Braille Monitor                         November 2020

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The Complexity of Being Human:
A Conversation with Jackie Anderson

by Deborah Kent Stein

From the Editor: This article first appeared in Future Reflections, Summer 2020. Here is how the gifted and talented Debbie Stein introduced it:

In the National Federation of the Blind, Jackie Anderson is best known as the teacher who established the first BELL program (Braille Enrichment for Literacy and Learning) in 2008. She holds a master's in the education of blind students and is completing doctoral studies in inclusive education at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Her company, Let's Connect Resources, provides consultation and training services for parents and teachers of blind children. This article is based on our recent conversation about the complex intersection of blindness and race in the United States.

Deborah Kent SteinDEBORAH KENT STEIN: Blind people and black people belong to groups that have to deal with overt discrimination. But there are deep differences between racism and the discrimination that blind people experience. What has it been like for you as a member of both of these groups?

JACKIE ANDERSON: I grew up in Jamaica. Prejudice certainly exists there, but it was a black-dominated culture, and I never experienced racism while I lived there. I was raised with the idea that you should work hard and play hard. If you did what you needed to do, things would work out for you.  

DKS: What do you mean when you say you experienced prejudice but not racism? How are those things different?

JA: Prejudice is an automatic feeling toward a particular group of people based on a characteristic such as race. People in a subordinate group may be prejudiced toward people in a more dominant group and vice versa. It's racism when people in a dominant group exert power over people in other groups. So racism is about power and the ways power is expressed. I didn't really understand that until we discussed it in one of my doctoral courses.

DKS: What was it like for you when you came to live in the United States?

Jackie AndersonJA: When we moved to the United States my siblings, who are sighted, experienced the effects of racism right away. But when people met me they saw me as a blind person before they saw me as a black person. In a way being blind protected me from some of the things my siblings had to go through.

DKS: What kinds of conversations have you had about race with your children?

JA: I don't think I really talked a lot about race with my kids. Because of my own upbringing in Jamaica I had an expectation that they would relate to people from all backgrounds, and it would be fine. I understand race as being much more than skin color.

DKS: I know that one of your children is blind. Do you find that her experiences around race are different from the experiences of your sighted children?

JA: My daughter Aunya, who is blind, will tell you in a heartbeat that people see her blindness first, before they see anything else, including her race. But race does have an impact on her experience.

Most of the students at Aunya's middle school are white. She is one of only two black students in the school band. When the band went on a performance trip, the two of them automatically were assigned to room together. They weren't friends particularly, so it seemed obvious that they were assigned to room together because of their race. The two of them had never really talked before, and they discovered that their experiences at school were very different. Aunya had friends in every subgroup. She hung out with the boys in the trombone section, where she was one of only two girls. At lunch period it looked like the United Nations at her table, because there were students from every racial background sitting there. The other girl, the girl Aunya was rooming with, only hung out with the black kids at school. I don't know whether Aunya's experience is related to my own lived experience and the way I have raised her, or whether it's mostly because of her blindness.

DKS: How does that compare with the experiences of your sighted children?

JA: My youngest daughter Amya, who is sighted, had a rough time when she transferred to a new school in fifth grade. Some of the kids were really mean, and they called her all sorts of names. I only found out about it later, and I was horrified. I asked her, "Why didn't you tell me about this?" She said she just tried to brush it aside and tell herself it was their problem, not hers. Finally, she made two friends, one white and one who also is of Caribbean descent.

I also have raised three older children, none of them with any visual impairment. All of them are very vocal about their experiences around race. We have had an increasing number of conversations about race over the past few months, and I've become much more conscious of conversations we've had over the years. When my boys started driving I told them to text me when they finished school, and I told them to come straight home. I didn't want them hanging around places after school and coming home late. We lived in the most affluent section of the county. I warned the boys to check their speed and always be sure they weren't driving above the speed limit, in case anyone thought they were in a place where they didn't belong. I talked to them about the protocol, what you do if you get pulled over. I did that automatically, as a matter of course. About a year and a half ago I discovered that my white friends don't have those conversations with their kids.

DKS: Have you had a conversation like that with your sighted daughters?

JA: Amya is only thirteen, so we're not there yet. But with my older daughter, Corinne, I've had a talk somewhat similar to my conversations with the boys. The onus is on them to make sure the person they're talking to is comfortable.

DKS: That choice of words is interesting to me, because as blind people we often talk about how the onus is on us to help sighted people feel comfortable. It's not that we will be in physical danger if people are uncomfortable with us, but our opportunities to get a job or rent an apartment, to make our way in the world, often depend on our ability to make people feel comfortable around us.

JA: Definitely. I totally agree. Karen Anderson posted that same sentiment on Facebook a few weeks ago. She said that making that connection has helped her, as a blind person who is white, relate to what black people are talking about. She can make that connection as a white person who is blind; it's real for her.

DKS: Still, I'm a bit wary of suggesting that people in the blind community are more empathic than others around racial issues. There's a stereotype that says blind people are oblivious to color, so therefore blind people don't have color prejudice and can't be racists.

JA: Oh, that's a great fallacy! Sure, a lot of sighted people make that assumption. It's based on the idea that racism is based on color, but it's not. Actually I think skin color is the least important aspect of racism. We humans are so complex! So many different experiences shape our mindsets. I've had conversations with several blind people around the issue of having to make others feel comfortable, and they get it, that this is something the blind community and the black community both experience. But I've also had conversations with white people who are blind, and they don't get it at all. Their other lived experience of whiteness is more dominant in shaping their perception. And in the same way I've talked to people who are not blind who are having a very hard time wrapping their heads around the whole discussion of race.

The bottom line is the question of which aspects of your lived experience inform who you are. Which is the dominant piece? An individual who is blind may know the experience of having to check the comfort level of the person they're interacting with. But still, that may not be their dominant lived experience. Their level of empathy really may depend on their dominant lived experience.

DKS: When you think about ways for parents to help their kids have a deeper understanding about race and racial issues, are there things it might be helpful for them to discuss?

JA: I think the first thing parents need to do is acknowledge that racism and prejudice exist. When they're young our kids only know what we share with them. If your children only learn about people from your own culture and socioeconomic background, that's all they will know. If the only information they hear about another community is negative, that's what they will absorb. Who are the characters in the literature we present to our kids? Is their diversity in their books and movies? If you take your children to a museum, do you ever go to a museum that exposes them to African American art and culture? We need for everyone to have cross-cultural exposure. You need to be purposeful to find those opportunities, but they do exist. We now have access to so much more than we had a few decades ago. And we still need so much more.
Diversity isn't just about white and black cultures. When we first had the lockdown last March, I told my kids we were going to use the time to do research on some different countries. I said, "Let's not research the countries we hear about all the time, like Mexico or France. Let's study countries we don't hear about much at all." It took some pushing. We have to be intentional about it. So much exists in our world, and if we only keep looking at the same things over and over, there is no growth.

DKS: That means pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zones.

JA: Not long ago a mother I've been working with texted me, and she said, "Jackie, I really want to respond to the discussion of racism and Black Lives Matter. I want it to be meaningful, and I don't want to be offensive." We went back and forth for quite a while, and I explained how my upbringing in Jamaica is different from the experience of so many black people raised in the United States. Finally, my answer to her question was, "Whatever you share is okay, as long as it's authentic to you." We've started the discussion. People are talking, and this is the only way change will occur. What I share may have an impact on how you behave or what you believe, but that can only happen if we start to talk.

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