Before we go forward, perhaps it would be best to narrate this from the perspective of a young mindset. Think back to the age of childhood. To remove any confusion and to be clear, this narration has nothing to do with skin color or race. Instead, this is a simple thought to explain the variation in the spectrum of color. However, the intention of this text is to encourage thought and promote tolerance and therefore, create a better level of interpersonal understanding. Hopefully, we can come to an understanding that we all see things differently.
As a teenager, I lived on a farm for special youths with substance and behavioral problems. The farm was not an ordinary farm by any means. This was more of a therapeutic boarding school. We had classrooms and workbooks like any regular school. We took the basic courses such as Math, English, Social Studies and Science. However, the classrooms on the farm were smaller and the schedules were strict. There was no free time nor long moments of socializing. There was no typical school culture with cool kids or bullies or any fraternal-like hazing of any kind. Secondly, the program for all students was based on the 12 steps and principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
There were students with different needs and different behavioral issues. Yet, deep down we were all kids with kid-like dreams and normal everyday kid-like fantasies. One student who I remember well and will only name as Brian was someone close to me. I cannot say that I remember all of the details from that time. Perhaps age has come in and caused a blank stare of forgetfulness. I find myself trying to recall names and then something comes along, like a spark and reignites the memory bank.
Somehow, I always remember a conversation we had about color. This was something I’ve never forgotten.
“I’m colorblind,” Brian explained.
I was unsure what this meant because Brian had just mentioned the color green.
“Then how do you know what green is,” I asked
“Because someone showed me,” said Brian.
Brian learned about his colorblindness when he was young.
Brian explained, “I got in trouble at school for coloring things the wrong color.”
“My teacher called home and told my mother that something was wrong.”
“I don’t know what yellow looks like,” Brian said. “But I know the sun is supposed to be yellow, or a banana. So, fine. I know how to associate the color yellow. I know the sky is blue. I know the grass is green. I know that a fire engine is red.”
“I know what an orange looks like,” said Brian.
“I know what I’ve been taught,” Brian told me.
“But I don’t know what you see. I don’t know what you think yellow looks like, or purple or anything else. I just know what I see and how I was taught.”
As kids, or even as adults, we tend to assume that people see and think the same as we do. If someone sees or thinks differently, there is a challenge to our training and understanding, which we often defend. In many cases, people allow for the variations of opinion. However, in times when passion and emotion take over or in the fit of a political debate, people find themselves at odds and often in heated arguments. Oftentimes, and especially lately, friends split up. Family members no longer speak to one another because their view and versions are polar opposite.
There is no way for me to definitively know what the color red looks like from somebody else’s perspective. I know how to identify the color red because I was taught what the color red looks like. I don’t know what blue looks like from someone else’s eyes nor do I know what someone else sees when they see a rainbow. Then again, no one can definitively say what anything looks like through someone else’s eyes. Simply because we call the colors we see the same, this does not mean we see, accept or interpret color the same way. Same as this exists with shades of color, this sort of biasness is equally a standard in both our personal and professional life. This has become part of the wedge that separates us far and wide.
There is an exercise that I was taught at the beginning of a recovery training program that subsequently, I have incorporated this exercise with my own groups and presentations.
Exercise 1: “The Paper Trick“
Everyone has their own interpretation. In this exercise, we will display the different ways people relate to the same information; however, their results are different.
(All participants are provided a blank sheet of paper.)
- With your eyes closed, fold the provided sheet of paper in half.
- Without opening your eyes, tear off a piece of the top right hand corner.
- Fold the paper in half once more. Be sure to keep your eyes closed.
- Tear off a small section of the bottom left corner of the paper.
(Remember: your eyes are supposed to be closed! No peeking!)
- Fold the paper in half again.
- Tear a piece from the bottom right corner and then fold the page once more.
- With your eyes still closed, tear off the last piece of the top left corner.
- Open your eyes and unfold the paper.
- Notice the paper and compare this to others in the classroom. Everyone was given the same instructions with the exact same paper. Looking around, see how differently the paper looks when compared to others in the classroom.
It is important to understand that people learn and interpret information in their own way. Same as this lesson shows our differences when relating to instruction, this also shows that we equally interpret life on an individual and unique basis. This means we internalize and retain information in our own very select way. Therefore, to address the ideas of social and professional equity and inclusion, it is important to understand our differences.
Back as a youngster, I can recall when our family brought home our first VCR. We sat this box of a machine on top of an even bigger box of a television set, which at the time, this was very big for a TV. My Father asked me to teach him how to use the VCR. Now, of course this was very simple to me. The VCR was not too difficult and as such, the machine was also inline with the technology of my time (enter something we will call “Age Bias”).
There were only a few buttons. One said “power” which was to turn the unit on and off. The other buttons were play, stop, rewind, fast-forward and pause. My Father asked me to explain this to him, which was strange to me because I couldn’t figure out what he was missing. This was simple. How could this man not know what to do?
I was talking to a man who understood electrical circuits. He ran his own company. He could literally fix anything. My Father could build buildings and put heat in homes, and yet, there I was teaching him how to use the family’s VCR. Really?
At one point, The Old Man grew frustrated with my confusion. I couldn’t understand what he did not understand and out of frustration, The Old Man sent me to my room. I was unsure why and what he was confused about. I suppose to my Father, this was new technology. Maybe this was intimidating. Maybe what I assumed he knew was unknown to him. But this was not something that I would know. To him, this was a complex machine. But to me, there was nothing to it.
I find myself tinkering with some of today’s technology. In all fairness, I am not so tech savvy anymore. I am aware of this now more than ever after buying a new cell phone and being taught how to use it by someone who was so unforgivably young. I have grown to understand the level of my Father’s frustration. I get it now. It’s clear why he was frustrated when I was trying to teach him the simple operations of a VCR.
The same can be said when a new hire comes on the job and their trainer is moving too fast with their instructions. Or, perhaps their instructions are biased and not as detailed as the instructor assumes. Therefore, since the picture in the mind of the trainer is complete and simple, the trainer assumes that the new hire sees things the same way.
One of our biggest mistakes is when we assume people think, feel, see or assume the same as we do. Nothing is so clear that everyone sees things the same way. We are only trained to see things and even still, although we are all provided the same information and instructions, in the end, our results are frequently different.
I have worked with new hires and listened as supervisors assumed the worst about them. “They’ll never get it.”
“They’re just not that good,” or, “Maybe they’re just plain old stupid.”
Whether speech or learning is challenging, none of this is synonymous with intellect. I have met fast learners that were still terrible at their job. However, I have met the most brilliant minds of this earth who have stuttered, struggled and studied to no end, who had been written off as simple or slow, and yet, now they find themselves in the interesting position of being happily and successfully retired.
This idea of mine to “Be the Better and Embrace the Culture,” is to create a better sense of personal and professional synergy. More than cultural competency and more than mutual tolerance, the idea of expressing the simplicity of our biases and differences is to illustrate that we can learn almost anything —including tolerance, understanding, diversity, equity, and of course, inclusion.
“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because someone doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know.” ~Malcolm X