Picture it! A man, who is blind and has a Seeing Eye Dog, is crossing the street at a busy intersection in downtown Toronto. The blind guy begins to cross the street and has to walk out around two cars blocking the turning lane. A person sees the blind guy, yells out to him “Oh, my God, do you need some help. Oh, my God, you poor thing.”
As she is yelling at the blind man, she also runs toward the blind man and his dog, causing his dog to back up to avoid her (as she is trying to grab the dog), creating yet another obstacle in the middle of the street for the dog to tackle in addition to the several cars and pedestrians.
The blind guy says quickly and directly, “Ma’am, oh my God, do not touch the dog when he is working, especially in the street.”
She says back, “Well, which way are you trying to go, that way or this way,” pointing each direction out and awaiting the blind man to answer her question.
“Ma’am, I honestly can’t have this conversation in the middle of the street, thank you,” says the blind guy as he tries to focus his dog to complete the crossing.
As the blind man stops on the corner to regroup, the lady walks passed him with her friend saying, “Do you believe that; I’m just trying to be helpful. How rude; see John it’s like I told you, you try to help them and they’re rude to you and if you don’t help then you aren’t doing enough. Just another grouchy person with a disability that we’re paying for.”
The blind man, me, chooses to not engage and to just let it go.
Ever since I can remember, my parents have always taught me and my siblings that you have an obligation to treat people with respect and, even in times like this, to see it as an opportunity for education. But, there are times, where I, as the “blind guy” get sick of being the level-headed person whose job it is to educate the public. For this was the sixth time on this short three-day trip to Canada that I had really begun to notice just how people make biased judgments of what I can or can’t do, my ability, as a blind person. At least three times, I had approached a group of people with my Seeing Eye Dog and they just stopped all activity—no movement, no talking, nothing—not that helpful when you are trying to blindly see where people are so you can navigate through them. Several times, people during my travels would ask me if I need them to help me with the most basic things: finding my hotel room, walking down a step, so many things that to me are just part of how I do things, part of my everyday life, something I honestly don’t take much time to process at all.
It isn’t like these things have not happened in the past, but this was different for me. This time, I began to notice just how angry I was getting in my own head at these judgments of me. “Are you joking? I just walked up the steps to talk to you, do you really think I am that helpless that I couldn’t walk back down the steps?” I held back from one individual. I know that they were not thinking I was helpless, but they were thinking instead, “how can I be helpful”.
Communication is two-way as we all know, and the more I saw people trying to be “helpful” to me on this trip, the more the totality of the situation began to impact me. Further, what was really fascinating is that the more it happened, the angrier at the individuals I began to get inside. Ironically, the more frustrated I became inside, the sharper and frustrated my tone became with people. The situation on the street in Toronto was a breaking point for me and as I walked away, I actually thought to myself how dumb that person was for reacting the way she did—kind of harsh for me to treat her considering that from her perception, she was just trying to intervene in the situation to help me—something that we don’t see enough in this world today.
“Why was I getting angry at people for trying to help me?” I pondered to myself as I walked the journey back to the hotel. Was I developing a bias against those people trying to help that was exacerbating things further and making each encounter more volatile? Did my frustration with people making biases of me affect what I did in the next situation and, most importantly, how I choose to interact with each person?
All this reflection prompted me to also remember that not too long ago, I had to check myself as I was trying to reduce some tension with a colleague—I will own that I thought, at the time, this person was “an old white guy from Vermont”. And, over the course of our tense conversations, I found out he was in fact black instead of white, and upon discovering this new aspect, I remarked to myself, “Man if I had known he was black, I might have asked different questions to get him to give me more information to help me help him.” Ironic isn’t it, I can’t even see and I still make judgments and form biases about others—through their voice, their tone, their sighs, their breathing, I’m building my profile, my picture, for each person in my head and then, just like everyone who does it to me as a blind person, I make determinations of how to interact with he or she based on my own biases.
Now, this isn’t a revelation in itself, but what was revealed to me today, or maybe made clearer for me, is that I have a deeper, deeper, understanding of how implicit bias affects me and other minority communities. I also have a deeper understanding of how marginalized groups facing someone who is making such biases begin to resent it, get angry about it, and just feel like checking out of the whole situation.
It is this conclusion that inspires me to try harder personally and makes me proud of our work with The International Society for Organization Development and Change (ISODC), NEXUS4change, and Roland Loup and Associates. We partnered with all three when we hosted a beginning virtual conversation in early April, check it out here, where we got to explore the topic of implicit bias and how we, as consultants, practitioners, and leaders, can do a better job of helping our colleagues, and even ourselves, help eliminate or at least own implicit biases that impact our work.
Do you have issues that you want to explore with your organization or in your community? S & G helps our clients lead these critical conversations to change the world, both virtually and in-person. Contact us for a discussion and let’s help you create the dialog and the resulting action you want to see in your work and in your relationships.