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.

7 thoughts on “On Blindness and Race: My Response to an NPR Code Switch Article

  1. What? Nobody’s commented? OK, guess I will. Anyhow, I’m sure there got to be a point where I started noticing race, but I think the most important thing to me is OK, I notice it but unless I’m doing subconscious things I don’t judge others as lesser or hate them because of their race. I know that kind of thing exists but I’m not interested in playing along. Folks are folks.

  2. Your experience with race/blindness is so interesting. Many people can talk about being color blind, but you are living it, both physically and in your attitude. Kudos to you, John. I will be reading that NPR blog post. (Side note: ever catch the Clayton Bigsby sketch from Dave Chappelle? He played with the idea that there could be a black white supremisist if he was blind.)

  3. Thank you for sharing your experiences and the NPR blog post as well.

    I’d like to share with you the experience I’ve had as a host parent for two different exchange students who are blind. My current student is from Turkey, and I hosted another blind foreign exchange student 2 years ago from Russia. Both were placed in a mainstream public high school in our city which is ranked as one of the best schools in our state, and which has a majority African-American student body.

    Our first exchange student 2 years ago had an extremely difficult time understanding many of her classmates when they spoke, although she had no trouble understanding most of her teachers. I don’t know to what extent this has to do with race, versus the way high school students of all races speak fast, use slang, mumble and slur words, etc.

    But I do know that with our second student, we sent him some links to a website for actors designed to teach different dialects of the English language from around the world, and I shared with him many different examples on that site of African Americans from around the country speaking both a scripted passage (to show accent) and an unscripted story (to show dialect).

    When our student first listened to these audio files of African Americans speaking, he was afraid, because he couldn’t understand a thing they were saying! This surprised me, because it sounded perfectly clear to me!

    But eventually he did come to understand these audio clips, especially with the aid of the corresponding transcripts of the passages, and now our second student has had a much easier time interacting with his classmates than our first student did.

    This whole experience has really made me much more aware of the importance of accent and dialect, and especially the mostly sub-conscious role it plays for groups that are discriminated against within a culture. For foreign exchange students to make friends and understand their peers, they must learn to understand a version of the English language which is not considered “proper”. British English or Australian English is also not standard American English, but both of these escape the same sense of judgment and negative connotations that African American English has.

    And as a result of this, I’ve had discussions with both of my exchange students about minority groups in their own country (Kurds in Turkey, and Chechen and other Caucasus peoples in Russia) and how their use of language affects perceptions of them and connects with discrimination against them.

    • Thanks for sharing this experience. Had something similar happen when I dated a Spanish woman some years ago, it took her a while to fully understand my dialect. But then I tend to talk really quickly, too. Thanks for reading.

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