Alis Headlam: Bias are blinders that prevent people from seeing each other
Editor’s Note: This commentary is from Dr Alis Headlam of Rutland. She was an educator for over 40 years and retired in 2015.
Horses wear blinders, called blinders, so they won’t be frightened when entering high traffic areas. When people wear self-proclaimed blinders, they do so to prevent them from seeing their surroundings.
The fact that they claim that there are no discrimination issues to be addressed in their community, large or small, shows how people are using their blinders to maintain the status quo. It protects people in the same way the horse is protected from noise or distraction. This does not mean that the problems do not exist. The problems are there, but never discussed.
Blinders protect people from truths that might make them uncomfortable, that might scare them, that might disrupt their daily lives. They are part of the culture that has developed from birth, a culture that nurtures fear or ignorance of differences. It is strongly rooted in communities where individuals have few opportunities to venture out into the world or meet people with different points of view and different cultural experiences. It happens when people do not experience or are unaware of discrimination in their own lives. This makes it easier to deny the existence of discrimination. “I’ve never seen it so it mustn’t be true.” An effort to stay uninformed is further heightened when myths and misinformation persist and are passed down from generation to generation.
Everyone has blinders for certain things – their biases. No one really understands how they form or why, but they seem to develop easily throughout childhood and early into adulthood.
These blinders discriminate for big issues like race, gender and ability, but also less visible issues like physical appearance including weight, height, disfigurement, dress and even hairstyle.
Once the biases are formed, they are difficult to eliminate. Most of the time, people are unaware of their biases until they take a close look at their lives and how they react to others. Identifying a bias can be so difficult that it is sometimes helpful for trained professionals to point out important biases in the community. Once reported without pointing a finger, they are more easily admitted and can be addressed.
With their blinders on, people can go about their daily business and not see or hear anything. They may never come face to face with the difficulties faced by others. If people don’t take a deep look at the community around them or try to reach out to others who come from different experiences, they may not see the pain that some people face due to their background. racial, ethnic, religion, language, disability, gender or gender identity. As long as something is not confronted in their own immediate world, it is something that is “out there”. “Not my problem.”
It is not a regional phenomenon, but a phenomenon that is happening all over the world. We see it in remote places and we see it locally in Vermont. Unfortunately, our blinders are often tied to political or religious beliefs. People who write for local media espouse beliefs that expose their own biases, hence their own blinders, as they attempt to influence others from their point of view. It’s time to take a deeper look at the impact this has on everything we do or say.
Holding on to blinders creates barriers for others and can lead to hatred which causes violence. We see it in wars based on ethnic or religious fears. We see it in situations where people try to eliminate differences through genocide, racial extermination or ethnic cleansing.
This happens when a culture moves to another territory and erases the existing culture. This happens when an immigrant or refugee is forced to adjust to a new way of life with a new language and cultural characteristics that would not be accepted in their country of origin. It even threatens individual interactions in neighborhoods. Certain symbols that appear reinforce specific prejudices and the separations that occur when one does not really see oneself as fellow citizens of the world. If we only look at the symbol (s), we may not understand the underlying messages that are being conveyed.
Our blinders keep people separate by creating a false sense of security. As long as nothing changes, life will go on normally. The result is that the world is turning more slowly to solving problems that could impact its survival, such as climate change and pandemics.
A spiritual understanding of the oneness of humanity can help overcome some of the most horrific effects of prejudice. Political decisions and legislative regulations can try to force people not to act on their prejudices.
The fact that the world is bound by a glue of human interdependence is rarely explored in classrooms, in government, or in personal life. When a person, culture or community is excluded from the progress of the world, everyone loses potential contributions to making the world a better place. The only way forward is to work together to let go of the blinders that keep people from seeing each other and valuing the existence of our many wonderful differences.