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.
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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