What are you seeing? What are you not seeing?

What are you seeing? What are you not seeing?

My partner posted a picture of me on Facebook. We were hiking in Greer in the Arizona White Mountains. In the picture, I am looking out over the valley that is filled with new green growth after a fire a decade before. The leaves of the Quaking Aspens shimmered in the breeze. I was mesmerized and stared and stared, reciting Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “My aspens dear” to myself.

Overlook in the White Mountains

A friend who saw the picture on Facebook posted her own response about what she saw: I saw bug kill and a fire scar.

I immediately wondered what brought us to such a different interpretation of the landscape in that picture. Yes, there had been a fire. Yes, there were some dead trees, probably not the result of the fire, but I wouldn’t be able to tell because they were bare and brown and still standing. And yes, there was new growth and sunlight and a light breeze fluttering the leaves below me.

In 2000 I took a job directing the Peacebuilding Unit of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in Philadelphia. It was from that position that I joined others on September 2nd, 2001 who were providing material assistance to first responders after the World Trade Center was destroyed. We brought bottled water, heavy work gloves, masks, flashlights, and other things the first responders said they needed. We put out a call for the one item we couldn’t supply — protective foot coverings for the rescue/recovery dogs on the scene who were burning their paws as they searched the smoking metal for human remains.

Several months after 9/11, as an AFSC representative, I was at a meeting about building peace and preventing wars. I was dismayed to be on the program along with a presenter from the War College, but in spite of my prejudgment of him, the story he told that day has stayed with me these many years later.

His job, he said, had been to deliver humanitarian aid in Somalia. Full of enthusiasm and energy, he was charged with building houses or shelters for the people of a village that had been invaded and destroyed by rebels. On his first day in the village, he brought a group of Somali men together to work out distribution of the building materials. It was late in the day and so they agreed to meet at 8 a.m. the next morning to work out a strategy. When he arrived at the meeting place only a few men were there. He sent the jeeps out again and by 11 a.m. a few more had come. He fumed; he was furious.

Finally, a translator took him out to the courtyard where the men who had assembled were standing and asked, “What are you not seeing?” With his voice rising in indignation, he asked, “How the hell can I see what I’m not seeing? You aren’t making any sense.”

“Look,” the translator said. “None of these men is wearing a watch and none of them knows what 8 a.m. means. If you had referred to the sun or the moon or the cycle of the day, they would have all been present at the appointed time.”

What are you not seeing?

It is a profound question about cultural assumptions, about relationship assumptions, about how our own point of view imposes itself on what we see and don’t see.

We Americans like to think we see the big picture. And yet, on September 11th, several planes destroyed our view of reality. For most white, middle or upper-class Americans, our view of ourselves is that we are a generous people, an accepting and open-hearted country. That is our reality. We call ourselves a nation of immigrants; as though no one had lived on this land before Europeans began migrating here, as though no one had been brought here unwillingly as property and commodity during the slave trade.

We allege that we cherish our democracy, but the percentage of us who bother to vote is far lower than that in most other democracies. We believe we are a moral, righteous people, but we don’t question our government’s policies when they injure others, especially not if they are promoting our own material well-being. Children in cages? Just don’t let those illegals take our American jobs.

In particular, white Americans don’t see — or choose not to see — the systems of white supremacy that keep us privileged. I have read at least a dozen articles and several books recently that lay out for those who care to know what the system of white supremacy is and how it functions to elevate some and suppress others.

I remember the anguish in the voice of the man who had been to Somalia — how could he be expected to see what he could not see? I hear the same anguish in the voices of well-meaning white people who deplore “looting” while saying they support the protests, yes, they do. What are they not seeing? So much escapes the eye that is willing to turn away. The taunting of counter protesters, the police. The violence employed against peaceful protesters, sometimes by the police, sometimes with the full support of the police. What are they not seeing, those who choose not to take part, but can’t look away?

And is it an exercise in futility to say we must learn to see what we are not seeing? No, I don’t think it is. We can listen when we are told what another person’s reality is. We can listen without trying to justify or explain our own reality. White Americans need to get out of our own way, leave our narrow vision of the world if we really want to enter a new place, a place where we can be strong allies to all who are struggling toward inclusion and equity.

We must ask:

How can I learn to see what I am not seeing?

Our lives depend on it.

Judith McDaniel, PhD, JD, teaches Law and Social Change at the University of Arizona. Her book, Sanctuary: A Journey, was published by Firebrand Books in 1986