“I feel like I can’t trust what I see,” I told the occupational therapist who was teaching me how to be visually impaired and productive. “You’re right; you can’t,” she answered—which was not the answer I was looking for. After having a stroke that took part of my vision, I discovered that brains don’t like a vacuum, so they fill in the blanks with whatever they believe belongs there. Sometimes, they are right, but generally only partially so. Frequently, my brain guesses incorrectly, and I find myself trying to sit in a bus seat that is occupied, or having to search with my hands for a pen I just laid on the table, but it has disappeared into the empty table top that my brain is showing me. My neurologist cautioned me early on that I could see clear roads ahead when there was someone stepping out in front of my car, so I do not drive because of these optical illusions that fill my blind spot.
One day, it occurred to me that blind (ish) people are not the only ones to whom this happens. It happens to literally everyone, to some degree. We see what we expect to see. This is fairly well documented with witnesses to crimes. People may identify someone who looks nothing like the actual perpetrator, but rather someone who looks like their impression of how a perpetrator should look. Or two witnesses to a car accident see different things. Both are trying to provide an accurate account of what they witnessed; however, at least one of them is reporting it incorrectly—reporting what they think they saw, which might be a representation of what their brains expected to see, but not what actually happened.
This lesson can be applied to many aspects of life. If you haven’t received answers to your texts from your mate all day, you may have decided that they are angry with you. When you get home and find your partner staring out the window with a frown on their face, you see what you expected to see—an angry person. You may make the mistake of treating your “angry” mate in a hostile manner, creating a fight. Now you do have an angry mate, but perhaps only because that was what you were expecting. Had you not expected to see anger, you might have simply seen someone who had a busy day and was looking at the brown spot in the yard, puzzled as to why the sprinklers were missing that spot.
Another instance is in driving during rush hour traffic. If you expect to see rudeness in those around you, the person who cuts you off becomes a big, selfish jerk, who has no regard for others and is trying to ruin your life. On the other hand, if you expect to see others acting reasonably, you might see someone who got a call about a sick child and is a little distracted in their drive home. They feel awful that they accidentally cut you off and instantly resolve to pay better attention to their driving until they arrive to take care of the sick little one.
There are many little ways you could learn from this lesson in your personal life, and I believe this to be part of what happens with racism. Before I get further into this writing, I want to say that I think racism is heinous—unethical, unwanted, unwarranted, and evil. I also think it is real and prevalent, and until we examine it within ourselves, we can do nothing to change it. We have all been programmed to be racist, to some degree, by the society in which we grew up. Many of us fight this tendency, because we know it is immoral, but in the recesses of our consciousness, it is still there. According to my premise regarding optical illusions, we tend to reinforce racism by seeing what the racism itself expects us to see. For instance, a black man may appear to be more menacing than a white man, even though both may have the same demeanor, attire, age, socioeconomic background, etc. The moment I see the black man, something in my subconscious compares that to what society told me, as I was growing up, was someone who would want to harm me. I may recoil from the racist thought and correct it consciously, but I cannot undo the programming that made fear invade my thoughts and adrenaline course through my blood. As we walk toward one another, my step quickens, my breath is short, and my mind is racing. Once we’ve passed one another, I can relax and think how “silly” my reaction was. But this type of reaction is more than just silly—it’s harmful, and for some who have fallen victim to such a reaction, it has been lethal.
Another area of racism where this phenomenon occurs is in those who view racism being committed upon them. Again, I preface by saying that I, in no way, think racism does not exist and nor that it does not impact the lives of human beings every day. I also believe that racism can occasionally be perceived because it is expected, not because it occurred. In the case of the man above, in most instances, I pass black men on the street and have absolutely no reaction. They do not appear threatening to me and I do not experience fear. But I have social anxiety about eye contact with everyone I pass on the street. (Should I make eye contact? If so, is it too soon to make eye contact, and will it seem awkward if I maintain it until they are close enough to offer a greeting? If it is too soon and I break off eye contact, will I appear rude, and should I make it again when they are close enough to offer a greeting? And so on.) With all this going on in my mind, I might make eye contact, or not, break it off, or hold it too long. A person who is of the same race as I, might just think I’m socially awkward, but someone of a different race might construe this as me being uncomfortable with them because I am racist. In this situation, it is pretty much harmless, but I have been accused of racism in the workplace, in an instance where I didn’t even know the race of the person when I made the decision seen as racist, and that was quite hurtful to me. But unlike the instance where racism is being committed, this accusation has not cost me, to my knowledge, anything—especially not my life.
What is to be done about this? I am not a racial relations expert, nor a sociologist, but just an observer of life and lessons. I think we must control our own thoughts and behaviors that encourage our psyches to fall back on this programming. Only by bringing it out into the light of day, can we do this. This blog is my first real contribution to that end. I hope I have presented a perspective on this subject that is new and enlightening.
Because I know about the optical illusions of the blind, I can avoid sitting on someone in a bus seat that I see as empty, or find a pen that is camouflaged in my blind spot. I can stop and think about the man coming down the street, and realize that if I sense anything from him, it may be his feelings about coming down the street towards a little white woman who has social anxiety about eye contact. In closing, we are all human beings, and we are all flawed. We all have our optical illusions that we cannot help but see in our own blind spots. Those optical illusions can cause us problems with our teenage children, mates, and strangers on the street. But if we remember to step back for a second before acting, we can see the illusion for what it is and we can make certain our actions are kind, and based on what is true, not what we expect (even subconsciously) to be true.
“You are the painter, and can change the picture any time you want.”
Let’s try to paint pictures that promote a better world, my friends!