|Vol. 12 No. 14
JULY 10, 2017
Shades of Perception
I was having coffee with a Latina friend of mine the other day. And after we got done with the “business” side of things, we sat around and shot
the breeze for a while. And I can’t remember all of that which we talked about, but it ended up getting around to cultural and racial perceptions
of people with whom we interact.
I have been blessed by life to have focused on race and culture for almost my entire adult life in some capacity of another, from giving
multicultural trainings when I worked at the Urban League in the late 1980s to even working as a non-profit accountant at several
neighborhood centers and the plethora of diverse people who hang out at them or receive services from them. I was even Centro Hispano’s
accountant for about 10 years. But it is the interactions that I have had over the past 35 years, both direct and indirect, that have given me a
certain comfort level being around and interacting with people who one would perceive to be different than me. And while we have our
differences, we also end up having many things in common, things that bind us together.
Back in the 1970s, I hitchhiked a lot and learned to always keep my host engaged by asking questions until I found the “common ground” that
we shared. I did this out of a sense of self-preservation because I believed that if we learned of our commonality, my host would not look at me
as an “other,” an object, that could be readily discarded if the necessity or desire arose.
And I also like people and am fascinated by their complexity. I enjoyed the conversations. And I guess I learned to understand and be in their
places and be completely comfortable in doing so. We are humans more than the objects to be hated that our current mainstream culture tries
to force us to perceive each other as.
I learned in Psychology Today or perhaps in a class that we can be top down processors of information or bottom up processors of information.
The top down folks use broad concepts to interact with people, somewhat placing people into categories depending on characteristics that they
perceive. Those characteristics are often racial or cultural. It is those broad categories that dominate the interaction and the relationship. They
allow us to keep our distance and give us some sort of security thinking that we know the person without having interacted with them.
Now the top down processing can be very helpful when observing overall trends in society or trying to direct public policy, to understand
culture and to understand the overall situations of individuals who live in those generally defined communities. They may even be instructive
in our first meeting of someone who lives within that community for we have nothing else to guide us, to understand what is going on.
But the problem is when we stay in the top down mode of assessing people when interacting with people. The top down mode keeps us at a
distance, leaves a barrier between the person or people we are interacting with, always leaving a certain sense of “other” in the equation of
And so, we must make sure that we switch to the bottom up mode when we interact with people for I have learned that each of us is unique
even within the context of our racial and cultural backgrounds. Or to place it in a positive way, we all have diamonds within us that define our
self-worth and make us unique in this world. Or to put it as a journalist, we all have our unique story to tell. And we learn that by suspending
that top down analysis and learn more through the personal interaction where we find out how we are similar as well as understand more fully
how we are different without that becoming some kind of barrier to our relationship, permanently creating a distance between us for no reason.
I feel very blessed to, most of the time, be able to engage in different communities while feeling on some level a part of that community if for no
better reason, I have covered the community so many times that people expect me to be there and I am a fly on the wall, ignored for the most
part except by the good friends that I have made in that community.
Now I am the first to say that my interpersonal relationships can always stand vast improvement. I feel that we are born with a thousand veils
of perception before our eyes. Some of us in our lifetimes choose to remove none of them, thinking that their clouded view is reality itself. And
if they are a member of the dominant racial or cultural group that has similar feelings, they are not challenged at all to remove the veils.
But I thank God that I have been challenged by life to remove those veils as I get to know myself and the world around me better. One of the
most important lessons that I have learned is where my world ends and the rest of the worlds begins. With that understanding of the world, it
allows me to go much further than if I thought that my world and THE world were the same.
In terms of the thousand veils, I think I removed number 500 the other day. I have a lot of veils to go. And that is what makes life exciting. I will
turn 65-years-old next month and yet so much of life and the world is a mystery to me.
And so, I appreciate the fact that my Latina friend and I can have an engaged discussion where race and culture filter in and out of the
conversation and yet it is only a conversation that she and I are engaged in. There isn’t a whole community or race invisibly resting on her
shoulders and I don’t think I have one resting on mine.
However, it must be said that one of the underpinnings of the relationship is my respect for who she is and that includes the cultural and racial
strands that are an inseparable part of who she is.
Aren’t people grand!