Big job to reverse perception of Blacks

By Pat Watson Wednesday February 20 2013 in Opinion
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Nothing so fascinates as the human brain. If, as the saying goes, “God is your co-pilot” then your brain is your pilot and your mind is the speaker system. But the mind does play tricks.


That’s always important to remember, because if we lean too heavily on the mind, we can be led astray with nothing to blame but our lack of skill in putting the mind into its proper place. There is a lot of nonsense chatter that carries on in the ether of any individual’s mind.


But when an idea takes over the collective mind it can be a force for good or for evil. Social norms we call them, and we are all familiar with ideas that have taken hold; ideas like the relative inferiority or superiority of one group of people or another; ideas about who is good at some aspect of behaviour or learning and so on. Who is good at basketball and who is good at hockey, that kind of thing.


When enough people rely on an idea, they validate the belief through each other and make it true. They give it such value that anything or anyone will be contextualized based on the particular belief. If it does not fit the belief, it is rejected; it becomes invisible.


The main content of daily news is evidence of this. There is a saying in the news gathering business, which is, “if it bleeds, it leads”. That is what news media look for first. That is why we are presented with so much news that is bloody.


On top of this selective perception, the brain decides what the eyes see. Not the other way around. Given these psychological mechanisms, and knowing the undercurrent fear projected on Black people, individuals looking at pictures of Black persons along with pictures of White persons have been found to assign more negative qualities to the Black persons. That is the short answer for why there is a greater percentage of Black people in Canadian jails relative to the total size of the Black Canadian population.


There is a lot of work ahead to undo the stronghold the thinking about Black people has on the larger North American psyche. The problem is larger than just Black and White. It spreads across many ethnicities and, sadly, it seeps into the thinking of many Black people as well.


Generally, we see what we expect to and what we do not expect to see is invisible to the eyes and thus to the mind. It is what cognitive psychologists call “inattentional blindness.” A recent Toronto Star article serves as a reminder of this psychological behaviour. It describes the same result of inattentional blindness among a group of radiologists who were given medical imaging of cancer cells in a lung to look at. More than 80 per cent of did not see the unexpected dancing gorilla in the computer generated imaging.


Recently, there has been a significant number of teenage boys being shot and killed, all of them persons of colour. We express shock and distress regarding these fatalities. One question to ask though: What is the reinforced idea of what to expect regarding young men of colour?


A note on blindness without limits…


After learning of the death of Achilla Orru last week, I tried to remember how long ago it was that I first heard him playing in the subway. Any regular commuter who passes through the Yonge-Bloor subway interchange would have heard the Ugandan musician skillfully playing his lokembe, his thumb piano. His music was at once soft, yet audible, as he sang along from a place that seemed to come not just from him but through him. He was also often at the Eglinton subway station, part of the subway busker program that makes the daily underground commute more bearable. Always wearing dark glasses, Orru, 53, whom reports say died of complications from heart disease, was not born blind but lost his sight as a result of a childhood illness. But it did not limit him. Anyone who heard him play knew he was great at his music, what may have been less well known is that after coming to Canada as a refuge in 1989, he studied international relations at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Orru, who formed the group Baana Africque, was also a Juno nominee. His passing during Black History Month is also poignant. His evocation of African music encountered in transit will be missed.



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