone blink?” To which Wang responded on her blog, “No, I did not blink. I’m just Asian.”

And Microsoft’s popular Xbox 360 Kinect video game system, which uses facial and body-motion detection to enable interaction, has also had trouble recognizing nonwhite faces.

All of these technological errors are correctable, yet the question remains: Why do they happen at all? If vision is merely an objective engagement with one’s surroundings, unaffected by broader social phenomena, why would a particular type of person be less recognizable than any other?

Computers face challenges recognizing minorities because vision is not, in fact, an objective process untouched by social conditions. These conditions produce the very ability to see human difference. What is seen and the ability to see are not merely mechanical phenomena but social ones.

It is easy to recognize how this dynamic plays out in the design of face-recognition technologies. Developers train recognition software using their own and their employees’ faces as well as profiles in third-party databases, and they may not take care to ensure a diverse training pool. Thus social factors shape the algorithms that constitute computer vision and may limit the capacity of technologies to perceive racial minorities.

Though humans don’t literally have programmers feeding them algorithms, social dynamics affect human vision in similar ways, delineating what is and is not seen. This is true of race, and not only in the sense that the meanings applied to racial difference are constructed by beliefs and ideologies. Race is made visible by social practices—a claim that is confirmed, ironically, by the experiences of the blind.

• • •

In our daily interactions, we often assume that race reflects a natural division of human groups. Visible traits such as skin color and face shape are thought to provide an obvious if not objective way to classify individuals into racial categories that in turn serve as the basis for assumptions about group and individual tendencies. Race has become a central aspect of social relations precisely because its visual salience and perceptibility are thought to be self-evident: we think we know a person’s race when we see it.

But this is wrong. The visual components of race are not direct products of what is seen. To understand this dynamic, we turn to the blind.

Blind people are constantly socialized to pay attention to race and its significance.

Since race is strongly connected to visual cues, it is widely assumed that race is of diminished significance to blind people’s daily lives. But in my new book Blinded By Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, I interviewed more than a hundred individuals who have been totally blind since birth—people who have never seen anything, let alone the physical traits that typically serve as visual markers for racial difference—and found that this is not the case. Blind people understand and experience race as everyone else does: visually.

When asked what race is, the blind people I spoke with largely defined it by skin color, facial features, and other visual cues. Take Nell, a blind white woman who said that race is “not only skin color but [other] characteristics . . . [such as] bone structure and facial structure. . . . Color can be a defining characteristic. But [race] is not only based on color.”

This was a common sentiment. But what stands out in this and other responses is not only the visual sophistication with which blind people conceptualize race, but that this visual understanding shapes how they live their lives. Among the blind as much as the sighted, everyday choices, experiences, and interactions are meditated by visual understandings of race. Consider this statement by Madge, a blind white woman:

Race is important in terms of a date. I remember meeting this guy at a program for the blind at the university. And most guys there I really wasn’t impressed with. But this one guy, he really stood out. And I liked him and I enjoyed talking to him. And when I found out that he was black, I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. But I felt kind of bad then, because I was hoping that it would [work out]. But that’s where [race] usually makes the most difference in my life.

Blind people are constantly socialized to pay attention to race and its significance through family, friends, and institutions that affirm both the tangibility and visibility of race. One blind white female respondent provided an example of how this happens early in life:

I never thought about skin color until I was about eight years old. I kept talking to my family about my boyfriend. And I brought home a picture of Vince. And my parents said ‘Crystal, he’s colored.’ I said, ‘that’s colored film.’ So they sat me down and told me about the races and the differences. And I was very, very angry and cried and scraped off all the gloss and obliterated the pictures. And I went back the next week to talk to Vince and told him we can’t be boyfriend and girlfriend anymore.

This patrolling of racial boundaries is not limited to children. It occurs throughout life. Brianne, a blind white woman, recalled:

I was at the mall and the person that was with me [to help with shopping] happened to be black, and some lady came up to me. The guy went down the aisle to get something for me, and this lady walked up to me and said, ‘Pardon me, but do you know your husband is black?’ And I said, ‘My husband is not black. . . . How would you know that? My husband is not even here!’

These experiences speak not only to the ways in which race becomes noticeable to the blind, but also draw attention to how it becomes visible for everyone. The social interactions that produce blind people’s visual understanding of race similarly affect the racial consciousness of sighted individuals. But the role of these interactions is less apparent in the cases of those who can see, because they perceive race as visually obvious. Considering race outside of vision can help us understand how individuals are socialized into thinking racially, regardless of what they see.

Critically, this process of making race visible is not fully described by social constructionism, the dominant theory in scholarly and lay thinking about race.

Social constructionism resists the idea that social categories of race reflect any inherent meanings, abilities, or disabilities. Instead it draws attention to the ways in which social, political, and economic forces can lead certain meanings to attach to racialized bodies. The constructionist project entails fleshing out the social processes that lead to the creation of social meanings, their attachment to bodies deemed racially different, and the subtle dynamics whereby these meanings and attachments are wrongly experienced as natural, inherent, and timeless group traits.

Social constructionism has made profound contributions, but it does not take full account of theforces that make racial difference itself visible, instead leaving race to seem as if it is visually obvious on its own terms. My research on blind people’s understanding of and experiences with race demonstrates that race is not self-evidently known. To the contrary, social interactions—the proverbial algorithms underlying human engagements—produce the very ability to experience race as a visually salient trait, just as mathematical algorithms shape the boundaries of computers’ ability to see. Race becomes, rather than simply is,visible.

The racial lives of blind individuals disrupt the unthinking assumptions that we all make about race, whereby we naturalize the ability to see and experience racial difference as a basic part of life that is thought to be fundamental to our existence. This shows how sighted people are blinded by their sight. Vision itself seduces them into treating immediately perceptible human differences as obvious distinctions, masking the social practices that make these distinctions visible.

The supposed visual obviousness of race has grave consequences. It is the foundational premise of a social hierarchy used to privilege certain groups at the expense of others. It is only through radical critique of this premise that we can rethink social relations in furtherance of racial justice.

But existing race talk doesn’t furnish that critique. Like an old computer that has become sluggish, ineffective, and unresponsive to one’s needs, discourse on race has similarly become dull and unproductive. It is past time to reboot race, to develop new approaches to think about, examine, and remedy the inequalities that exist in spite of formal legal equality. Rather than assume that seeing is believing when it comes to race, new efforts at racial justice need to start with the premise that to believe, in a sense, is to see.

This article is excerpted and adapted from Blinded By Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, published January 2014 by Stanford University Press.

Image: Thomas Leuthard

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I find it problematic that the only examples of blind people recognizing race are of white women. In addition, all of the white women in these examples experience race in an extremely racist context. I hope your book  includes the experiences of blind people of color and is not solely focused on a black/white binary. In my experience I have observed that blind people make sense of race and culture based on audio cues and social interacts that people with sight also use. I do think that the conversation about assistive technology for people with visual disabilities is an important one. For instance, the descriptive audio provided to accompany television and movies, radio programs for the blind and more all include and or ommit racial descriptors. There has been some discussion about the ethical use of racial description of individuals in this technology. So, I think that people with visual disabilities experience a racialized culture that has different implications than those in the sighted culture but both work in relationship to the other. I'm just brainstorming here but this is my initial response to this article. In sum, the article raises important  lacks a disability studies and critical race analysis. I think any discussion of the implications of race and disability really needs to include both. 

Two points: one, as with virtually every aspect of human practice that are culturally constructed (which would be all of them), the cultural constructions build out from, as it were, or work around, real, material aspects. Constructions of race are no different: while descriptions of race do not map onto absolutely real points, they must proceed from actual points of difference and distinction, which are then classified, clarified, and imagined in culturally specific ways. To put it more simply, there are real physical differences of appearance between various groups of people; discourses of race consolidate these differences and make them legible, as it were. Physical difference between people of different ethnic origins will probably always be visible, given the sheer diversity of humanity; how that diversity is classified and dealt with, however, is not a constant. It is highly unlikely that people will stop seeing (literally and metaphorically) gradients of darkness or lightness. How they see, and what that sight means, however, is much more fluid, and open to change. At the same time, the human tendency to form enclosed groups and affinities is extremely strong and deeply ingrained in us, probably enough so that it cannot be excised, only shaped and molded.
Two, markers of racial and ethnic difference are not only maintained from the outside, but also from the inside as it were. In the case of Americans of European and African descent, it is not merely a question of "whites" defining and constraining the category of "black"; the policing of racial boundaries, the construction of categorization also works from within black communities, and in different ways (just as white understandings and constructions of blackness are in fact complicated and not homogeneous, even in a given person). The same could be said of lots of other racial/ethnic/confessional groups.

Finally, related to both points, one should not imagine that because something is culturally constructed it is not "real." Not only do cultural constructions often draw upon and map onto physical reality, but in so doing they construct and solidify the very constructions they are making, which produces cultural artefacts that are as real as it gets in terms of human social life- something the author certainly seems to recognize. Any attempts at redressing racial/ethnic difference and constructions on a deep level must confront these realities.

The construction of race reminds me of China Mieville's novel The City and the City where geography and identity are constructed through social rather than physical processes.
The issue of software companies' testing on their employees being a handicap on race identification is but one way in which the microcosm of (mostly) west coast USA software companies construct a world in which everyone defaults to speaking English, has a particular timezone in the northern hemisphere, and lives in a continually connected digital network. Most usability bugs that affect the rest of humanity with respect to using products from Google, Apple, Microsoft etc stem from the limited experiential range afforded by the environment that the technology was developed in.

First and foremost I want to echo Angel's comment that the only excerpts from the book that are featured in this article are  from white women taught to be racist.  There is a whole book in that alone.  The premise of the article is strong and the very fact that visual technology shuts down for people of color echos the problem of the technology divide as it affects many areas.  Where is that in this article if the point is to dismantle racist practices and attitudes in our society as a whole?
I wanted to send this along to an anti-racisism group I am part of, and now I am not so sure about doing so.  This article is extremely disturbing and doesn't provide information in a positive light about where we go from here to dismantle our broken world.

Weapons and cell phones enable herders and farmers to construct a division of labor to enter the industrial and electronic age, but it is destructive to established societies.

I agree with the people who were troubled by the fact that you found onlyl blind white women who were socialized against racial equality to use for examples in this article.  It seems like you're publishing something that was written in 1970, when many people had encountered racial stereotyping and prejudices and social exclusions in their childhood and youth.  I can't recognize my society in this article;  I have known more blind people who were non-European than European  (Asian, black, Latino, white, Native...look even at that weird language paradigm when what we seek to "mark" is the presence or absence of factors that make us think a person is European or not).  Disappointing article that promised to have more to say than merely the racial stupidity of using only European (and midddle class)  models to "teach" cameras what a human face is.

As an Australian I am constantly astounded by the deep division of black and white in the States. I don't think any other country is so divided. Yet you see these divisions as a constant or a norm. Perhaps it is time for Americans to look at the global context

I find it biased to only include examples of blind white females' perceptions of race in a clearly racist context.  Why would you publish such an excerpt without other examples?  Also, not every white woman, blind or not, cares about the race of their partners.  You make it seem as though race is a barrier in 100 percent of the scenarios pertaining to white women, preventing these women from adhering to their emotions about the person.  Are you trying to prove to the world that white women's families and friends and neighbors are well-meaning racists?  A white blind woman is suddenly a victim if she happens to trust a black partner or companion?  Gimme a break. With all due respect, your article seems antiquated though it incorporates technological glitches of the 21st century.  I felt I was reading a fictional novel from the 1950's. I say fiction, because your examples seem fabricated. Tania is right, you people in the United States are so hooked on race, that you fail to see the big picture. Get over it!

He is not saying white women are all racists. Engage the argument and you will see your straw man collapse.

Nikon racist against asian people ???
You are not a scientist, you choose example that can prove your theories and take arrangements with reality.

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