The Table

Blind Spots: What You Don't See Can Hurt You

By Kyle RobertsDecember 16, 2014

 


 

We are often too lazy to crank our necks for the full truth. It’s easier to keep looking ahead and assume all is well. It seems easier—until we crash.

 


 

Recently, I was involved in a minor traffic accident when I swerved into the other lane to avoid hitting the car in front of me. Thankfully, no one was hurt—it resulted in only minor cosmetic injuries (to the cars, I should clarify). The road was slick with ice, but for liability purposes that didn’t matter: I was clearly at fault. I swiped the other car because I didn’t check my blind spot.

The “blind spot” metaphor is ubiquitous to the point that we hear it with a yawn. But my accident reminded me that, while the familiarity of the metaphor may dull its impact, it is a powerful hidden factor of everyday life. Whether one is driving, theologizing, or debating social issues and public policy, blind spots are pervasive and dangerous. We are often too lazy to crank our necks for the full truth. It’s easier to keep looking ahead and assume all is well. It seems easier—until we crash.

Ignoring our blind spots can be deeply injurious to us to and to others, often resulting in far worse than superficial cosmetic damage. The dismal record, both past and present, of human discord, violence, subjugation, and oppression results in part from massive “blind spots” in our understanding of ourselves as human beings and in our behavior toward others. We are naïve—but culpably so—to the ways in which cultural, ideological, and religious forces invisibly (or subconsciously) shape and mold our interpretations and actions.

More perniciously still, many remain blissfully ignorant of the extent to which power and privilege constitute potent forces in our public discourse. These “invisible” forces of power and privilege are often painfully visible to minorities and marginalized persons—those who “see” (or feel) them simply because they don’t have the option to ignore them. “Harmless” blind spots for those of us with privilege and power can be constantly damaging collisions for others.

Power, Privilege. Evil, Oppression.

This semester in my Public Theology course, we read Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, by theologian Emilie Townes.[1] Townes challenges us to think about the ways that power and privilege works to create situations of evil and oppression through the cultivation of what she calls the “fantastic hegemonic imagination.” This concept, which draws on the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, is used to name the way that the powerful majority creates the conditions of society under which others (the non-powerful minorities) must live and move and have their being.

The constructed “imagination” of the hegemonic majority becomes the reigning worldview (and “official” history) by which the worth and value of others is determined and it becomes the ideology through which policies are decided, enacted, and enforced—often to the detriment of the voiceless outsiders who become the unfortunate casualties of the “blind spots” of the dominant majority.

The Mammy Myth

One example Townes provides of the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” at work was that of the “Mammy,” a mythical caricature that originated in the plantations of the Old South. Townes explains,

The Mammy is a myth that has taken on reality and then moved on to become a stereotype. Her construction is a response to abolitionist claims that slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves, especially the light-skinned ones. Mammy is constructed as an ugly antidote to such charges. After all, who would abuse a desexualized, fat, old Black woman when the only other morally viable alternative was the idealized White woman? Mammy was not sexual or sensual—she was and is completely de-eroticized and safe…The Mammy provided safety for an idealized patriarchal White family structure—she provided safety for White men.[2]

The Mammy image (myth, stereotype), this “safe” black woman who wholeheartedly served the white plantation owner and unreservedly cared for his white children as if they were her own, perpetuated a false narrative that everything was fine. She was so busy caring for the slave owner’s house and home that she gave no thought to the question of freedom.[3] The image detracted from the reality of things, as well as from the very real sexual and physical exploitation of black women by white slaveholders. The problem is, of course, that the myth of the “Mammy,” was just that—a myth. Townes points to a study by Catherine Clinton, in which Clinton concludes that,

The Mammy was created by white Southerners to redeem the relationship between black women and white men within slave society in response to the antislavery attack from the North during the ante-bellum era, and to embellish it with nostalgia in the post-bellum period. In the primary records from before the Civil War, hard evidence for her existence simply does not appear.[4]

In the twentieth-century, the Mammy image became further engrained in the cultural imagination when she was transformed and used by savvy marketers.

“Aunt Jemima,” the result of that commodification, was quite literally a myth. Her earliest (fictional) “biography” was written in 1920 by an advertising executive: It was a fabricated story of a kind black woman who saved the life of a Confederate General during the Civil War by “feeding him her famous flapjacks.”[5] Aunt Jemima’s image became a household phenomenon, thereby shaping countless American’s perceptions of slavery from the most “harmless” of places: kitchen cupboards and pantries. All the while, money was pouring into the pockets of white executives via the perpetuation of a harmful myth.

Blind spots? Possibly.

But harmful collisions, for sure.

While the dominance of some of the images may have faded into the recesses of the public American imagination, the memory is still there and the social consequences of those images on those held captive by them still reverberate. This is the “fantastic hegemonic imagination” at work.

The Superpredator Myth

Recently I listened to a talk by Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative, regarding racial injustice in the criminal system, particular as it negatively impacts juveniles.[6] Stevenson explained that at least some of the current injustices and imbalances in the system can be traced back through the mythology of “superpredators.” This term was created twenty years ago by a political science professor and has become a major influence on policy decisions regarding treatment of juveniles in the judicial system. John DiIulio (the scholar who coined the term) predicted in 1995 that, based on projections from population growth rates, the United States would see a dramatic increase in violent crime, including repeat offenders, within American youth.

He (along with colleagues) predicted that, by the year 2000, 6% of young Americans would be “superpredators,” violently disobedient children with no respect for human life. They would be “fatherless, Godless, and jobless” as well as “radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters, including ever more teenage boys, who murder, assault, rob, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, join gun-toting gangs, and create serious [linked] disorders.”[7]

Much like with the Mammy, though, the problem is that DiIulio’s “superpredators” never quite turned up. The prediction that 6% of juveniles within the decade would become violent criminals roaming the streets in search for someone to devour turned out to be wildly inaccurate.

As one author points out, the 6% figure was an extrapolation based on a particular group (the Philadelphia Birth Cohort Study) at a particular point in time, which proved not to be a constant figure.[8] Furthermore, of the 6% of that Philadelphia cohort group, the majority of those were not actually arrested for violent crimes, but simply had experienced contact with police.[9] Finally, the rate of juvenile violence cannot be easily predicted, and certainly does not correlate with population growth. Sometimes higher population growth can mean lower crime rates.[10]

In any case, the image of the superpredator was quickly picked up by the media and perpetuated in innumerable ways. Anxieties were raised, people were on alert, and policies were formed on that basis.

Race and the Superpredator Myth

And of course, there was a racial element to the superpredator mythology, as the predictions of violent criminality among African-American youth were exceedingly high. But as another article recently pointed out, when you consider drug-related crime in particular, while there is a disparity between black and white youth in terms of imprisonment, there is no meaningful difference in commission of the crime.[11] Perhaps the invention of the superpredator turned out to be a case of well-intentioned research, some truth mixed in with speculation. But a gripping image like that is hard to erase.

Blind spots. Collisions.

The Ferguson Decision and Our Blind Spots

Whatever one’s views of the recent Ferguson decision, it is irresponsible to ignore the possibility that cultural images, mythologies—like that of the superpredator—do factor into the complex of relationships between those with power and those without it. We interpret the world around us (in part) through the images, metaphors, myths, and stereotypes that are fashioned within the network of cultural media. We naturally tend to gravitate to the images and interpretations with which we are most comfortable and familiar. Those of us in positions of power and privilege may be blind to the ways in which these images affect our behaviors, supporting the status quo while further suppressing the marginalized.

It should be no surprise to us that recent polls regarding the Ferguson decision to not indict officer Darren Wilson were divided along racial lines (see here and here). It is difficult not to imagine the ways that blind spots work to shape our interpretations of reality.

Huge Racial Disparity in Views of Ferguson Ruling, More Agreement in Views of Garner Decision

Inherited Sin

As I have tried to think through the implications of Townes’ important work and, in particular, the explanatory power of the “fantastic hegemonic imagination”—a phrase bursting with originality—I have also thought of the enduring significance of the Christian notion of original sin. Or, sometimes better put: inherited sin.

There are numerous and competing formulations of the doctrine of sin, and all sorts of nuances regarding how best to understand and frame it. But common thematic elements of original sin include:

1. The Distant Past of Sin

Sin has its original (though not only) basis in the human race in some distant past—whether located in a ex nihilo created “first pair” of homo sapiens, which Genesis calls “Adam” and “Eve,” or whether located more gradually and more broadly within the development of homo sapiens from earlier primate forms.

2. Enduring Consequences of Sin

Sin has enduring consequences, both individual and structural, the extent of those consequences being incalculable and unimaginable in their scope, reach and depth (Genesis 6; Psalm 14; Isaiah 59; Romans 3).

I don’t know many Christians who deny they are sinners or who deny that they are recipients of “inherited” sin, whether interpreted as some internal, individual reality, as structural and systemic brokenness to which they are now subject, or some combination of the two.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously suggested, “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.”[12]

Though it’s often overlooked, Niebuhr was actually citing the London Times when he delivered the quote usually now attributed to him. But this makes sense: What cultural medium has more daily contact with inherited sin than the news media?

How Sin Affects the Way We Think

While the doctrine of sin is rarely doubted, especially in conservative Christians circles, I have encountered plenty of Christians who do not acknowledge the extent to which their (our) sin impacts us in the ways that we think about social issues, public policy, political questions, and so on. We might be quick to point out sins in others, but less so when reflecting on our own complicities and potential “blind spots.” While they may be quick to acknowledge individual sin, they are sometimes reluctant or perhaps outright unwilling to acknowledge corporate (collective) and systemic sin. We may not think about the ways that power dynamics, privilege, and cultural and ethnic frameworks shape our assumptions about morality and social policy.

We are often unwilling to allow that our sinfulness does not always issue forth in our conscious awareness. But why else would the Bible speak of “secret sins” and “hidden iniquities” (e.g., Psalm 19:12; Psalm 90:8; Ecclesiastes 12:14).

Check Your Blind Spots

We could go on to further contemplate how these blind spots function to suppress justice and perpetuate privilege in matters of immigration policy, economic disparity, health care, and so on. But the point of this essay is mainly to suggest that, as Christians engage in dialogue about matters pertaining to civil society, social problems, political conundrums, economic realities, and so on, the more willingly and more readily we attend to the blind spots that present themselves at every turn, the better off we will be as fellow human citizens and as witnesses to the gospel of Christ. There’s a solid theological basis to rigorously question our own motivations, presuppositions, and judgments about complicated matters—particularly when we recognize our interdependency on each other in reasoning and living toward a more just, more humane, more peaceful society.

Kyle Roberts is Associate Professor of Public and Missional Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Click here to read his Patheos blog, UnSystematic Theology.

Also Relevant to Intellectual Virtue, Civil Discourse, & #Ferguson:

 

 


[1] Emilie M. Townes, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, Palgrave MacMillan, 2006.

[2] Townes, p. 31.

[3] Townes, p. 32.

[4] Townes, p. 32. See Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon, 1982), 201-202.

[5] Townes, p. 39.

[6] This talk can be accessed online at the Westminster Town Hall Forum archives: http://westminsterforum.org/archive.php

[7] Bennett, DiIulio, & Walters, Body Count: Moral Poverty, and How to Win America’s War Against Crime and Drugs (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 27. Cited in James C. Howell, Preventing and Reducing Juvenile Delinquency: A Comprehensive Framework (Sage Publications, 2009), p. 4.

[8] Ibid., pp. 4-6.

[9] Ibid., p. 6.

[10] Ibid.

[11] http://drewgihart.com/2014/12/01/black-on-black-violence-pastor-voddie-bauchams-assault-on-black-people-by-austin-channing-brown-christena-cleveland-drew-hart-and-efrem-smith/

[12] Reinhold Niebuhr, Man's Nature and His Communities (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965), p. 24.

Photos: "On the road" via Flickr, modified (CC BY-NC 2.0); "rearviewmirror" via Flickr, modified (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); "Thru the Side View Mirror" via Flickr, modified (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0); "Leaving New Mexico - Welcome to Texas" via Flickr, modified (CC BY-NC 2.0).

 

The views, opinions, authors, and contributors represented in The Table do not necessarily represent the beliefs of Biola University or the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

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