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White Blindness thwarts genuine desire to help others, even in Alaska

  • Author: Anna Thomas
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 14, 2015

As winter comes yet again, who can forget what an incredible place we call home? Alaska is a place like no other, largely because of its rich, diverse cultural heritage. And as with the anger over the renaming of Denali, outsiders often have no concept of what Alaskans, from all different ethnic and racial backgrounds, want and need. However, even within Alaska a blindness can exist.

I have always wanted to help people, and as a child, the process of helping appeared very straightforward. The people I knew were white Americans. So I began trying to help by giving other people all I knew: The things that I, as a white American wanted and needed. As I traveled as an international aide volunteer and tourist, contact with a world bigger than the one I had known as a child began to expand my mind. In a small way I became aware of the complexities of international, interethnic, and interracial aid. I also stumbled upon a problem. Although my desire to help had always come from a good and sincere place, a disease I did not even know that I had stifled it: White Blindness.

White Blindness is the belief that what I -- as a Caucasian American -- want and need is what everyone else in the world wants and needs as well. It stems from the perception that the world I have experienced is the same world encountered by people of other backgrounds, especially minority backgrounds. It is similar to what the famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget called "egocentrism" -- the inability to understand or assume any perspective other than our own -- but with a white twist. It affects the ways many of us who are Caucasian conceptualize ourselves, defines our experience of the world, shapes the way we hear what minority groups have to say, and dictates our reactions to issues that involve ethnicity, race and many other elements of diversity that lie outside the traditional mainstream.

White Blindness goes a bit beyond only valuing our own perspectives, however. It is an action belief. As such, White Blindness prompts us to provide help that is shaped and driven by the conviction that white, Western wants and needs are universal concepts that apply to all people everywhere, and represent the universal good. This belief is not put forward out of a hatred of other cultural groups, as is the case of white supremacists for example. Instead, White Blindness is an applied, well-intentioned ignorance that earnestly tries to promote health and wellness, but is constrained by an unintentional and often subconscious belief in the superiority of the white, Western worldview. Such blindness can be seen on a personal level, as well as a national level. It can be seen throughout history and continues to the present day.

On a personal level, I have become aware of my own blindness when it comes to ideas about raising and disciplining children. Prior to confronting these areas of my own blindness, I believed that it was ideal for all children to be raised in a nuclear family, that no one but the child's parents should ever discipline a child if possible, and that communal approaches to childrearing were in many ways "lazy parenting."

Nationally and historically, we can see White Blindness in the actions the West has taken in introducing democracy to the Middle East. As Americans, we have seen the benefits of representative democracy in our own lives. We tend to believe that democracy is universally the best system of government, regardless of the group of people being governed, and we desire that all people in the world live what we would call "free lives".

But White Blindness can also be seen closer to home. It can be seen in views on how to best educate our children, what systems of learning are superior, and even how we measure intelligence and learning. In Alaska, White Blindness can be seen in things like how some of us conceptualize the local and regional impact of Shell's pullout from their Alaska offshore oil leases, and in how we try to address high suicide rates, alcoholism and drug abuse among Native populations.

White Blindness is exposed when those in the majority population ask the question, "Is what I want and need really what everyone else wants and needs?"

Once we are ready to admit that the answer to that question is no, we are then ready to examine if there actually is a "universal good," examine how we determine need and what is best, explore what it means to be healthy, and even what it means to help. We are also ready to invite others, outside of the majority group, to the table to provide their own answers as well.

Every day we open the news to see a world in disarray, and the vast majority of us sincerely desire to help. We are a diverse people, and the debate over how to help each other can quickly become heated. The answers we come up with will and should be complex, as our world, like Alaska, is a beautiful patchwork of diversity.

No individual or group is the whole problem, nor will any individual or group be able to provide the whole solution. Rather, the task entrusted to all of us begins with awareness -- awareness of who we are, where we come from, what we value, and what we as individuals want and need. To this awareness we must add the knowledge that the wants and needs of others will often be uniquely different from our own.

There is beauty and possibility in this knowledge if we allow it to become part of our working consciousness. Our ability to connect with and truly help each other depends upon it.

Anna Thomas is a clinical-community doctoral student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a registered nurse. After working 10 years in nursing, specializing in critical care and community health, she transitioned to the field of mental health in 2013, where she specializes in the integration of medical and mental health care services to help create systems that focus on the whole patient.

Correction: An earlier version of this commentary used the term "ethnocentrism" in connection to Jean Piaget, when "egocentrism" would have been accurate. The mistake has been corrected above.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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