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Do Blind People See Race? Social, Legal, and Theoretical Considerations


  • The author wishes to express his gratitude to Lauren Edelman, Kristin Luker, Neil Fligstein, Sarah Song, and Ian Haney López for their thoughts and comments throughout this project. A special thank you is also in order to Samuel Lucas, Ann Morning, Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, and Aliya Saperstein for reviewing previous drafts of this article. Please direct all correspondence to Osagie K. Obasogie, University of California, Hastings College of Law, 200 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94102; e-mail:


Although the meaning, significance, and definition of race have been debated for centuries, one thread of thought unifies almost all of the many diverging perspectives: a largely unquestioned belief that race is self-evident and visually obvious, defined largely by skin color, facial features, and other visual cues. This suggests that “seeing race” is an experience largely unmediated by broader social forces; we simply know it when we see it. It also suggests that those who cannot see are likely to have a diminished understanding of race. But is this empirically accurate?

I examine these questions by interviewing people who have been totally blind since birth about race and compare their responses to sighted individuals. I not only find that blind people have as significant an understanding of race as anyone else and that they understand race visually, but that this visual understanding of race stems from interpersonal and institutional socializations that profoundly shape their racial perceptions. These findings highlight how race and racial thinking are encoded into individuals through iterative social practices that train people to think a certain way about the world around them. In short, these practices are so strong that even blind people, in a conceptual sense, “see” race. Rather than being self-evident, these interviews draw attention to how race becomes visually salient through constitutive social practices that give rise to visual understandings of racial difference for blind and sighted people alike. This article concludes with a discussion of these findings' significance for understanding the role of race in law and society.