When You Say You ‘Don’t See Race,’ You’re Ignoring Racism, Not Helping to Solve it

People love to tell me that they often forget that I’m black. They say this with a sort of “a-ha!” look on their faces, as if their dawning ability to see my blackness was a gift to us both.

When I point out that their eyesight had never left them, that my skin has never changed colors, and that they probably did not really forget that I am black, they inevitably get defensive. First, they try to argue that it was a compliment; the smart ones quickly realize that complimenting someone on not being black is actually pretty racist, so they switch gears.

I don’t see race! is usually their next tactic, followed by I am colorblind, though they never give credit to Stephen Colbert. By “colorblind” they don’t actually mean that they can’t see green or red; rather, they are suggesting that they can’t ever be racist, because they don’t register skin color at all.

This ideology is very popular – like a racial utopic version of the Golden Rule – but it’s actually quite racist. “Colorblindness” doesn’t acknowledge the very real ways in which racism has existed and continues to exist, both in individuals and systemically. By professing not to see race, you’re just ignoring racism, not solving it.

Still, the idea of “colorblindness” is incredibly popular, especially with young people who believe racism is a problem for the older generation and will soon die out. According to a 2014 study done in partnership with MTV and David Binder Research, almost three-fourths of millennials believe that we should not see the color of someone’s skin, as though it’s a choice. Nearly 70% believe they have achieved this and are now actually colorblind; and the same percentage shockingly believe that we make society better by not seeing race or ethnicity.

But that ideology does present a very interesting question: If you were truly unable to see people’s skin color, could you still be racist?

Dr Osagie Obasogie, a professor at the University of California’s Hasting College of Law and the author of Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind, wondered the same thing after seeing the biopic “Ray,” about legendary blind musician Ray Charles. While watching the film, he found that Ray Charles seemed acutely aware of race, despite not having sight. He left the theater thinking about blindness and racism, and then spent the next eight years exploring it in his research.

What he found is that even people who have never had sight still use visual representations of people – including a person’s perceived racial or ethnic identity – as a major marker for how they interact with them.

In Obasogie’s interviews, he found that blind people use non-visual cues to determine race when meeting a new person. They combine evidence from their other senses – hair texture, accent and other markers (with varying degrees of reliability) – to create an understanding of someone’s racial identity. And once a blind person figured out a new acquaintance’s race, they would treat that person accordingly.

In one interview, Obasogie told me, a woman told a story from her childhood in which she walked in on her mother aggressively cleaning the kitchen. When she asked why, her mother responded that her black babysitter had been in the kitchen and black people had a smell, which she needed to wash away. The next day, the woman remembers going to smell her babysitter, finding she did have a smell and from then on always associated that smell with black people, despite never having noticed it before.

Racism – both the personal kind and the systemic kind– isn’t necessarily triggered by the visual cue of another person’s skin color. Racism is about the social value we assign to people and their actions based on their physical attributes, and neither blind nor colorblind people avoid that acculturation just because they lack the visual cues.

According to Obasogie, there’s not much other research on the relationship of blindness and racism. But one important modern scholar has investigated the question: Dave Chappelle. His “Blind Supremacy” skit from 2003 – a year before Ray premiered in theaters – comes to the same conclusions as Obasogie’s research.

In the skit, Clayton Bigsby, played by Chappelle, is a blind black man who is also a white supremacist because he has never been told that he is black. Bigsby makes constant racist remarks in the sketch, and even goes to a KKK meeting.

Like most of Chappelle’s sketches, this one skewers multiple targets. But one of the points it makes – and Dr. Obasogie’s research confirms this – is that race and racism aren’t about what you see, but what you perceive and how you’re told to behave.

Our justice system is built on the idea that being blind is the same thing as being fair; our courts use portray justice as a blindfolded goddess, to symbolize the objectivity we equate with being unaware of appearances. She, too, is supposed to be colorblind – but, given the disproportionate number of men of color in our prisons, and the tendency to prosecute them at disproportional rates, that’s not exactly true, either.

The idea that justice is colorblind (in addition to blindfolded) can be traced at least as far back as 1896. The US supreme court justice John Marshall Harlan argued in his dissent to Plessy v Ferguson (the landmark case that allowed racial segregation in public facilities) that, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. All citizens are equal before the law.”

But we are not, and never have been. And thanks to Dr. Obasagie’s research, we also know that even if justice had never been able to see, she could still be complicit in a racist system. If she truly could not see skin color, she would just find some other excuse.