SCIENCE
08/25/2015 03:03 pm ET

Blind People See Race Differently, And Perhaps More Wisely

A new study finds that lack of vision may help clarify the truth.
Credit: Novastock via Getty Images

Most of us take note of another person's race. We check it off almost automatically, and we do it based on looks.

But blind people can't make such snap visual judgments. New research suggests that how they attribute race offers some lessons for sighted people. 

The small study, conducted by sociologists at the University of Delaware, examined race attribution in 25 blind people, including those who were born blind and those who lost their sight later in life. In interviews with the participants, researchers identified two common qualities to non-visual race attribution: The judgments are non-immediate and uncertain.

For starters, a blind person typically attributes race to someone following an interaction with that person, whereas a sighted individual generally assigns race before learning anything else about the person. 

"The respondents described a slower process of assigning race, one that unfolds only after and through interaction," Asia Friedman, a sociologist at the university and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post. "This means that the assignment of race typically only occurs in contexts of direct interaction, not in situations of simple co-presence without interaction -- such as passing on the street, waiting in line, sitting in a crowd."

As a result, blind people end up categorizing fewer people based on race than sighted people do, with even individuals of their acquaintance remaining "unraced."

Secondly, blind people experience greater uncertainty in their race assignments.

"All of the respondents referenced the ambiguity of race in some way, and many... said that they are unable to attribute race most of the time," Friedman said. "Expressions of uncertainty such as 'Most of the time, I can’t tell,' 'I don’t necessarily know all the time,' 'I might not even know,' 'You really can’t say 100 percent,' and 'I’m fairly certain' were quite common." 

This uncertainty can have positive effects. For instance, most of the participants said they believed being blind made them less likely to rely on racial stereotypes. 

What the study reminds all of us is that first looks don't reflect the wide-ranging reality of individual differences. Friedman said she hopes that the findings "challenge visual meanings that are so often taken as self-evident."

"I hope the research provokes people to think more about the effects of holding a visual understanding of race, and to consider whether the 'realness' and 'self-evidence' of race is only tenable when race is seen," she said. 

And if you're wondering how the study participants did assign race in the absence of visual cues? Voice and name were the two most common cues, according to Friedman. 

The study findings were presented on Aug. 25 at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Chicago. 

Check out other stories in HuffPost's Science of Racism series

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