Remember those cool, optical illusion drawings that featured two images in one? I loved how you could see each image by squinting your eyes or shifting your visual focus a bit. For example, check out this picture (see right). I clearly see a young woman, but others would argue that it’s a picture of an old woman. Much like these drawings, I find that much of life is about your perspective and willingness to adjust your focus.
That lesson has never been so clear as it was today, when I posted a lengthy status on my Facebook wall. I had a nasty run-in with a neighbor and was livid enough to post the details of the confrontation on Facebook. Check out the original post below and then we can get into the nitty gritty of what I discovered (Reader discretion advised: there’s some profanity ahead):
“I’m walking my dog today and forgot my poop bags in the condo, but the animal was already charging ahead. So I decided to take the dog to a small grassy knoll in the neighborhood that had low foot traffic and seemed to be a commonplace for residents to let their dogs “go” without pickup (given the amount of poo that’s usually out there on any given day). Frankly, in this particular upscale area, most of the dog owners DON’T pick up after their dogs, which is odd, but I’ll digress.
Anyway, an older woman comes out with her little dog. I’ve seen her before, as our dogs have met. She, too, has come to the very spot I’m at now to relieve her animal without appropriate trash disposal. Before I could speak to her, she says, “When are you going to start cleaning up your shit?”
Assuming I misheard her, I ask her to repeat herself. Surely, this woman didn’t just cuss at me like she KNEW me. Nah. But she repeats herself and says it slowly this time, as if I were mentally challenged and emphasized the curse word.
TF…Now, I believe in respecting my elders and I’m trying to not cuss these days because of Jesus. So I say, “Ma’am, I’m going to overlook the fact that you’re doing the same thing I’m doing right now, as I see no doggy bags on you. You have a valid point that I, and the rest of the folks in this area, should pick up after their animals, including you. But how you’re coming at me is completely disrespectful.”
She says, “Well, you’re disrespectful for letting your dog shit everywhere. “
Every time I hear that word, I cringe because I’m telling you, I don’t like people cussing at me. It’s the equivalent of someone clapping in your face as they speak. Like….why…TF…..are you. Doing that?
I struggle, but I continue: “Ma’am, that’s irrelevant. You don’t talk to people that way. How many times have we been out here and talked? You’ve talked to my mother while walking your dog just the other day. We have a rapport. You could have approached me in a better way than that.”
She continued, “I don’t care! I should report you! I’ve seen you out here before not cleaning your shit and you don’t own this property and you don’t belong h– “
“Belong where,” I challenged angrily.
She glared at me, as if I should have figured it out. Really? This is happening over some dog poop? Seething at this point, I step closer to her and bring my voice down to a restrained speaking level, “Ma’am, if you have a problem that’s fine. We can talk about it like two adults. But if you EVER talk to me like this again, or even THINK to come at my mother like this when she’s walking the dog, I’m not going to be nearly as polite as I’ve been in this conversation, you hear me?”
She gasped in anger and stomped away with her mutt.
Now here’s the rub: Out of the 25+ comments I received on this post, it was clear that most of my Caucasian friends hadn’t even noticed the probable racial implications. On the flipside, my other friends, who were minorities, knew immediately that something was afoot and demanded retribution. They were angry , because they suspected racism was involved the moment they saw the words: “You don’t belong.” How on earth are this many people reading the same story and getting two completely different interpretations?
There’s plenty of plausible reasons, but I’m willing to bet that all parties are finding a point to zero in on and are unable – or unwilling – to shift their perception enough to see the potential of another scenario. When it comes to complicated matters, we human folks tend to find a point we can relate to, that feels familiar and hone in on that.
Here’s an example: A gruesome dash cam video can show an unarmed black man getting shot in the back by cops while running away into the woods. Many African Americans may look in dismay and see the obvious racism. Meanwhile, some of our Caucasian counterparts may watch the same video and simply see a cop doing his job – even when excessive and deadly force were clearly unnecessary. Everyone has to look at that horrific imagery and make sense of it, right? So we look for a point of familiarity to process it.
If someone’s experiences with the police were always positive, why would they feel inclined to believe the cops would do something negative? When you’re a minority, however, so many of us have had countless experiences with microaggressions and blatant racism that it’s easy for every encounter to be painted in that dreadful hue. When all you’ve seen is offense, it’s hard not to fixate on that. And when you’ve seen nothing but good, you can’t understand why others aren’t willing to see it, too.
I’m hyper aware of this reality and do my best to be critical of my perceptions to make sure I’m not jumping the gun, but in instances like the neighbor dispute, I can’t help but wonder how some of my friends missed what appears to be so obvious. There were a few additional observations made after reading my comments section:
- I never mentioned that the angry neighbor was White. Yet, most of the minorities who read the post knew I was dealing with a Caucasian individual. The White friends never even insinuated they knew or cared about the neighbor’s race.
- The majority of my White friends offered their own personal experiences or provided alternative motives for why the angry neighbor behaved inappropriately (i.e. senility, grumpy old people syndrome, bitter neighbor disease, ). Racism was never one of them.
- The majority of my minority friends were convinced that racism was at play somewhere, somehow and that it was a result of a racially-charged presidential campaign.
Do the minorities have it wrong for seeing racism in this or are the White pals wrong for not seeing race at all? And is the truth really this subjective, or do we only deem the truth to be something we’re willing to acknowledge?
Those aren’t easy questions, but I’ll tell you what I concluded from my run-in. I think the neighbor was clearly a grumpy old lady, who felt she had the right to check me in any way she saw fit, because I was young and black. I think she may have thought I was disrespectful by merely existing in a way she deemed wrong in her neighborhood and that I deserved whatever she had to say. It doesn’t mean she was sitting around her home, stewing on her hatred of black people. But it may mean that her mind was already made up about me, just from watching me from afar. If that is the truth, it’s still a serious problem that unfortunately, many of my White friends were unable to see.
For some, if the problem isn’t blatant, it doesn’t exist.
But much like an optical illusion photo, the truth can be nuanced yet subtle, often hiding in plain sight.