- On Seeing and Not Seeing Racism
What is especially insidious about racism in the contemporary United States is its stealth. In our post–civil rights era, the visibly racist Jim Crow formulation of “whites only” has come to be replaced by a new form of racism, one that the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has described as “color-blind.”1 In his argument, this modern form of racism enables whites to ignore group-based racial inequality by denying responsibility for the structural causes of racism and, ultimately, reproducing racial inequality. Indeed, as study after study finds, most white Americans espouse color blindness, yet race continues to determine where most Americans live, what schools their children attend, how much money they make, how much wealth they accumulate, whom they hire and promote at work, and whom they might marry.2 Why do so many white Americans insist that they are color-blind when in fact their choices about everything from the neighborhoods they choose to live in to the people they marry reflect racial preferences?
The four books discussed here take up this question, some more explicitly than others, and provide new ways of thinking about the disjuncture between what white Americans say about racism and what they do. Though each book focuses on a different set of racial practices to make their arguments, they all [End Page 1155] raise important questions in American studies about the meaning of race, whiteness, and color-blind racism. In doing so, they all shed light on how we see and do not see race.
As scholars of race have long argued, “biological race” is often understood as visually obvious; racial categories such as black, white, or Asian are assumed to be something we can see. The critical race theorist Osagie Obasogie’s book, Blinded by Sight, brilliantly upends this notion by adopting a novel methodological strategy: he interviews people who have been blind from birth. His research demonstrates that, far from being unaware of race, “blind people are uniquely capable of discussing the social practices that give visual cues associated with race an obvious feel.” In his argument, “these are the same social forces that give visual understandings of race their coherency to the sighted, yet remain hidden due to sighted individuals’ overemphasis on visual fields. It is in this sense that sighted people are blinded by their sight” (81). Put another way, the blind can discern the social practices that produce their visual understandings of race more effectively than sighted individuals, who take these practices for granted.
In Obasogie’s argument, family, friends, and social institutions all serve important socializing functions in teaching the blind about the visual aspects of race and its attendant social practices and meanings. For example, one of his respondents, Maurice, explained that he first became aware of race as a young boy when a neighbor used a racial slur to denigrate a domestic worker. He had never heard the word before, so he asked his mother what it meant. His mother was furious and told him never to repeat the word. Meanwhile, another neighbor, visiting at the time, whom Maurice described as having “an unusual voice,” said, “nobody ever told you that that’s the name some people call me?” (83). It was through this exchange Maurice discovered this neighbor was black. This incident introduced him not only to the notion of visual race (i.e., as black or white) but to the pejorative meanings and practices associated with blackness.
As Obasogie points out, “Being able to identify society’s poor treatment of racial minorities and recognizing that this pejorative attitude is rooted in visual...