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What filters are you wearing to see the world?

Pam Bailey, NeighborWorks blogger | 10/23/2016 5:54:06 PM

In the 2005 movie, “Crash,” writer-director Paul Haggis sets up a series of scenes designed to tease out the snap judgements we all tend to make upon first encounters with new people: the redneck-sounding white cop, the black youths lingering on the street, the Mexican locksmith making a house call—all caused kneejerk, “protective” reactions among members of a different race or class. By the end of the film, however, our impressions of all but one of the characters changes 180 degrees.
The moral of the story: The often-unconscious “filter” through which we see the world—colored by our culture, socioeconomic status, age, sexual orientation, family environment and a myriad of other dynamics—distorts what we see and hear.

The many layers of bias

At the opening plenary for NeighborWorks America’s Community Leadership Institute (CLI) in Columbus, Ohio, J Otis Smith—consultant for the organization’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative—asked attendees to try to identify their own filters and how they skew perceptions of and interactions with the residents they serve.
Filters are not always obvious, of course. In fact, they can be downright subterranean. That’s why, as I wrote in a recent blog post, the members of NeighborWorks’ internal REDI (Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) team took the implicit association test developed by four of the nation’s top universities. The test attempts to expose hidden biases by measuring the strength of unconscious associations made between characteristics (skin color, weight, sex, sexual orientation, etc.), judgements (good, bad) and stereotypes (such as intelligent and athletic).
With a lot of education and some practice, the not-so-obvious filters each of us sees through (the ones “below the waterline,” as illustrated by the graphic above, shared at one of the CLI’s workshops) become suddenly clearer—along with the ways in which they have shaped our perceptions and behavior, and the way in which we are received by others. Here are a few of my recent “ohhhh” moments, in the hopes they will spark a few revelations for yourself:

Who’s missing?

In another recent blog post, I described an experience at a recent NeighborWorks Training Institute workshop on “Privilege, Power, Prejudice.” A white woman commented with very good intentions that although she knows blacks still struggle with many challenges, the United States has come far and is much better than many other countries. Further progress will come, she said; we just need to be patient. A black man, another participant, answered swiftly: “You are not a black man, with a black son. You don’t have to worry that if he attracts attention on the street, he’ll get picked up for no reason and harassed. We don’t have more time. It’s been too long already. It has to change now.”

At the time, I thought I personally was not guilty of the same glib assumptions. However, then I attended an outdoor concert in a Virginia suburb with my black boyfriend, and as we settled in on the lawn he asked, “Do you notice anything about this crowd?” “Ummmmm,” I responded cautiously. I was immediately aware I should notice something, but I wasn’t sure what it was. “Do you see any other black faces?” he asked. I was startled. I had been totally oblivious, but he had picked up on it in an instant.
Now, when attend events, visit sights, etc., I try to consciously notice who is there, and who is not. Experiment with it.

American privilege

Another filter that affects our world view is our birth countries and the cultures in which we live. I have lived in other countries, including a refugee camp in what aid professionals call a “low-resource” territory, so I tend to think of myself as a “citizen of the world." I truly do not particularly identify as an American. But my upbringing has shaped me nonetheless—both for the good and bad.
That realization was brought into clear focus just a month ago when I visited Lebanon and was about to enter the country’s largest refugee “camp” with some friends who live there. A military checkpoint is positioned at the entrance, and although I knew taking photos of checkpoints was a “no-no,” I decided that was ridiculous. After all, 100,000 people live there. What right, I thought to myself, does the government have to not only require me to obtain a permit to enter (which I had), but also bar me from taking photos of the vicinity? So, without thinking too much about it, I snapped a few shots.
What ensued were four hours of detention in the boiling heat. Now, I don’t particularly care about that, to be honest, but for my companions who live in the camp, it was a) anxiety-producing, since the Lebanese military are not friendly to Palestinians and they live in fear of being called out, and b) embarrassing—not because of what I did, but because of how I was treated (after all, I was just coming to visit their homes, and hospitality is one of their guiding values). I felt badly once I realized their conflicting emotions, and the discomfort I had caused. I was suddenly, acutely aware of how very American I am, no matter how hard I try to be “global.”
I am reminded of a new novel by Sri Lankan Sunil Yapa called “Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist,” which describes 24 hours during the protests against the World Trade Association meeting in Seattle in 1999. A Sri Lankan delegate to the meeting watches the mostly white protesters thronging the streets and observes of the young Americans: “They feel they have the power to do something — they assume they have that power. They have been born with it — the ability to change the world — and have never questioned its existence, an assumption so massive as to remain completely unseen.”
We are born with American privilege, and while it is for sure a blessing, it also can blind us to the reality of others in very ingrained ways.

It’s rarely simple

One of the perceptions that feeds the Islamaphobia currently sweeping the country and the world is that Islam as a religion preaches the oppression of women. I have lived among Muslims in the Middle East, and have come to realize how much more layered and nuanced “the treatment of women” often is as an issue. And it is critical to ask questions of a variety of people and listen with an open mind before judging.
This is very contentious issue and is not the subject of this blog post, but let me offer just one example: I run a youth writing project for refugees in the Middle East in my spare time, and one young man wrote a story about a love-stricken friend who was heartbroken when the girl he hoped to marry became engaged to someone else at the urging of her parents. It had become clear it would take a long time for him to save the money for the required dowry, so the girl agreed to accept another offer. Western readers often assume the pressure to marry young is due to religion, and they rail at the girl’s parents.

But religion has nothing to do with it, and the parents are not as heartless as they sound. In the Gaza Strip, where these young people live, jobs are extremely scarce; in fact, the World Bank reports that it has the highest unemployment rate in the world—for everyone, but particularly among women. Thus, children live at home until they marry, and when they do wed, females typically move into their in-laws’ home. They can’t afford to live on their own. Thus, as a matter of economic survival, parents are anxious for daughters to get married and move out. It’s a survival tactic, and children do what they can to help out.
Are child marriages acceptable? Absolutely not. Should girls be forced to marry? No; this girl chose to acquiesce to her parents. The main point is this, however: Filters get in the way of a full understanding.

Accept that we may be wrong

One of my most favorite TED talks was given by Kathryn Schulz, who describes herself as a “wrongologist.” I’ll let her explain in her own words: “Most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong, or at least to avoid thinking about the possibility that we ourselves are wrong. We get it in the abstract. We all know everybody in this room makes mistakes. The human species, in general, is fallible -- okay fine. But when it comes down to me, right now, to all the beliefs I hold, here in the present tense, suddenly all of this abstract appreciation of fallibility goes out the window -- and I can't actually think of anything I'm wrong about. So effectively, we all kind of wind up traveling through life, trapped in this little bubble of feeling very right about everything.”
I can’t think of any better advice for anyone than to always be aware that maybe, just maybe, our filters are leading us astray, or at the very least, hiding multiple truths.

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