A boy was seriously hurt in a car crash and his father, who was driving, was killed instantly.  The boy was rushed to the hospital to undergo surgery.  As the surgery team assembled, the chief surgeon suddenly exclaimed, “I can not operate because this is my own son.”  How was this possible?

This is a mostly forgotten riddle that made the rounds in the 1970’s and ‘80’s by word of mouth, long before social media.  Did you get the correct answer?  In those decades, even most feminists were puzzled by this conundrum.  Hopefully, the answer has become obvious as societies have evolved in the intervening years.  It is now actually imaginable for a woman and mother also to be a surgeon.  

All those years ago, it was not even imaginable.  This is because sexism, racism and discrimination are not only external.  They seep into our minds as if our very brains were cultural sponges.  It is not necessary to seek them out nor is it possible to resist them, as they affect each of us in ways that we do not know and cannot see.  We are exquisitely social animals.  Our brains are designed for this absorption or plasticity, as contemporary neuroscience has metaphorically named the quality.

This is the blindness of the sighted. [1]It is difficult even to be aware of these biases before a society is.  They are invisible and unconscious and any of us can say with total conscious sincerity, “I am not racist or sexist.”  We do not know that we all are.

A man who passes a woman on the street and says “Why don’t you smile?  Its not so bad.” probably does not realize that he is being anything but friendly and charming. A White person may not wonder why “flesh-colored” Band-Aids or crayons are the color they are.  Another may believe that they can pick out a gay person based on mannerisms or dress.

Unless the unconscious is examined vigilantly and made conscious through psychotherapy, consciousness-raising or mindfulness practice, it remains what it is, unconscious- until public social change allows awareness.  Everyone can work on this kind of awareness in various ways.  A sure sign that you have not done this work is if you can state unequivocally, “I am not sexist, racist or homophobic.”

No one is immune to cultural values and ideas or to the beliefs of family and those who raise us.  We can dispute what we can see, what we know is there.  The invisible is harder to see and even harder to change. What begins as cultural easily penetrates the unconscious mind and ends as self.

[1] Kaschak, E. Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press, New York, 2015.

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