Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Cars have come a long way technologically in the decade. Our mirrors and windows can defrost, tell us the temperature, indicate the direction of travel and flash warning indicators. One of the most helpful indicators is the blind spot assistance. The reason it is so helpful is because despite all of the mirrors, backup cameras, and other advancements, every vehicle still has certain areas that the driver cannot see what is happening in called blind spots. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spots. The same is true of people. Those of us who aspire to be the best versions of ourselves, we read books, watch programming, and seek out information that improves our ability to relate to others. But despite all of that personal investment, we STILL have blind spots about how others perceive the world and us. These blind spots are often the obstacles that stop conversations about diversity and inclusion in their tracks. People find it difficult to accept that an individual can live and work in a country, community, or office where their own experiences are overwhelmingly positive and be having an entirely different, less-positive experience. This often results in conversations like this:
Person 1: The policing system in America need to be reformed. I do not feel protected or safe when the police are around.
Person 2: You are exaggerating. I personally know many great officers and I have engaged with the police on numerous occasions and they were polite and helpful. What you are saying is not true.
The issue here is not that Person 1 is exaggerating, nor is it that Person 2 is lying about their experiences. The issue is that Person 2 has a blind spot that they are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge. They have no lived experience of being treated unjustly by a law enforcement officer, so the idea that this occurs frequently seems both far fetched and difficult to imagine. Person 1 is likely very aware that Person 2 is having a better experience than they are with law enforcement, and that is how they know that they are being treated unfairly. Person 1 feels unsafe and needs both an acknowledgment of their experience and positive reform to reduce the fear and anxiety they experience when they have to interact with law enforcement (who are commonly a part of our everyday lives).
When we are driving a car we have the good sense to check our blind spots occasionally to make sure that we are not going to cause an accident. In life, we have to take up the practice of doing the same. Earlier I mentioned that the bigger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spots. Well, the analogy holds true in terms of privilege. The more of our personal traits, beliefs, and experiences that align with the majority in our respective communities, the bigger our blind spots become. If I was born in America, to a financially stable family, am a white male, am a Christian, am well educated, experience no physical disabilities, earn above median income, own my own home, and have healthy children, I am now grappling with enormous blind spots, or EXPERIENCES that I have no real frame of reference for. That is not to say that these privileges have shielded me from any and all struggle, difficulty, or disappointment in life. On the contrary, there are probably many areas in which that an individual like the one described above has accumulated life experience that they can draw from. They may have even taken the initiative to volunteer in communities and countries where they have gleaned insight on other ways of life. But there is no true substitute for a lived experience in terms of a deep and enduring understanding of differing points of view. That is the truth that we have to accept.
The individual described above will have to ask OTHERS for their insight when making decisions. For example: What is it like for a woman or a minority where I work? What are the daily frustrations of living as a differently-abled person? What is it like for the only immigrant family that lives in my neighborhood? How does it feel to be targeted and shunned for my religion? What does survival feel like in 2020 for those living at the poverty line? These are not condemnations of the person with privilege, they are simple truths that affect our experience and understanding of a society and its unspoken rules.
However, we don’t have to cruise through life with these gaps in understanding. We can check those spots and fill in the missing information in a number of ways. For one, there are books, and documentaries, podcasts, webinars, and op-eds on every possible experience. But the most organic and genuine way to reduce blind spots is by branching out in friendships and professional associations to people who have lived all the experiences that we are not personally familiar with. I grew up in a two- parent household, in a middle-class neighborhood, and was able to finance my way through higher education. The moment I stepped onto my college campus my perspective began to widen. I formed true friendships with people who grew up in low-income, single-parent households, some who left school every other semester to earn the money to pay for the next semester. What did I learn from those relationships? I learned that there was nothing about me individually that made me better or more deserving of any benefit in life than them, nevertheless they’d had to work harder and longer for them because they did not have a safety net or a parent waiting at home to shuttle them to extracurriculars, pay for tutors, or check homework. I learned that a policy affecting pell grants, or tuition repayment, or anything else will land differently in every life depending on the odds that they are battling and the head start they have or have not had.
And that is the beauty of checking your blind spots. In exploring the areas that you do not have lived experiences: You learn about the resilience and fortitude of the human spirit; You find the common ground that allows you to respect differences, and the temptation to dismiss experiences outside of your own as less valid is whittled away. You also learn the value of collaboration and inclusion of differing views when innovating or resolving conflict.
I challenge you all today to take a leap from your comfort zone. Read books by diverse authors for the next month. I mean truly diverse authors, from other countries, other walks of life, other cultures. Strike up conversations with people that you feel absolutely no sense of commonality with. Listen to the news or read the paper as though you were someone else. Add new voices to your project teams at work. Don’t just check your mirrors, get out of the car and walk around the vehicle so you are familiar with where your blind spots actually are. (Whew I beat that analogy to death didn’t I?)
There are a number of studies that indicate a coarsening of American discourse is affecting our level of civility. A devolving form of communication has taken over, where people come out of their respective corners swinging for a knock-out instead of listening to understand and communicating to be understood. Often, we aren’t listening at all, just formulating replies. People are speaking with great vitriol and dogma about topics that they have absolutely zero lived experience in. Trying to operate with authority in your blind spots means that a crash is inevitable. Collectively we can do better. We can be better. It starts with YOU.