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.

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