How Can One Be Blind to Racism When It’s Everywhere?

There is a silly movie called The Mitchels vs. The Machines.  One part is about the difficulty of computers trying to recognize something that’s right in front of them. For example, the machines looked at a Pug and couldn’t decide whether it was a dog, a pig, or a loaf of bread.  In their confusion, they started burning so much CPU that they exploded.

Not long ago, I saw an image of a gas station in a story about long lines from the Colonial Pipeline that hackers shut down.  In the lower right was something I could not recognize.  Was it an olive?  A cigar?  Neither of those fit the context of the story.  My brain tried to understand the image, just like the machines from the movie.  It turned out to be the back of a bald, dark-skinned head, on a large man with no visible neck.  The moment I understood what it was, I could no longer see it any differently, nor why it was so hard for me to recognize it in the first place.  I only wish that I still had the image so that you might see that I’m not as crazy as that sounds.

Then I took the next step and asked myself, “why was it so difficult for me to parse that image right in front of me?”  For one, the image was poorly framed.  For another, that bald head had nothing to do with the story.  But on a deeper level, I suspected there was more to my challenge than those superficial explanations.

In truth, I don’t see a great many people of color, and even fewer while working from home during the (hopefully) tail end of the Covid pandemic.  That was a satisfying explanation for a moment, but I kept going.  No matter how I explained it, the fact remained that I did not see a person of color.  He was right there in the image, plain as day, and I was physically unable to see him without considerable effort.  Fortunately, I put in the effort.

Said another way, not seeing him – either ignoring him or remaining utterly blind to his presence in my visual field – would have been far easier. Realizing that, I became self-conscious.  Am I racist?  What did it say about me that I had trouble recognizing the image?  I knew that it was about more than the picture, which led me to a fundamental question: 

How Can Racism Be Invisible When It’s All Around Us?

For decades, there have been people preaching about the presence and costs of racism.  At the same time, others have vehemently denied that it even exists or that it’s a problem.  The simplistic view says that one is right and the other is wrong.  The more nuanced explanation is that it does exist, and some people are simply unable (or unwilling) to see it without spending far more energy to recognize what is right in front of them than they care to expend.  And for those that experience racism, that nuance is utterly baffling.  How could one possibly be blind to something as prevalent as racism?

On one level, racism is a poorly framed issue.  The way we define racism significantly impacts what we talk about or whether we can talk about it at all.  If we frame racism as an ancillary issue in the corner of a larger story, it’s easy to ignore.  But if we make racism the crux of the discussion, it takes far more energy to engage with it.  People who have power and authority are in charge of framing the issue, while the other side struggles to change the frame.  The 1619 project, for example, is mainly about shifting the frame through which we look at history.  Those who oppose the project have little interest in changing the way that they’ve always seen things.

On another level, the challenges we face as a country, society, or individual regarding race have nothing to do with the story we want to tell ourselves about who we are.  The problem here is the false implication that there is an “us” at all, rather than multiple cultures, experiences, and peoples, all trying to co-exist in the space of competing stories.  If the 1619 project is about defining the story of our history, then racism today includes the struggle for dominance in the story we tell ourselves about who we are right now.

I assert that it is legitimately possible for people not to see racism and that signs of racism are so rampant that they are impossible to miss.  If true, then those who don’t see racism live in a state of heightened cognitive dissonance.  Shifting their frame of reference would take an extraordinary level of energy, introspection, time, effort, and thought.  So much so that it’s far easier to ignore what is within their visual and experiential field.  

That’s because racism is about far more than what is “out there” in front of us.  Racism reflects who we are, and for some, changing the status quo means letting go of far more power and privilege than they wish to share.

There is no way to hold onto one’s notion of existence or entitlement if one opens their eyes to racism.

Acknowledging the pervasiveness of racism is not about the truth or falsity of claims any more than my inability to see the bald head was about the picture.  Instead, racism is a competing set of stories between who we are, who we believe ourselves to be, and the people we could become if only we put in the effort.  For some people, that effort is part of an ongoing process of social justice.  For others, it’s enough to make their head explode.  And so, they “choose” to be blind to the racism in front of them.

Tesla Created an Identity Problem

Getting a Tesla revealed an identity problem that I didn’t know I had.  My Model 3 is probably the 8th car I’ve ever owned. While I took care of its predecessors, they were all just cars – functional machines.  But with the Tesla, there’s this whole “tribe” thing among owners. We’re the people who know… the ones who voted with our wallet… the ones who believe in the mission of moving to a more sustainable energy future.

When I got my M3, it was a big deal for me personally.  I’d wanted a Tesla for years. For the first time, I had a sense of pride in my vehicle.   I had the pride of ownership, and a sense of membership with other owners whom I knew only from shared purchasing decisions and online communities.

At the same time, I also felt a great deal of humility.  Yes there are versions of the M3 that come in close to $40K (already an expensive option for me), but I opted for the long range, with self-driving capabilities, which bumped the price up a good bit.  The humility was that I had no desire to draw undue attention to myself for having spent more on a car than some people spend on a down-payment fo a house. I was self-conscious for making what I believe to be the right decision, while simultaneously recognizing that it’s a position of significant privilege that I was able to make that choice at all.

A couple weeks ago, somebody ran into the rear passenger wheel at speeds sufficient to nearly sheer it off.  I got a concussion and 2 fractured spinal plates. The shop says it will be another month before it is expected to be repaired due to parts and labor, and insurance is covering it.  But during this time, I’m back to driving an ICE-car (Internal Combustion Engine) that I’m renting.

Over my lifetime I’ve probably used thousands of gallons of gasoline and seldom given it any thought beyond the price of fuel.  Now, having gone gas-free for a while, the impact of filling the tank is inescapable to me. It’s something I know that I can (or could) avoid.  I know first hand how easy an EV (electric vehicle) is, and when I fill an ICE tank, I simply can’t pretend that it’s normal anymore. I can no longer pretend that it’s OK, nor can I ignore the impact each tank is having.  

It’s like The Matrix movie – most people took the blue pill and went back to dreamland, with no clue about the impact they are having by driving gasoline cars.  Switch to an EV, and you’ve just taken the red pill, awakening to the reality that most of the planet is slowly killing us all by conveniently ignoring the reality all around us.  And just like Neo, those who woke up to EV’s are up against an immense army of Agents Smith, which is the oil and gas industry making billions of dollars in profits while they will do almost anything to prevent their impending end of life.

Also, while my EV is in the shop, I found that two things are happening at once.  The first is that I’m creating this BS story that I’m no longer part of my tribe of EV owners/drivers.  It’s as if, despite having never been particularly status-conscious, I’ve just lowered myself to driving an ICE again, even if it’s temporarily.  I know it’s just a story in my head, but I formerly identified with part of the solution, and now I believe that I’m part of the problem again. Yes, I know that it’s temporary, but I genuinely experience it as physically and emotionally unpleasant, and each tank I fill is a reminder of that truth.

The second transformation from this unpleasantness is that if I’m generous, I can create some level of empathy for why so many people don’t want to take the red pill.  Awareness would simply be too painful. Cognitive dissonance kicks in, and they tell themselves that everything is just fine, or that there is nothing they can do, or that it’s too big for them to solve on their own through individual decisions, or that it’s government’s job to fix.

Another structure built into our society is the notion that it’s OK for everything to be far apart enough that cars are essential.  Our cities and towns and certainly our suburbs require a vehicle to get to the store, to school, to appointments, to recreation, and to so many things in our daily lives.  That’s all just part of the way it is, of course, but only because we’ve collectively failed to envision anything different.

I’ve thought about simply forgoing our family’s 2nd vehicle while mine is in the shop.  But then how would I get the kids to school, since there’s no bus to their Catholic school 8 miles away?  The very question drips with privileged absurdity… “How will I get my kids to private school unless I’m willing to drive them there?  Woe is me, I’m left no option but to drive as a result of [fill in reasons] to send them there.”

They are in 4th grade now, and even when we started them there, I brought up the number of miles we’d be commuting them over the next 8 years as a negative.  That was before I took the red pill. I had an inkling that it would have an environmental impact, but I failed to properly weigh it out.

8 miles, twice a day, 5 days a week, that’s an extra 80 miles a week.  

At maybe 38 weeks of school, that’s 1,520 miles/year.  

Over 8 years, that’s 12,160 miles.

At a generous 30 MPG, that’s still 450 gallons.

At 19.64 lbs of CO2 per gallon, that’s 7,960 lbs of CO2, just shuttling the kids to school – nearly 4 TONS, just for school, and we’re just ONE family!

But how many people take the time to do the math?

Way too few.

Hell, I just did it, but it has yet to change my behavior.

Personally, I’m thinking we need to move closer to the kids school, or send the kids to a school that’s closer to where we live – like the one they could WALK to, or take a school bus to get there.

And the resistance I feel to something so burdensome is at the very heart of why getting society off of gasoline is going to be so difficult.  It simultaneously demands a great deal of thought and effort from a great deal of people, who are not accustomed to factoring in the hidden costs of everyday decisions, let alone changing those decisions in the face of data.

Getting people off of gasoline is truly going to be a monumental task.