Seeing in Blindness, Knowing in Ignorance
Keith Burns, a SEED leader and theatre arts director with 24 years of teaching experience, wrote this piece about how SEED helped open his eyes to systems of privilege.
Keith Burns, Theatre Arts Director, Phoenix Country Day School, Paradise Valley, Arizona
SEED New Leaders’ Week 2009
Essay written 2013
One of the most meaningful aspects of my SEED training and SEED seminars is the extent to which I have been made aware of things I did not know that I did not know. I have always been aware of what I know that I don’t know. My knowledge of things like global economics, chemistry, computer programming, and gourmet cooking is weak to non-existent. And I know that. SEED has shown me that there are other things that I don’t know, but I don’t know that I don’t know them. This captured my attention. SEED has continually made me more aware of these potentially dangerous blind spots.
Before SEED, I did not know that I did not know about how my gender (for example) has unconsciously determined how I relate to other people, including my students. I thought I was in touch with how I interacted with my students of both genders, and I blithely assumed that I was running an equal opportunity classroom with equal access for the needs of all of my students, male and female. SEED has opened my eyes to the complicated reality that I had no idea how my maleness impacted my relationships with boys and with girls. I discovered that I unconsciously favored and valued female students in certain ways and male students in others. Unconscious and unaware, I never knew that I didn’t know what I was doing. I never saw how some students reacted to me differently from the way they reacted to my female colleagues, and that my gender had something to do with it. SEED helped me understand the paradox of being aware of my gender identity and at the same time forgetting about it. I am at the point where I must acknowledge that my gender identity impacts my relationships and interactions with both students and colleagues. But now I know that I don’t know it! I am aware of my lack of awareness, which is a much healthier place to be than not knowing I don’t know.
Along these lines, SEED has helped me see very powerful forces in my life to which I had previously been blind. I have been blind to them in part because I am among those who benefit from them. I have always understood the concept of privilege — white privilege, male privilege, financial privilege, etc. — but I had always missed the sneaky little truth that people who thrive in their own privilege are too often unable to see it. Privilege is far more visible to those who are denied access to it. Peggy McIntosh refers to white privilege as "The Invisible Knapsack." I liken any kind of privilege to an invisible coat you wear in the cold. You don’t know you are wearing it, but you’re not cold, and so you blithely go about your comfortable life unaware of the coat of privilege that keeps you warm. You may even be unaware of the frigid temperatures that surround you and impact the lives of those without the coat. The irony lies in the unfortunate truth that those who lack whatever privilege you unconsciously enjoy see your coat, they feel the cold, and they also see your lack of awareness. SEED has helped me become conscious that my comfort comes from a coat I did not know I was wearing.
Remarkably, SEED shines the light on this privilege in a caring and gentle manner, allowing me to become more aware of the cold that surrounds us, the coat that protects me from it, and my fellow humans who brace themselves against the chill of sexism, racism, classism, "looksism," and myriad other "isms" that set the temperature on the social thermostats of our humanity. In my SEED learning, I am not shamed for having my coat, I am told that I am not to blame for the inequity my privilege creates, and I need not carry any guilt for having not known about what was so obvious to others. Guilt is not productive. Taking responsibility is. How gracious it is to be made aware of my privilege with such gentle care!
Here’s the magic of SEED and its ability to create vision where there was none. No one told me about my privilege. No one blatantly revealed to me that my life was something other that what I understood it to be. SEED simply welcomed me into conversations about myself and about others, about history and about the present, about ideas and about truths. And because I took part in conversation, because SEED showed me how to take part in conversation, and because SEED showed me that conversation is as much about listening as it is about talking, I discovered within that which I had not known and had not seen. I discovered personal experiences relating to important aspects of how our human world works. And when my eyes were opened and my mind made aware, I wept. I wept because now I knew and because suddenly I saw.