On Blindness and Race: My Response to an NPR Code Switch Article

I recently came across an interesting article by NPR’s Code Switch blogger Kat Chow entitled Studying How the Blind Perceive Race. In it, she notes an individual who has carried out a research project collecting thoughts on ways that blind people are effected by and respond to racial differences. I would recommend reading it, so that you get a sense of what all I’m talking about, but I wanted to take a look at some of my own thoughts regarding this often polarizing and challenging subject. There are five main points, so I will post each and then make a few remarks.

The first is that individuals who are blind are inherently color blind as well. I had been, for much of my early childhood. Oh sure, I realized that some of my teachers spoke in a different way. I couldn’t quite figure it out though, was that just some sort of professional tone that needed to be adapted? If it were, then why didn’t all of my instructors use it. Mind you, I went to an elementary school attended and staffed by predominantly black and latino persons. Most of the White folks I knew at that age were my resource teachers, individuals who were brought in to make sure that my and other blind students’ needs were met as we attended mainstream classes.

“How do you feel about White people?” one of my sisters asked shortly after we relocated to a new neighborhood.

“About who?” I replied.

“White people, like some of your teachers and our neighbors.”

I’m pretty sure I was in the 2nd or 3rd grade at this time, and yet it was the first real exposure I even had to the concept of people actually looking different. I have of course since learned many things about the history of race and racism in this country, and while I hope we are getting to a point where there’s less of the latter, I don’t know if I could say we’ve reached color blindness yet.

As an example, I can talk about my experiences as they relate to the article’s second point: blind people make dating decisions based on their knowledge of another’s race. I have never actually dated an African American woman, and have only been in two serious relationships in total. There were some cultural issues, especially when I became involved with someone not from the US, but I was never treated in an overtly racist way.

However, as soon as I state that I have an interest in someone to others, the first question often still is: “Is she black?”

This somewhat saddens me, as I’ve always been one to approach everything with an open mind. I want the person I end up being with to have chosen me, and I her, based on mutual interest, commonalities, differences that we actually enjoy, and the like. While I acknowledge that cultural, and yes racial,background do play a part in these, I think that to say I’d only date a black woman, or that I’d only not! Date a black woman, would impoverish my life greatly.

(As an aside, I’ve never felt someone’s hair specifically to get an idea of their possible racial/ethnic background, though I’ve been surprised by some people’s hair given their speech.)

That last leads to the article’s third point: that speech doesn’t necessarily tell you to which racial group one belongs.

I think maybe it did moreso many years ago. I remember being a kid, and listening to my dad watch the Tar Heels game. He’d often say “C’mon Naw-ca-lann-ah!”

Naw-ca-lann-ah? I thought for the longest time that was another state somewhere.

And I know I’m not the only one who grew up saying “Mama, I want some mo!,” or, “can I get something out the figerator?” I don’t know, maybe kids still say that somewhere.

I’ve been surprised to discover that certain individuals were indeed African American, for instance when I lived in Southern Pines North Carolina, where many sound similarly country. Two teachers worked together in the disabilities room and got along great.

“Yeah, we call ourselves sisters, Ebony and Ivory,” one quipped.

“Wait, who’s ebony,” I asked, causing them both to giggle.

“You didn’t know I was black?” she drawled. Nope, I’d never guessed.

This brings us to the fourth point, which is that perhaps blind folk could be racist toward a group to which they actually belong. I’d say that is probably unlikely, given that unless one has been adopted into a family of an entirely different cultural background or perhaps just not exposed to his or her parents for some reason, the individual should have over the course of life with the family discovered enough about the basics to know of which group they are apart. But, maybe amusingly, probably sadly, one could befriend another not knowing that they are of a disliked racial/ethnic background.

As the article points out, racism is just as prevalent in the blindness community as it is in the rest of society. This is because hatred or fear of others is usually passed down by family members. Certainly people can and do overcome these influences to an extent, but if they are hammered home early they often remain engrained in a person’s psyche.

And the final point is that blind people have a way of creating their own type of visual of a person’s race. I admit to doing this, based on a combination of factors: texture of hands, sound of voice, use of dialect, among other things. Even with all of this information, I’ve sometimes just been plain wrong. I think that with everyone being more or less exposed to the same content, especially within the U.S, things are standardizing in such a way that it really is becoming harder to tell. And of course, there are many cases in which people don’t fit neatly into one category.

Many have asked me about my thoughts and experiences on this topic, but I’ve rarely had a good way to articulate them. My favorite thought is that people are people, no matter their skin color and/or other attributes. However, I acknowledge, and celebrate, that there are differences among us, for these differences are what make us human. I think if we could ever learn to stop fighting about this and just embrace and enjoy it, then our human experience would be all the richer. I am aware though that this remains wishful thinking, and may always be.

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