There’s an old proverb – There are none so blind as those who will not see – that is usually taken to mean that the most deluded people are the ones who ignore what they already know. After having cataracts removed from both of my eyes last week, I’ll add that there are none so blind as those who have no clue as to how blind they are.
It began almost a year ago, when an eye exam to get a new prescription for glasses turned up a more serious issue. Cataracts are Mother Nature’s way of growing sunglasses, a darkness that forms around the iris to prevent too much light getting into the eye.
Redheads with blue eyes, the rarest of all human specimens, are not designed to live in a coastal desert; everything reflects. I age a bit faster and more dramatically than those lucky enough to have brown eyes, or black hair. More than one doctor offered, “You are kind of young to be having this issue, but it’s your coloring.”
It’s become my habit, when I know I’m heading towards surgery, to try and do as much as I can before I have to submit to my physical limits and – I think I even dislike the word – rest. Putting one of my ‘maybe’ events over into the ‘yes’ column, I walked into SoulPlay Yoga at the invitation of Francesca James for “A Seat at the Table,” a conversation on racism.
I was on time, but the room was already almost filled, a small yoga studio set with ‘back-jacks’ in lieu of chairs. I took one of two remaining spots, noting one participant had a service dog happily thumping a tail on the wooden floor. I am someone who, owing to a childhood trauma with a German Shepard, keeps a very respectful distance from dogs I don’t know, but the yellow scarf around it’s neck was a clue that I did not need to be fearful.
Ms. James took her starting point by asking everyone to introduce themselves and say what drew them into the conversation. The answers were candid, and with a fairly balanced ratio of darker and lighter eyes, it was a lively conversation. It was only at the end of two hours that one very pointed exchange dug into privilege, and then anger, and a deeper reflection on assumptions.
It turned out the dog was not a service animal, but one that was being trained to be a service animal. The person who brought the dog had not asked permission, but had just assumed that it was fine to do so. Because that person was white, they did not clue into the large footnote that dogs have played in the history of racism. That lack of consciousness is exactly what we identify as privilege.
Our culture does not do much to allow people with brown eyes and black hair to feel lucky.
I, on the other hand, was spectacularly lucky the very next day. Recovering from the first surgery, I was beyond shocked at the difference. Looking through my pre-surgical right eye, the world was a sepia-colored daguerrotype, with a vaseline smudged lens. In my post surgical left eye, it was HDTV.
I truly had no idea how blind I was. Vision goes so gradually, it’s like a few grains of earth blowing off a mountain. It may be a long time before that mountain is leveled, but it will happen.
My second surgery, a few days later, was scheduled on the same day as the Speaker Series for the General Plan Update. I was sorry to miss it, but I realized I’d be way, way over my limit to try and attend. I just had to (sigh) rest.
I was very sorry to have to miss Kelly Lytle Hernandez, as I was so excited by her recent MacArthur Award, and I had been promised a borrowed copy of “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein, to read as soon as I had two good eyes. But it began to chafe at me more and more that the third person speaking on the panel, John Kent, had remarkably thin credentials. How, as the author of a single article published on a website – not even an academic journal – did he have anywhere near the stature of a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a UCLA Professor holding a Chair in History plus a MacArthur Award?
That looks like privilege, and I wasn’t even there to see it.
Recognizing privilege is a real challenge; it’s the water we swim in. Taking the moment to question and notice how much equity there isn’t, who gets a platform and why, who gets to feel safe, what are the assumptions in play – it requires more than the average amount of paying attention.
But really paying attention, not resting on assumptions – that’s like adding a few grains of earth, and adding a few more. It takes time and effort, but the landscape will change.