Today’s appointment wasn’t any different, Paul thought, than the many times he had been to the optometrist, the same one for almost twenty years. Between his home and the metro station, the doctor’s office was a small, trendy-looking storefront midway on a city block of restaurants and small shops. They had lived in this community for over two decades. Everything was there in a six-block area: a pharmacy, Trader Joe’s grocery store, multiple coffee shops, a couple of small gyms, a great farmer’s market, his primary care physician, a branch of the public library… and the optometrist.
When he and his wife moved there, she had been looking for a place with a sense of neighborliness, a bit of a quirky, edgy feel, and a variety of people. His priority had been for their home to be near a gym and convenient to a metro station to get to and from their jobs. They had found what they wanted. But never thought they would live there for as long as they had. How the years had passed as they settled in and enjoyed their life. It’s just the right place for us, he thought as he opened the door to the optometrist’s office.
“Good morning, Mr. White,” the receptionist greeted him with a smile. “You’re right on time.”
She insisted on calling him Mr. White, not Paul as he had suggested. So, Mr. White, it was. He appreciated their change to taking earlier appointments. Once the workday started, it was hard to leave his office, come to the optometrist, and then go back in the opposite direction to continue work. Early morning worked great for him.
The receptionist continued, “Dr. Black will be with you in a few minutes.”
The office personnel and technicians had changed through the years but were always pleasant; he thought some might be from the neighborhood. He wondered if they saw themselves in optometry one day.
A few minutes later, Dr. Black came out and beckoned him into an examination room. He was a tall, distinguished-looking man in his sixties. Some would have thought him a college professor if they hadn’t known differently. At his last appointment, he had asked if the doctor was ready to retire. “Why, are you ready to get rid of me?” Dr. Black had chuckled.
Today, as he settled into the examination chair, something was different. “New equipment, Dr. Black?” He pointed at a side stand on wheels next to the examination chair. The instrument usually in that spot, a phoropter he had learned, with its several lenses and dials, had been rolled over into a corner.
“I’m trying out a new device,” Dr. Black said and pointed at the bulky headset on the stand next to Paul’s elbow. “My partner, Manuel — Dr. Castaño — has been using it in the other office and has gotten interesting and beneficial results. He convinced me to try it here, too. I’ll tell you about it shortly,” he settled onto a rolling stool and faced Paul. After asking all the typical questions about any vision changes, health status, and medications, they got down to it. “Your vision has stayed consistent the last two check-ups, so, with your permission, I want to skip the usual exam,” Dr. Black cocked a thumb at the headset, “and use this. It will not be the typical test with letters displayed and me asking you which lens makes them sharper.”
“What kind of examination is this?” Paul asked.
“Some think it might be the most important vision test of all for many reasons. The American Society of Optometry[i] has broadened its work and now recommends this for all patients and has been testing it with several partner organizations. Of course, you don’t have to do this. It’s optional; we can do the regular test. But, having known you for so long — knowing your eye health is good — I thought you wouldn’t mind being one of our subjects.”
“Well, this isn’t what I thought I was going to do today,” Paul replied as he hoped the time he had set aside for the appointment would be sufficient. “But I’m willing to try it. Tell me a little more.”
“Other than there’s no risk, it can’t harm you, and there’s no pain; I can’t tell you much. The requirement is the subjects — you — not be given any information before the appointment or before the test, so your reaction comes with no pre-thought. I can tell you there may be some interesting revelations, however, about how you see the world. During it, I’ll take some notes, and afterward, we’ll talk about the test. The whole thing shouldn’t take more than an hour. The same time I think you usually plan for,” said Dr. Black.
“Hmm… revelations.” Paul squinted at the googles, “Is this some kind of virtual reality thing?”
“In a way,” said Dr. Black, “but I can’t tell you too much. I don’t want to shape your perceptions of what you’re about to see. Okay?”
Paul nodded, still wondering what kind of interesting revelations. “Sure.”
“Great.” Dr. Black reached for the headset. “There’ll be a few scenarios composed of images and sometimes words presented. As you watch each, I want you to tell me what’s happening. They’ll change a bit as you watch. Just tell me what you’re seeing.” He stood and positioned the goggles on Paul’s head, letting him adjust them to fit more comfortably. Sitting back on the stool, he reached for what looked like a TV remote control and pressed a button. A green light glowed on the goggles.
“Alright. I think I’m ready,” Paul said, wanting to get on with this so he could get to work. But he had said yes for a couple of reasons. First, the intrigue of it; then, when the doctor mentioned different perceptions, he was even more interested. He was an architect and often studied and worked with perspectives, viewpoints, and angles. The different ways a building or even a room strikes a person based on where they stand, how they enter the space, the hour of the day, or the light in the room. Many variables affect how one sees things. He wondered about what the doctor meant by scenarios as he waited for the first image.
“Okay,” Dr. Black pressed a button on the remote control. The green light on the goggles flickered. “Describe what you see, and I’ll record your responses. Ready?”
“Yes,” Paul replied as an image appeared and came into focus.
“Good. Now, the first image. What do you see?” asked Dr. Black.
“It’s an illustration. One you often see of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. You know, the one where they’re all wearing breeches and those long coats. Some seem to have on wigs. They’re huddled around a table looking at a document.”
“The pictures are going to change. When they do, tell me what you see.”
“It’s narrowed to only one person. I think it’s a young Thomas Jefferson. Yes. The picture is changing again. He’s the sole person now and not in a room anymore. Behind him is Monticello, his home. I recognize it, a beautiful, large, domed brick structure. Dr. Black,” Paul’s head reflexively turned toward the doctor, though he couldn’t see him with the goggles on. “Did I ever tell you I’m an architect? I’ve always admired Monticello. The landscaping with colorful flowers and a manicured lawn perfectly frames the structure. It’s so near I don’t know why I haven’t visited there in years. Seeing this makes me want to make a Saturday trip to Charlottesville,” responded Paul, thoughts drifting with the shifting image. “Now I see fields behind the house and people working in the fields. They have bags over their shoulders; surrounding them are rows of some crop; don’t know what it is. The people are…” Paul hesitated uneasily, “slaves.” He grew quiet.
“Keep going; what do you see now?” Dr. Black prompted him.
“Tiny, rough wooden structures. I guess where the slaves lived,” Paul continued, his voice muted.
“Do you see anything else?”
“Yes. That image is fading, and words are appearing. They’re a little fuzzy,” he replied, his hand coming up to shift the goggles on his face.
Dr. Black pressed a button on the control he held, manually adjusting the clarity. “How are they now?”
“Is this the regular vision part of the test?” Paul asked.
“Not really,” responded Dr. Black. “this is not intended to measure your visual acuity. That’s done in the regular vision examination, which is far more accurate. We’ll do that on your next visit. Can you see the words now? Can you read them?”
“We hold these truths to be self-evident; all men are created equal.” Paul recited.
“Anything else?” asked Dr. Black.
“No, just the words sharper and clearer,” Paul responded.
Dr. Black pressed a button on the handheld controller. “Okay, a new image should emerge now. What do you see?”
“One of those soup kitchen breadlines… like in pictures of the Depression.” He felt he was almost in the scene, with the goggles cutting out any distraction, making it more potent. The men, women, and children looked sad, hopeless. The photo portrayed such anguish: dirty faces — young, old… all lined with worry — and almost all of them dressed in worn, patched clothing, many were shoeless. His thoughts drifted to the stories he had read about the Depression: no food, no jobs, families torn apart, complete despair. He could not imagine how people survived from one day to the next. What would he have done? How would he have taken care of his family? He had no idea. His life had been pretty good; he had never wanted for anything. And that made him think of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal he had studied in a history class. The government created many federal programs to help people get back on their feet during the Depression. All they needed was a helping hand. He remembered his dad, a veteran, saying he had gone to college on the GI Bill, then purchased the family’s first home with a Veteran’s Administration guaranteed loan. Those were important programs.
“Mr. White, what are you seeing?” asked Dr. Black,
The voice pulled him back to the present and to the image now before him. “Oh, the breadline’s gone. I’m looking at homeless people,” Paul replied.
“Tell me more,” asked Dr. Black.
“Well, there’s a man, a Black man, lying on a sidewalk. He looks like he’s passed out, just sprawled across a piece of cardboard. There are other people on the sidewalk, but he’s centered in the picture. They’re beneath an overpass, under a raised street or highway. There are cardboard houses, structures, or something along the sidewalk and against the concrete embankment. There are also little tents, like the pup tents, my family has used for camping. There’s a lot of trash around,” he said.
Dr. Black noted the tone of disdain in Paul’s voice and used the remote. “What about now?”
“It’s evolving again; the image is changing,” Paul said. “Now, I see the back of a soldier with a gun over his shoulder. Oh, this isn’t just a static image. It’s almost hologram-like. Now it’s a video of the soldier moving, walking in a desert. He’s turning around now, and I can see his face clearly. It’s the same man I saw on the cardboard,” Paul said with surprise. “It’s changing again. He’s on the sidewalk now. There’s a handwritten sign leaning against the wall beside him.”
“Can you read it?” asked Dr. Black.
“Yes. It says: ‘Veteran, laid off. I keep trying. Can you help?’ And, just like before, the words grew sharper, like they gained contrast and depth.”
“You’re doing great,” Dr. Black said. “I’m sorry. I have to step out of the office for just a minute and check with Dr. Castaño about what’s next and the conversation part after the test. I have a quick question for him and will be right back.”
Paul took off the headset while the doctor was gone and set it on the stand. It had become heavier and seemed tighter around his head even though no change had been made. He thought back to those shifting images and wasn’t sure what he was supposed to see… other than what was clear to him. He hadn’t told Dr. Black, but when he realized the guy on the sidewalk had been a veteran, his sense of him altered. Well, somewhat. He wondered if the guy was a vet or had just been using that as a ploy to get more people to give him money. Beggars made Paul uncomfortable. Everyone should work. Everyone had something they could do to earn money. Had the man really tried, as his sign said? There were ‘Help Wanted’ signs everywhere. Why hadn’t the guy been able to find a job? Just then, Dr. Black returned.
“Ready for the next one?” asked Dr. Black. “We’re halfway there.”
“Okay. So you know, the headset feels heavier than when we started and too tight around my head. Can you adjust it?”
“Manuel told me others had made that comment, too — about some discomfort — after using this device at the other office,” said Dr. Black as he sat back down and rolled the stool to Paul’s chair. He took the goggles, checked them, and handed them back to Paul, who put them on. “Ready? Here comes the next image.”
Paul nodded — one hand steadying the goggles — as a structure, a stadium… came into view. A football game was about to start, and he could see the players lined up. Wait. One was kneeling… and he recognized him.
“What do you see?” asked Dr. Black.
“Colin Kaepernick. He used to be the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers. Decent player ’til he started all those protests,” Paul added.
“What is he doing?” asked Dr. Black, writing a note on his pad.
“Just kneeling. Oh, wait, there are some Black players behind him. They’re standing with clenched fists raised, like the guys in the Olympics a long time ago,” Paul described. “Everyone’s standing, except Kaepernick. Many have a hand over their hearts.” He wasn’t sure how he felt about Kaepernick and his actions. After all, it was the national anthem; stand for it. One guy at the office had talked about how disrespectful his kneeling was. ‘Outrageous’ was the term he used. But then others had called it a peaceful protest. Kaepernick wasn’t hurting anyone by kneeling, but was it disrespectful? The doctor’s question brought him back.
“Anything else or has the image changed?” asked Dr. Black.
“Yes, it’s different,” Paul said. “Now I see an illustration; it looks historical… like the first image I saw of the Declaration of Independence signers. It’s during that same period. It’s a ship, a big wooden ship. A smaller boat is beside it. Several men have climbed onto the larger one using ladders and ropes and are throwing big wooden casks into the water. I bet this is a drawing of the Boston Tea Party. This is the beginning of the revolutionary war.” His thoughts stuck on that: “This was when America became America. The beginning of our country. Real patriots!”
“The image should evolve again,” said Dr. Black. “What do you see now?”
“Oh,” Paul said, “it’s Pennsylvania Avenue, just a mile or so from here. I could only see flags flying at first, but the image has panned out, and I can see the entire street. There are people on both sides as a parade goes by.”
“Anything else?” asked Dr. Black.
“I remember this day,” he said. “My wife told me about it. She had been out walking and came upon hundreds of people lined up on either side of Pennsylvania Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. There had been a big rally for DC statehood. There was a story about it on the news that night. The mayor had American flags made with a 51st star to represent the District of Columbia. They were on flagpoles along the street. This is a picture of all the flags… and of the supporters.”
“Hmmm,” said Dr. Black. “Is that what you see? Or are you adding to the image based on what your wife told you or the news story?”
Paul continued, “No, I’m telling you what I see. The flags flying and the float. I didn’t count the number of stars, but the mayor is in the back of a decorated flatbed truck, and there’s a sign that reads ‘DC Statehood Now.’ It’s changing… now the image is someone’s head with words written beneath it. Wait, it’s Colin Kaepernick again, a poster of him.”
“Can you read the words too?” asked Dr. Black.
“Yes, it says: ‘Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.’ I remember those words from a Nike ad with him a few years ago. Yeah, there’s the Nike logo with Just Do It written at the bottom. Just like the others, the longer I look at it, the sharper the words become,” Paul said.
“Okay, Mr. White, there’s just one more set of images,” said Dr. Black. “What do you see now?”
“I see the Iwo Jima memorial; you know, the statue where soldiers are raising the US flag. My grandfather was in the army in World War II. One of the last times he came to visit, I took him to Arlington to see it. He told me then that taking Iwo Jima had been vital because it contained airfields close enough to reach Japan. It was a significant victory when the United States captured the island from the Japanese. My granddad was my hero; we had such a great time that day.”
“Now, what do you see?”
“The memorial’s gone, replaced by a rugged landscape. Beautiful, but lonely… barren. The land is all brown and red. You notice the colors immediately. There are mountains in the background. Somewhere in the western part of the United States, I guess. The picture is moving, panning the area. Now, I see a figure; an Indian on a horse,” Paul reported. “Such an iconic image of the Old West.”
Dr. Black pressed a button on the remote. “The image should morph one more time. What do you see now?”
“Another stark image. An old, black-and-white photograph of maybe 15 to 20 buildings, like barracks with barbed wire around them. I guess you’d call it a compound. Another hologram that’s turning into a video, now the people, they look Asian… are walking around inside the fence.” Paul said.
“Anything else?” Dr. Black asked as he wrote on his pad.
“Now it’s a photograph of a small frame house with a huge sign. A woman is standing on the steps, pointing up to the sign. The sign is pretty big; it dwarfs the house. The lettering is still a little fuzzy,” Paul continued.
“Is it getting clearer? Can you read it now?” asked the doctor using the controller.
“Yes. It’s an insulting term for the Japanese. It says that they should keep moving: ‘This is a white man’s neighborhood.’” Then the pictures stopped, and the screen went dark.
“That’s it,” said Dr. Black; he paused as Paul pulled the headset off and then asked, “how do you feel?”
Rubbing his head and eyes after removing the goggles, Paul said, “Funny, but I feel a little tired… from just sitting in this chair looking at images.”
Dr. Black studied him for a moment. “Well, you’ve covered a lot of territory in a relatively short time,” said Dr. Black and wrote another note. “Let’s take a 15-minute break and then come back and discuss what you saw. That’ll give you a little time to reflect on things. Do you remember the images?”
“Yes. The first… or at least one in each set. The signing of the Declaration of Independence, the homeless guy, the Boston Tea Party, and then the Iwo Jima statue. I’m not sure I’ll remember all the images they changed into, but maybe I can. What are we going to talk about?” Paul asked.
“Race and perceptions,” responded Dr. Black. “I was just checking if you could recall the pictures. Don’t worry though, I’ll display them again so we can talk about them. Do you mind if I ask Dr. Castaño to join us? He’s done this several times before, and I want to make sure I’m doing it the right way,” said Dr. Black.
Paul blinked. “Race and perceptions? Is that what you said, doctor?”
“Yes. Is it okay if Dr. Castaño joins us?” asked Dr. Black.
He had seen Dr. Black’s partner in the office several times, but they had never talked. “Uh, sure… that’s fine,” Paul answered. Race and perceptions. He wasn’t sure he was ready for that conversation, particularly since he was white, Dr. Black was African American. Dr. Castaño was Latino, or Paul thought he was. Race was a topic he rarely talked about and only thought about occasionally. Usually, when something flared up in the news, like that Kaepernick thing. But a genuine conversation? He could not remember when, or even if, he’d ever had one.
“Would you like a bottle of water or maybe coffee during our break?” asked Dr. Black.
“No, thanks,” Paul said. “I think I’ll take a quick walk around the block and be back in 15 minutes,” he said as he gathered his things and walked out. As he left the office, he put on his jacket. It was one of those perfect April mornings in Washington, DC. The air felt good, still a little crisp, but he hoped the day would warm up. Not too much, though; he wanted spring to last longer. Summers in DC were sweltering. He headed to the gym to pick up the book he had left there a couple of days ago. Then he was going to return it to the library. He thought he had just enough time. The morning birds were his background music as he walked. He mused about Dr. Black’s test. Race and perceptions, huh? He had thought little about race as he went through the exercise. Or what he thought of as an exercise. It — race and perception — was there, though. Both had been interwoven throughout the images. He had focused little on analyzing what he saw and only described the pictures as he’d been asked to do. He stopped at the gym’s front desk, where they had the book that had fallen out of his bag,and hurried to the library to drop it off.
The guys on the library steps were all speaking Spanish as he approached. If they learned to speak English, maybe they’d be working and not hanging out in front of the library with nothing to do, he thought. As he dropped off the book, Paul noticed the librarian — a blonde, white woman — spoke Spanish to someone at the desk. Good for her; she can speak Spanish. He didn’t know if something he’d experienced at the optometrist’s had his mind on things he didn’t normally consider. But what he had just thought about the guys on the steps… and then the woman… struck him as odd. Looking at her again, he did not believe Spanish was her native language. And that reminded him he had considered taking language lessons to be more marketable in the global business community. Being bilingual was important these days. Yet, just minutes ago, his first thought about the guys speaking Spanish on the steps had been a negative judgment. He mulled over that contrast — that contradiction in how he viewed them — as he walked back to the optometrist.
He often thought of his neighborhood as eclectic and that Dr. Black’s office quirkiness fit in. Decorated inside and out in a funky, hippie sort of way. With a giant neon green pair of glasses as part of the marquee outside, colorful art and lamps inside, and ’60s and ’70s music always playing in the background. His experiences there, however, had always been typical optometrist appointments. Sit in the chair, look through the lens, report when the letters were sharp or out of focus. Nothing different from visit to visit, at least not until today. But today had been memorable; what an odd experience. He checked his watch — still good on time — and realized he was looking forward to the follow-up conversation.
“Hi, Mr. White,” said the receptionist as he walked in the door. “Dr. Black and Dr. Castaño are in the conference room.”
“Huh,” Paul responded, “coming here all these years, and I didn’t even know you had enough space for a conference room. Where’s it hidden?”
“It’s just a small room in the back,” she smiled, “more like a sunroom. We use it for staff meetings and as a break room. It’s kinda cool, though; a perfect place to unwind and talk.” She led him to the room and stopped at the entry of a charming space. A glass wall looked out on a tiny brick courtyard, full of plants just blooming for spring. There were tulips everywhere and a small fountain.
“This is nice,” he said as he walked into the room. Dr. Castaño and Dr. Black each had cups in their hands and stood beside the room’s small, round table, which had a large laptop on it.
“Have a seat,” they almost said simultaneously and then added in unison, “Coffee, water?”
“Coffee, thanks. Two sugars; sweetener, I mean.”
“No cream?” Paul shook his head, and Dr. Black set his cup down, took a mug from beside the carafe on a side table, and poured. “Here you go,” he handed the cup to Paul with packets of Splenda and a wooden stirrer.
They settled into comfortable chairs, yet Paul felt a little awkward in this new setting. Not one he could have imagined if the two men sitting with him had been his dentist. A casual conversation with someone who cared for your eyes seemed easier than with someone who was in your mouth twice a year.
Dr. Castaño spoke first. “Thank you for being a part of this effort, Mr. White. First, it’s nice to meet you, and we, Dr. Black, and I appreciate you doing this. Let me tell you some more about what you’re a part of. Just like when you started the test, I won’t reveal everything now, but let me at least set the stage a bit. After this conversation, we’ll answer all of your questions.” He leaned toward Paul. “The National Council on Racial Justice[ii] approached a few professional practices, including ours, to see how groups that aren’t a part of discussions about race and racism might join this much-needed conversation. They want to prompt more talk about the topic — one rarely deliberated on — in a format and through a means we all think is non-threatening. Dr. Black and I have been trained to facilitate discussing your observations and what you thought about what you saw during the test.”
Dr. Black added: “And I’m just wondering, Paul, since this is informal, do you mind if we use first names? I’m Richard, and he’s Manuel.”
“That’s fine with me,” Paul said. “After almost twenty years, I think first names are good to use.” A grin formed awkwardly, almost self-consciously on his face. “You know, as I walked during our break, it occurred to me a discussion about race between someone named Black and someone named White was just too cliché.”
“That crossed my mind too,” Richard smiled, “but this isn’t intended to be clinical, of course. The hope is for it to be more of a chat. Okay?”
Paul took a sip, set his cup on the table, and nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
“Another thing to contribute to the irony of our names. In Spanish, castaño means a shade of brown, like chestnut or auburn,” Manuel grinned and rubbed an eyebrow with his forefinger and sat back. “This is Richard’s first time leading the after-test discussion,” he continued, “so I’ll be pretty much in the background with maybe an occasional question or comment.”
“Okay, let’s get started,” said Richard. “Paul, you don’t have to remember the images. I’ll display them again, and I want you to talk about them a bit. But not focused this time on what you saw, instead tell us how you felt and if the pictures led you to other thoughts.” He opened the laptop, logged in, and after it booted up, made a couple of clicks and turned the 17-inch display so all could see it. On the screen, the signing of the Declaration of Independence was followed by Thomas Jefferson and Monticello’s image, the slaves working the fields and then the slave cabins and the Declaration of Independence quote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal.” Then it became a montage, all the images at once.
“When you look at these images together, what do you think? What do you feel?” asked Richard. “Just remember, this isn’t a gotcha. There are no right answers. We’re trying to learn something here to promote deeper thinking about race in America.”
Paul relaxed; he had worried about having to guard himself and frame his replies so he didn’t unintentionally offend. “Well, I’m proud our country fought for freedom from England. The Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights are founding documents that positioned our country to become a great nation, an example for other countries worldwide. That was my first thought. Then, I thought of Monticello’s beauty; grand, peaceful, just aesthetically an architectural masterpiece with its domed roof. Then the sight of the slaves and how they were forced to live struck me.” Paul’s head lowered as he studied his hands clasped on the table. “I admired the beautiful structure; one most architects appreciate… then came the poverty and degradation of the people who likely built it.” Paul looked up, his face tense. “Dr. Black, from what I know of Jefferson and the history of Monticello… their slavery supported him and it.”
“Call me Richard, please…” Dr. Black suggested. “So it disrupted your sense of peace and beauty?”
“With what I felt… the sadness of it all. I hadn’t thought about it, but the images of slavery affected me strongly. They made me think that what I so admired in Monticello came at a tragic human cost.” Paul replied.
“When you read the sentence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, all men are created equal,’ what did you think?” Richard asked.
“At first, it just reinforced the power and clarity of the Declaration of Independence. That’s all,” Paul answered.
“The grouping of the pictures was intentional,” Dr. Black commented. “Now — given what you just said — do you have other thoughts?”
“The slaves were in a horrible situation,” Paul said. “I now see the coupling of the beauty and even symbolic power of Monticello in contrast to the way they lived, the way they were made to live. They didn’t choose… no one would have lived like that. That was all that was provided to them. Yes, I see that.”
“No. Well, yes. I see the Declaration’s language… all men are equal… doesn’t match the truth of those times. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner, and — I’m not sure, but — probably all the other signers were too. Literally, right there at Monticello in Jefferson’s own backyard, there’s evidence that — no matter what the Founding Fathers put into the Declaration — though all men are created equal, Black men and women were property, slaves… and not treated equally. I see now it’s a terrible irony. Is that what you’re getting at?” Paul shook his head. “I thought this was a conversation.” He glanced at Dr. Castaño — Manuel — who, as he had said at the introduction, remained silent, so he turned back to Dr. Black. “What does it say to you, Richard?”
“That the juxtaposition of enslaved people and Thomas Jefferson is key. As Jefferson helped form a country based on freedom, he still enslaved people who could be sold away from their families and were forced to work at his pleasure… for his profit. That was, and — because its foundation was flawed — still is America. Sometimes people don’t think about that,” Richard studied Paul. “Can we delve a little more, and deeper, maybe? Did you think about the difference in their homes?”
“Yes. Immediately. It’s one of those things you’re aware of from history… but it’s jarring when put in context. Jefferson focused his efforts on being a thinker, a person shaping a new country. He could do that because others worked for him — in horrible conditions — to create his wealth. So he could become a gentleman farmer… a man of letters. Free slave labor enabled Jefferson to live in luxury at Monticello, and all he gave them in return were crude cabins. I mentioned I’m an architect. We don’t just design new structures… we also study old building designs and even the construction methods of their respective period. We learn from what’s been done in the past to develop new, better designs often modeled on classic styles and construction. So, the old helps us to create the new.” Paul rubbed his face with the palms of his hands. “I’ve heard a lot recently about how African Americans built the wealth of America, and I guess I didn’t get it. Not really. I didn’t think about it. Is that what you mean?” Paul asked.
“Yes, it is,” said Dr. Black. “Manuel, is there anything to add before we move on to the next set of images?”
“No, I’ll share my thoughts at the end. Please keep going,” said Manuel.
“Before we do, I have one more thought,” added Richard. “This comparison of Monticello and the slave quarters is also a historical connection applicable to today. Housing inequality continues, as does the wealth gap. Did you know Jefferson was in significant debt when he died? He didn’t die wealthy, as many assume. But he died with assets: property, enslaved people who he owned, and Monticello. So when his heirs — his white heirs — needed to settle the debts he had left, they sold their property. We also now know he had six children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves. Those children — his Black children — received no inherited benefit, neither his name nor any property, from their famous white father and on and on for generations. Those who were enslaved and their many generations after slavery’s end — even Thomas Jefferson’s descendants — started out below ground zero. Instead of having an asset, like Monticello, to sell, Jefferson’s Black heirs had to start from scratch to build wealth — with a lower case ‘w’ — over generations. I just read a startling figure. It will take over 200 years for Black families to have the wealth that white families have today. That’s quite a statistic. While these images may be historical, their impact is now… today.” Dr. Black stopped as he realized he was getting angry. That wasn’t acceptable. He took a deep breath, got up, and poured himself a glass of water before continuing.
“I’m aware of the housing disparity and the emphasis on owning a home in America,” Paul commented as the screen changed to show the images of the Depression-era breadline, the homeless man on the street, the soldier in the desert, and then the sign that read: ‘Veteran, laid off. I keep trying. Can you help?’
“Okay, Paul, how did this make you feel, or what did you think,” asked Richard.
“I felt sympathy for the folks in the breadlines and then pride in knowing how President Roosevelt helped all the people in need during the Depression, his Works Progress Administration, and the New Deal. I didn’t feel the same sympathy for the guy on the street. Even though he said he was a veteran, and the image is supposed to be him when he was in the military, I still wondered if he was really a veteran. So, the picture didn’t make me believe it. I thought he should get up and get a job.” Paul replied. “But I can see how a person can be overwhelmed and feel like they have no place to turn and then just give up. I pass a lot of homeless people on the streets and just keep walking. Sometimes I think of how dirty and smelly they are, but that’s it. I just want to get by as quickly as I can without them asking me for money. I don’t think of them as people, more like things. That’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s true.” Paul shook his head and knew he had done that often since arriving for his appointment, but some of what they had brought up had shaken his perceptions. “What did you think?” he asked Richard.
“I believed he was a veteran and wondered if he was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other condition, mental or physical, that made him unable to work. I thought about all the ‘Help Wanted’ signs, and, Paul, I started thinking of all the unemployed Black men and what I read — and know — about prejudice and bias in the workplace,” replied Richard.
“Really?” Paul questioned. “I thought affirmative action and equal opportunity legislation ensured people of color got a fair shake at jobs.”
Richard shook his head. “You can’t legislate how people think, Paul. Bias and preconceptions are huge when employers make hiring decisions. I just read a study that a white man who has dropped out of high school is as likely to get a job as a Black man with a college degree.” Taut lines formed on his face; a frown furrowed his brow. “Then there’s the name thing: let’s use Josh vs. DeAndre, for example. They told us about this in training provided by the Council on Racial Justice. If Josh is the name on the application, screeners will think he’s white. They’ll just as quickly assume DeAndre is Black. Just based on his name, a complete set of information will be formed in their minds to reflect who they think DeAndre is, his family, his neighborhood, and the quality of his education. Think about it, Paul. When I said DeAndre, did certain things pop into your mind?” asked Richard, as creases bracketed his tightly compressed lips.
Paul considered that and nodded: “I see what you’re saying. There’s so much I guess I’m not aware of or just don’t think about,” Paul said, and he flashed to that earlier moment at the library.
Richard nodded, his features easing, as the next set of images came up: a football stadium, a kneeling Colin Kaepernick, the Boston Tea Party, the parade in Washington, DC to become the 51st state, and then the poster with the statement: ‘Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.’
Paul responded immediately. “You know, I had mixed feelings about Kaepernick when that happened. They came quickly back to me when I saw his picture. I know many people said how disrespectful it was; his kneeling while the national anthem played. But, you know, when I saw his picture followed by the Boston Tea Party image, it sharpened my thinking. I had done some reading on him and learned his kneeling was in protest of how some Black men, Black people, were mistreated, especially by the police. His protest was certainly far tamer than the Boston Tea Party. When that image became the DC parade for statehood, another non-violent protest, I started thinking about America’s truth versus the illusion: Jefferson’s and the Founding Fathers’ ideal and the reality of slavery. And taxation without representation. It really is wrong that the District of Columbia pays an enormous amount in federal taxes and does not have a voting member in Congress. I mean, that’s un-American… that’s what the Boston Tea Party was all about. How can we look at images like these — or I guess, events — and not connect the dots or see the connections and their impact over time?” Paul asked.
“I think we’re all guilty of that. Sometimes — most times — it takes serious thinking and reflection. A conscious effort like what we did today… to discover a fresh, I think proper, perspective about events in our life or in our country,” said Richard. “I hadn’t thought until now about the similarity between this exercise and individual, personal counseling. In counseling, the therapist helps the person see what is happening in their life or family because our own vision isn’t always clear. We can’t see the forest for the trees…. sometimes we can’t even see the trees… and need someone to point them out.” He paused and noted the focused expression on Paul’s face, listening to him. “Okay,” Richard continued, “with the images, there were statements or a quote. You said that each time, as you read it, the words got clearer, right?”
“Yes, they did,” Paul responded.
“What do you think that meant? Anything or did you think it just a mechanical adjustment to make them sharper?” Richard asked.
“At first, I thought you were just correcting the focus. Then I wondered if the message at the end was intended to encapsulate the meaning, the intent of the previous images. The more I read and thought about it, the clearer it would become. Figuratively and literally,” Paul replied.
“That’s it exactly,” Richard agreed, “how you described your change in thinking could almost be an asterisk placed at the end of the statement as it sharpened. Now, think about the Kaepernick-Nike one about believing in something even if it means giving up everything.” Richard added to it: “Think about all the folks who have had to fight for what they believe in, even if it means giving up their lives.”
Paul thought again about his grandfather and all the servicemen and women who had lost their lives in war, the firefighters and first-responders who run into danger to save lives. And — he’d never put them in this category before, but — also the men and women who stand up for doing what’s right. “Heroes…. come from different wars, different battles, I guess,” said Paul.
“I think it’s fair to consider them heroes,” Richard paused thoughtfully then continued. “Okay, now to the last set of images,” he continued as the barren mountainous landscape appeared on the screen, the Native American on horseback, the Iwo Jima memorial, the internment camp, and the sign that Japanese were not wanted in an all-white community. “What do these images make you think or feel?” he asked Paul.
“Okay, this may sound a little crazy, but the first image made me think of John Wayne. Remember him? The actor in so many old Western movies my brother and I watched on Saturday mornings. In many of them, John Wayne would often ride across a territory that looked like the one in the image. So my first thought was to wonder where’s John Wayne,” Paul chuckled.
“It makes me think of the Westerns I watched as a kid, too,” said Richard. “It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized…” his voice trailed off as he stopped in mid-thought. “Well, let’s finish your thoughts before I chime in.”
“I was just going to say that after this discussion, even though you guys haven’t talked much, now I see the couplings differently. The majesty of the landscape against the solo Indian whose lands were taken away. The triumph of America capturing Iwo Jima against the internment of Japanese during World War II. Their homes, businesses, and the sense of pride for many as Japanese Americans were all taken away when sent to those camps. And last, the racist comment on the sign. In some ways, it goes back to the slave quarters in the first set of images. I wouldn’t have thought of it without this discussion, but my wife’s reading a book a friend gave her called The Color of Law. She hasn’t finished it yet but told me — saying I should read it too — that it’s about housing segregation. How intentional the federal government has been in separating people of color from white people. And how the inability to purchase homes, even when they had the money, has put Black people at a disadvantage today in terms of homeownership and achieving the American Dream. She knows, as an architect, I’ve worked with contractors and property developers who — I think — are only focused on gentrification and the creation of housing for the most affluent, something I’ve seen in this neighborhood. But other than making a comment or observation to her about that, I’ve never really considered the impact. And probably wouldn’t have without today’s exercise. Now I know I’ll read that book.” Paul shook his head. “Okay, Richard, you stopped something you wanted to say; what is it?”
“Well, it was about the lone Native American in the picture. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I learned about the Trail of Tears and the forced relocation of Native Americans. Then recently, I realized I thought of Native Americans as people in the past, with no genuine sense of where they are in America today. You mentioned The Color of Law. Let me suggest another book to you. I just finished There, There by Tommy Orange. It wasn’t until reading that book, I even thought about urban Native Americans. Not out on the prairie like we’ve been programmed to visualize them but living in cities across the country and not like in the old West. It’s a fascinating book. Very eye-opening,” Richard said. “No pun intended,” he smiled.
Not catching that, fixed in thought, Paul replied: “Weird, but I’d never thought about them in that light either,” he rubbed his chin. “So much is programmed into us we just don’t acknowledge or that we’re not consciously aware of. Now I know why that device on my head kept feeling tighter and heavier. There was so much going on in my head, information going into my brain struggling with other thoughts I held or had been there for decades. That weighed on me. So, so many thoughts and ideas trying to take hold, presenting a different viewpoint,” he looked at the two doctors.
“That’s the purpose of our exercise, Paul,” Manuel nodded and broke his silence. “It sounds like you got a lot out of it. The first goal is to encourage thinking about racial equity broadly, a topic that many believe isn’t focused on adequately. The second is to reflect on racial realities that shape how we all see our world and the people in it.” Manuel scanned the room, his gaze on the walls as if using the heightened vision he had spoken of and seeing what was beyond. “Then, of course, the ultimate purpose of the exercise is to inspire people to act differently.
There were four principles intended to come from this exercise,” continued Manuel, as he stood and stepped to a whiteboard on the wall and started writing. They are:”
1. If racial justice isn’t top of mind, you won’t see racial injustice.
2. Reflection is essential to seeing and understanding racial inequity.
3. Our thoughts are influenced by many people and many things.
4. Racism is historical and continues today.
When he was done, he went back and underlined and emphasized some words. “The developers thought that TRUTH might be an easy acronym to help folks remember the lessons. T for top of mind; RU reflection leads to understanding; T for our thoughts and how they get in our heads, and H for historical. Okay,” Manuel smiled, “it’s not a perfect fit, but you get it, and I bet you’ll remember.” He paused, studying Paul. “So, what are you thinking now?”
“That’s just it… there’s so much I just didn’t think about before,” Paul answered. “I didn’t grow up around Black people. Some attended my schools, mostly when I got to college, but I just saw them as people. My parents taught me to treat everyone the same… and I guess that’s what I’ve tried to do. I’ve never thought about the barriers to success people of color faced or continue to face or thought about the hardships they’ve had to overcome. I really thought that the civil rights movement had fixed everything. You must think I’m naïve, huh?”
“We think you’re like many people, Paul, who can’t, or won’t, see racism exists or don’t realize its extent. Or are unaware of or unwilling to recognize — because of its little impact on them — America’s double-standard and historical hypocrisy. That isn’t an indictment of them or you. It only becomes one if people to whom it’s revealed choose to ignore how damaging it was… and still is. This — what we’ve done this morning — is a first step in seeing differently,” Richard said. “The partner organizations, particularly the National Council on Racial Justice, the lead group, believe invisible racism is the most dangerous and damaging kind. It’s not the overt racism we see from people who wave Confederate flags or shout hate-filled words at people who don’t look like them. That’s obvious, and many people claim they’re not like that. And they’re probably not. But what this effort is all about… what it’s intended to reveal is the beliefs and structures that prevent people of color, particularly Black people, often from getting a fair shake in America. That’s called structural racism, and it’s embedded in our country in many, many ways.”
Paul interrupted, “Richard, do you really believe that? That Black people don’t get a fair chance?”
“I do. I’m Black, but it even took me a long time to see it, Paul. I thought if we all played by the rules, we’d have a chance to succeed. But more and more, I see that — largely — isn’t so. Some folks have been so disadvantaged over so long that they need changes made to end what prevents them from getting ahead. No, not ahead… just to catch up. To get to ground zero, so to speak,” Richard declared. “For many, it’s hard to see the hidden advantages in their own life compared to people of color. And often, when they see, hear, or read of someone who fails, like the homeless vet you saw, the default thought is to blame the person. Especially when they’re a person of color. When people advocate for racial equity and justice, like Colin Kaepernick, there’s a different lens put on them.”
“I agree with everything Richard just said,” Manuel commented. “Paul, I want to say one thing before we wrap up. You mentioned your parents taught you to treat everyone the same. Many of us say that, but it’s not what we mean. Your parents didn’t teach you to treat the postal carrier the same way you do, say an aunt or another family member, right?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Paul replied. “I suppose what I was trying to say was my parents told me to treat everyone with respect and kindness. That’s what I’ve tried to do all of my life.”
“What this work, this experience also tries to point out is kindness and respect aren’t enough to change the structures that prevent or impede people of color from succeeding,” Manuel noted. “Just look at the Japanese internment camps or at Colin Kaepernick. If you had been alive during that time, you might have been kind to a Japanese person who you encountered, but would you have lobbied against placing the Japanese in those camps? Or today, if by some coincidence you ended up at an event seated next to Colin Kaepernick, I bet you’d be polite and carry on a conversation. But do you feel that his cause is your cause? Do you believe, as Kaepernick does, that many in America have wronged Black people, lethally sometimes, and this must be corrected? And if you believe that, what will you do?”
“That’s tough,” Paul said. “I don’t think I’d have spoken up on behalf of the Japanese during World War II. I’d have felt it unpatriotic, un-American. I would’ve been viewed as siding with the enemy.”
“The enemy,” interjected Richard. “Even though many of them were American citizens?”
“I know,” Paul said. “But they were also Japanese. I might not have thought it was right, but I probably wouldn’t have said anything.” He hesitated and then continued: “And as far as the fictional dinner party where I’m seated next to Colin Kaepernick. Before today, I probably would have talked with him about his football career. I’ve always thought talking about race is impolite. I’m not sure why, but I know that’s how I felt before this morning. Now, I’d ask him why he did what he did and what he thought happened because of it.”
“Being more comfortable about discussing race and racism is definitely a good start. If we don’t talk about it, we’ll never get to the core of structural racism and implicit bias. Which means we’ll never change and never fix it,” said Manuel.
“So, Paul, would you ever see yourself — even if only in some fictional reality — protesting with Colin Kaepernick?” asked Richard.
“No, that’s his fight,” Paul responded immediately.
“His fight because he’s Black?” Richard asked just as quickly.
“Hmm…. I guess that’s what I was thinking. I just don’t see myself being a part of that fight,” Paul replied, checking his watch.
Manuel noticed and darted a glance at his partner. “It’s probably time to end this conversation.”
Richard caught Manuel’s look and nodded. “Paul, thank you for agreeing to be a part of this exercise. I want to say one more thing. I understand why you may not want to join Colin Kaepernick’s protest. But part of the point of this is that seeing the world differently is only the beginning. It’s necessary to understand structural racism exists and that biased behaviors based on race, like responding differently to a job applicant based on that person’s name, happen every day. Racism isn’t in my imagination because I’m a Black person or Manuel’s because he’s Latino. Social science research has shown the truth. It exists. TRUTH, remember? And the devastating and generational impact of structural racism, like that in housing, is also true. Getting that understanding through exercises like today’s is the first step. The thought process — your contemplation — about what you saw as we’ve talked is vital. Just as you said that, at first, you preferred to focus on Monticello’s beauty than the horrors faced by enslaved people. It is easier not to see the horrors… the injustice. Still, we — all of us — must. Or we can never change things for the better.”
Manuel steepled his fingers under his chin and studied Paul. “The next step is the most important. Commit to being a part of the solution. And that’s the hardest part of all. It goes well beyond being kind and engaging with your dinner party tablemate, Colin Kaepernick. It goes to seeing his challenge as yours and taking the actions that you can to fight racism in America.”
“You’ve given me a lot to think about,” Paul nodded, “and I’m not just acting polite. I have to get to work, but, quickly, what can I do next?” Paul asked.
“You know that expression: ‘See something, say something’ that became popular after September 11th? That applies to work on racial equity, too,” replied Manuel. “Speak out when you see someone or a group being unfairly treated because of their race or ethnicity. You can speak up to a neighbor or to an elected official. Think about what happened and who can change that reality. Maybe it’s a neighbor who has spoken his or her belief, and you give them a different lens to use now that you’ve been through this exercise. Maybe your voice can be raised at a public hearing, or you can march in a protest, or you can simply write a letter to an elected official or organizational leader who has the power to make a difference. Just like you said, you’d do…. read The Color of Law; maybe you can pass it on or another book that explores racial equity to broaden and deepen your thinking or suggest such a book to someone trying to learn and understand racial injustice. There is so much that we can each do. We just have to take that first step.”
As Paul left the office and headed to work, he realized he felt good — really good — about what he had just experienced. He had actually enjoyed the conversation with Manuel and Richard. As he was about to enter the metro station, he called his wife.
“Hi, honey,” Marie answered. “How was your appointment with Dr. Black? Everything okay, or is it time for new glasses?”
“It was different,” Paul said, “really different.”
“Different… what do you mean? An eye exam is an eye exam….”
“Not like the one I just took. Listen, I’m at the metro, but are you done with that book you’re reading?”
“The Color of Law?”
“Yeah. I want to read it.”
“Really? When I mentioned you should, you just replied, ‘Uh-huh… okay.’ I thought you were just saying that and never would. It’s thought-provoking, though. But I’m not finished reading it yet.”
“I really would like to read it now while some things are fresh on my mind. I’ll give it back to you when I’m done. Love you, gotta go,” said Paul as he stepped onto the escalator down to the metro platform. He needed to think about all of this and so much more, but he understood a lot more, too. The world was not precisely as he had seen it when he woke up just a few hours ago. He now knew he’d never given much thought to non-white people’s history in America, the challenges white men and women never have to confront. That was going to change. He was going to be an active learner, and that decision made him laugh. The quote magnet Marie had put on their refrigerator — the one he, after reading a few times, ignored — now had meaning. He saw it — six simple words — without thinking, every time he snacked or got a cold beer: “When you know better, do better.” Those words from Maya Angelou were going to be his new mantra. He would do better.
# # #
Note to the Reader
That’s the end of the story or the end of this story. Can you see the possibility that structural racism and implicit bias exist? Does the coupling of images help you see how we treat people and situations differently based on our racial lens? A lens developed unconsciously over an entire lifetime — a flawed focus — affecting, limiting our view through omission of thought or of facts. A lens distorted by untruths, the truth filtered and disregarded, and false assumptions obscure — even mask — reality. Can you see it now?
Thomas Jefferson was a founding father and a patriot, right? He was also a slave owner who didn’t actualize his own fundamental principle of treating all men as equals. Is there a possibility you treat people differently based on their race or ethnicity? Because someone is Native American, Asian American, Latinx, or African American, do you form storylines in your head about who those people are? What efforts have you made — or been exposed to in society or your formal schooling — to educate yourself on the history of people who don’t look like you and who have had a different experience?
America isn’t perfect, but the country’s founding principles offer a decent starting place. We can live up to those principles, but we simply must first be grounded in TRUTH. Not through tinted or rose-colored glasses, but the crystal-clear vision that comes when the optometrist provides you with the correct lens, and you can see the world unblurred. We can’t navigate this world and make it the best it can be for everyone without seeing clearly.
Explore the history of how Native Americans were/are treated in America, not the stylized Western imagery, but the facts and not just historically, but now. Today. Learn about Black people’s experience from the Middle Passage and enslavement through reconstruction, the great migration to the north, the civil rights movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Look at what happened when people from Asia came to this country in the mid-1800s or how, like the Asian community, the Latino community is viewed monolithically, and inaccurately. We have so much to learn about each other; our history, our struggles, our goals. We are more alike than we are different, but we must acknowledge and appreciate those differences.
For centuries, we have thought (or wanted to think) of America as a melting pot where everyone abandoned their cultural heritage to become American, meaning white-American. I no longer believe that is the goal or that it ever should have been. We want to celebrate each group’s uniqueness that has come — is coming together — to make America.
And, here’s the final thought. We must know and understand the wrongs of the past. We cannot pretend they didn’t happen. No, we don’t want to become stuck looking backward, but comprehending how we got here will enable us to better understand where we are and to use that experience and our current strengths to create a much brighter, equitable future.
This story has ended, but the work has just begun.
P.S. For more of my writings, visit my blog www.daughtersofthedream.org or order my book, Daughters of the Dream: Eight girls from Richmond who grew up in the Civil Rights era, from most online book sellers.
[i] The American Society of Optometry is a fictitious organization.
[ii] The National Council on Racial Justice is a fictitious organization.