On March 19, I heard yet another interview with science journalist David McRaney, whose book, “How Minds Change,” has been in the news a lot the last couple of years. His book, and his interviews about it, start with the 2015 social media meme called “The Dress.” You probably remember it. It was a photo of a dress… roughly half the people who saw it beheld a white dress with gold trim, while the other half saw a blue dress with black trim. It was not one of those things where if you tilt the picture (or your head) you can see two different things; no, you could only see ONE thing. Different people just saw it differently.
Turns out the photo, taken with a cheap camera, was overexposed- and when that happens, your mind automatically fills in the blanks with what it thinks OUGHT to be there, based on your experiences, and it does so without you even realizing it. People who spend a lot of time in artificial light, or outdoors at night, see the dress as blue; people who spend a lot of time in natural sunlight see it as white.
This is because color itself isn’t “real,” it is an illusion our mind creates. Wavelengths of electromagnetic energy emanating from a heat source (like the sun) hit an object, then bounce off. Depending on the surface texture of that object, it will absorb PART of that wave and bounce back the rest - which enters our pupil, and thence our brain, which translates it into color… what color depends on which parts of the wave get bounced off. BUT, when there is ambiguity or uncertainty, such as in that overexposed photo, your brain constructs a color scheme that is entirely dependent on your own experiences and perception. If you see blue, no amount of arguing from someone else is going to convince you it is white… because that is not what you are experiencing.
That same principle applies to how we see life: we fill in the blanks, our mind automatically interprets things, according to our own experiences and perspective. Someone else could be experiencing the exact same thing but experience it (and interpret and understand it) completely differently than you do, because their experience (and therefore their worldview) is different. This is why some conservative, middle-class white folks can watch an event and not see the same things as some members of minority groups do. If you have never directly experienced true prejudice, oppression, and injustice, you may not recognize it in the same way as someone who has. They may be telling you it is racism, but you honestly just don’t see it that way. The two of you may argue back and forth, neither giving in, because one of you sees a white dress, and one of you sees a blue one.
This ties into concepts called privilege and implicit bias, which the Tennessee State Legislature have ruled too dangerous to utter in front of children (or maybe even college students). In effect, they have passed laws saying you HAVE to agree - or at least pretend to agree -that dress is blue, no matter what you see. That, of course, is not a solution.
What is the solution? Well, in the case of the actual photo, if everyone understands HOW the difference occurs, they can understand that their view is not the only completely true one and try to see from the other person’s point of view. Same with colorblindness - when my wife tells me my brown shirt is red, I realize my own limitations and have to agree that she, and most other people, are not seeing it the way I do.
In other words… communicate. Honestly, sincerely listen to one another. Don’t tell someone their lived experience is inaccurate because it doesn’t match yours or what you think theirs should be.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.
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