Ways of Seeing by Kate Gridley: Unknowingly we create blindspots
Five years ago, I launched a cycle of paintings — 17 portraits with 17 accompanying sound portraits — of young people between the ages of 17 and 25.
The project started out simply as a set of paintings. But as my subjects came through the studio to be painted and we talked, I realized that, more than how they presented themselves visually — through the clothes and accessories they had chosen to wear, via their choices of hair style and color, and how they held themselves physically in the space — their voices, and the stories they told actually held the keys to unlocking in an authentic way the mystery of who they were.
So we ended up creating two layers in each portrait: a visual layer, the paintings, and an audio layer, the sound portraits. In order to really see the visual portraits, a viewer has to listen.
How do we know what we know about another person?
As human animals we are attuned to so much more than we are consciously aware of when decoding the animal next to us, trying to discern what they are about, where they come from, what they are interested in, what is in their heart.
At a Summit on Diversity and Inclusion I attended last week in St. Louis, Mo., with François Clemmons, who was there to talk about his role as Officer Clemmons on “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” not only did we hear from Martin Luther King III about the power and necessity of non-violent communication, we heard from CEOs of companies and educational institutions who are searching for moral leadership as they develop cultures of inclusion (as they parsed it, diversity is one thing, inclusion is another).
We heard five stories from folks who have overcome adversity to become leaders:
• Derrick Kayongo, a Ugandan refugee, founder of The Global Soap Project, and CEO of The National Museum for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia;
• Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese-Australian Muslim engineer who founded Youth Without Borders at a young age;
• Maysoon Zayid, a Palestinian with cerebral palsy who is a stand up comic and actress;
• Shirley Davis, a black female business executive who won education scholarships by competing in and winning beauty pageants; and
• Brad Cohen, a man with severe Tourette’s Syndrome who is an elementary school teacher and assistant principal.
The power of their soul-searching, bias-busting, gut-wrenching words moved us to tears and to deep laughter, through horror to awe; it changed us and through the shared listening experience, connected us.
We are so much more than the clothes we wear.
Our clothes are the plumage we first see, the tip of the iceberg. Not just the clothes either: teeth, hair, cleanliness, physical bearing. First impressions and off we go, whether we are conscious of it or not, into the wild ride of categorizing, sorting, forming impressions based on, as it turns out, assumptions. Class. Gender. Education. Disability.
We ALL have unconscious assumptions.
Evolution is at work here: as human animals bombarded every second by thousands of pieces of information about all that is in and around us, we have evolved filters — otherwise it would all be too much — as we decode what we think is in front of us.
These filters or short cuts are, as I learned, our unconscious biases. Based on our life experiences, consciously and unconsciously, the short cuts can be based on information that hasn’t necessarily been corroborated. And these assumptions impact our judgments.
How do we know what we know about each other?
I am embarrassed to say that when I first met Brad Cohen, an educator, an author, a motivational speaker, a loving father and husband, smart, educated and who has Tourette’s Syndrome, I found him extremely irritating. I didn’t know him. Sitting across from me at dinner, he was making loud noises, “Pop,” “Bzz,” at random moments, and twitching unceasingly, relentlessly.
The noises invaded the conversation I was having with my dinner partner. I tried to tune the noises out. I tried not to look at Brad because I thought he would sense my discomfort. And I did not reach out to him to introduce myself because I found the noises upsetting. During the opening remarks, as everyone sat still, his sounds randomly interrupted the attentive silence of the other guests. I found myself thinking, “Why can’t he control himself? Why doesn’t he remove himself?”
I am ashamed of my initial reaction to Brad Cohen.
Tourette’s syndrome has been part of his life since he was a little boy — and he suffered greatly as a child because of it. Bullied by his peers, punished by his teachers, misunderstood by his father, he realized he wanted to become a teacher only after his Middle School Principal came to him one day and asked him if he would be willing to stand up in front of the school to educate the community as to what Tourette’s Syndrome is: why he twitched and made the random funny noises all day long. As he tells it, “What did I have to lose by standing up in front of the school? I had no friends. No teachers believed in me.” When he finished, he got a standing ovation.
After I heard Brad’s story, his sounds no longer bothered me. How many times, in how many settings, have my own discomforts and biases kept me from truly connecting?
It’s no accident that my painting cycle started out as a two dimensional visual project and ended up a multi-dimensional project once I tuned into the hearts of my subjects and discovered that to create the kind of portrait I really intended, I needed to include their voices.
To see, we have to listen.
To connect, we have to listen.
All of us. Each of us. All the time.
To listen we have to identify our unconscious biases, dissect them, acknowledge them, and try to mitigate them.
We have to check our blind spots.
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