The first time I became painfully aware of the lenses through which I see the world was during an anti-racism training the organization I worked for at the time held for staff and other key leaders. I was twenty-seven years old. Most of my memories of the training have faded, but a very important one has stayed with me because it opened my eyes to the lenses through which I see the world.
The training was lead by a black woman and a white man. They were faced with a room of about 75 people, about half people of color and half white, each of us with our own experiences, histories, and beliefs. To this day I’m impressed with how carefully and compassionately they challenged all of us, regardless of ethnicity or background.
At that time, I believed that I was fairly well informed about racial issues. I grew up in a racially blended family, with an older brother adopted from Colombia. My sister-in-law was Mexican. My niece and nephews half Mexican, half Colombian. I saw how some people treated my brother as he grew up in West Michigan—quite differently than they treated me. I was aware of the hardship and discrimination my sister-in-law’s parents faced when they immigrated to the US from Mexico.
As a young adult, I became very interested in diversity—why is there is still so much segregation in schools? Why do people of color continue to have less wealth than white people? How do we—this great melting-pot society—address these social issues together? So I was all in on this training, feeling pretty good about how informed and enlightened I already was.
Until the issue of Andrew Jackson came up.
The facilitators used Andrew Jackson to illustrate how complex an issue racism is, and how embedded it is into our culture. I’d learned about Jackson in elementary school. He was our seventh president; he was a general in the army; he served in congress; and he was on the $20 bill. He was a great man.
That day I learned more about Jackson: He owned about 150 slaves. In 1804, he published an advertisement in newspapers offering $50 for the return of a runaway slave, with an extra $10 “for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of 300.” (Adjusted for inflation, $50 in 1804 equals $1,000 today.) One of Jackson’s major accomplishments as president was The Indian Removal Act, which he signed into law in 1830. This is more widely known as the Trail of Tears. The list went on.
I was horrified. “Why isn’t anyone talking about this?” I asked, looking around the room. “Why is he still on the $20 bill?” I was shocked that nobody in our society was talking about this. I was still blind to the lenses that filtered and shaped my understanding of the world when I shared my horror. I became aware of those lenses for the first time when one of the facilitators pointedly replied that people had been talking about it. Since 1960, actually. A lot of people. Just not many white people.
As the training continued, I came to understand that there was so much I didn’t know about racism, bias, and discrimination. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. It was an incredibly humbling experience. I consider that training one of the first steps in my path to becoming a coach. I decided then and there to actively work to set aside the filters through which I see the world as much as possible, truly listen to other people, and learn about other points of view and experiences.
It’s easy and comfortable to be around people just like us: with shared beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, and so on. It’s easy not to talk about the hard, ugly stuff of racism. It’s easy to believe we live in a post-racism world…when you’re white.
One of my favorite quotes is by author Neil Gaiman:
“I’ve never known anyone who was what he or she seemed; or at least,
was only what he or she seemed. People carry worlds within them.”
When we look at the world only through our own experience, beliefs and values, and knowledge (our lenses), we miss out on opportunities to deepen our understanding of the complexities of the world, to learn from people who have different beliefs and experiences, to discover the world inside each person.
If nothing else, I hope this post helps you become a little more aware of the lenses that filter your understanding of the world, a little more open to talking about hard stuff, and a little more willing to recognize that you might not even know what you don’t know. I hope you ponder this and work to become a little more able to set your filters aside, accept that you are blind to some things, and truly listen to other people’s experiences. I hope this stirred something up in you.
Thank you for reading,
PS – If you have time, I encourage you to read this article from National Geographic. It offers a nuanced look at how we decide whose face to put on our currency, and how the changes to currency over time often reflect growth and development of a country. It’s a great read if you’ve got a few more minutes.