Racial vision: Power, technology, and the social impacts of ethno-racial classifications


Automated Facial Recognition has “increasingly become a filter through which access to the world is granted (Lee-Morrison 2019: 15) – ranging from FaceID that serves to unlock our smartphones, to immigration controls at borders, which includes airport face scans as well as drones crisscrossing borderlands in order to identify migrants and prevent their border crossing. Its use is conspicuous and ubiquitous, and as biometric technology has strong ties to prior forms of racialized surveillance, in that it draws on “both standardized bodily measurements and sophisticated archival and retrieval systems(Gates 2004: 4).

 Racial Vision is my first book project and it tackles pre-histories of racialized facial recognition (RFR). By RFR, I refer to how ways of measuring and analyzing the face and sometimes the body are used in order to establish racial group belonging, often in the service of making discriminatory judgments about population groups. In most cases, these determinations are not designed to promote the social good of all involved, nor do they end well. Instances of this include the current persecutions of Muslim Uyghur populations or attempts at physiognomically identifying European Jews under National Socialist rule in Germany.

 Neither an intellectual history or a genealogy of contemporary racializing technologies, the book compares the scientific objects (something that “comes into being and passes away as an object of scientific inquiry(Daston 2000: 1)) used in establishing racial identity. Empirically, it draws on several historical and contemporary cases ranging from medical studies of Black people turning White and White people turning Black all the way through contemporary Computer Vision frameworks that use data augmentation technologies in order to balance biased machine learning datasets. Focusing on scientific objects across cases – that is, concrete technologies embedded in culturally and historically specific political and economic contexts  allows me to analyze both continuities and discontinuities across cases. I am particularly focusing on instances where biologically essentialized notions of race that these systems of racial identification presuppose no longer hold, and how these systems can nonetheless persist.