Last Thursday, social media was filled with pictures of a striped dress. Posts asked people what colors they saw, and debates began about whether the dress was white and gold, or blue and black, or some other combination of colors. People on my bowling league brought their phones to me to ask “what colors do you see?”
At first, I was a little annoyed that so much energy was being put into a discussion of the perception of the color of a dress in a poorly color balanced photo. I thought of the serious issues in our world, and how difficult it can be to rally people around issues that really affect people’s lives. And yet, this seemed to be the most important issue.
As time wore on, some took actual samples of the pixels in the photo. A more professional photo of the dress was found. Multiple explanations were given for the different ways people perceived the color of the dress, including a comic illustrating the problem. Humorous reviews of the actual dress were posted on amazon.com.
After the photo and its associated debate stopped trending, I began to think of the dress as a metaphor for how people on different sides of a conflict are able to see the same situation in very different ways. Having just returned from a workshop on transforming conflict in the church, perhaps I was primed to see this. But here was a case where people could see two very different sets of colors, depending on how their brains interpreted the colors surrounding the dress.
We often have very different understandings of issues in our churches and governments. And sometimes it is because we are looking at two different sets of information: as if there were two different photos of the striped dress.
But often, we begin with the same information and come to different conclusions. In the case of the dress, it’s because our brains have been wired to correct the colors we see based on the lighting, but our brains may have been wired differently.
I have to wonder how our differently-wired brains affect how we see our differences.
The interesting part of this particular visual puzzle is that it is only this photo of the dress that causes confusion. A good photo – or better still – the actual dress would easily settle the debate. Even the photo of the dress on amazon.com shows a blue and black dress. And as I sit in my little three bedroom ranch in my little middle class subdivision, I’m thinking about how being removed from the actual subject can cause me to have a limited view of what is real and true.
How often does our distance from the actual issue distort our understanding? And how can we overcome that distortion?
We can try to get a better information, but only first hand experience will tell us the truth. Short of having the actual dress, we can never know what that dress is like. A better picture may help us see it more clearly, but we will never really know the dress unless we see it with our own eyes, and touch it with our own hands, and wear it on our own bodies.
Some have tried experiments, such as white journalist John Howard Griffin’s six weeks traveling as a black man in the South, detailed in his book Black Like Me; or that of Timothy Kurek, who spent a year living as a gay man. Some politicians have lived in public housing or tried to live on food stamps for a period of time.
And like trying on the dress, these efforts give us greater insight into the lives of those with whom we want to be allied. But what we experience with a dress in a fitting room can be very different from what we experience actually wearing the dress, walking in it, sitting in it, cleaning it, and living with it for years.
We can’t just step into the lives of those affected, knowing we can safely return to what we’ve known before, and expect to know what it’s like to have truly lived that experience.
So what is an ally to do?
Too often, those having the debate about an issue are not the ones being affected. Where are the voices of low income workers in the minimum wage debate? Do #BlackVoicesMatter when talking about how #BlackLivesMatter?
What we can do, as allies, is to point to those voices who have lived the experience. We can give pulpit time to those who truly know poverty. We can offer space on a popular blog to a writer whose life story needs to be heard. We can listen to those who are closest to the issue at hand.
So maybe we need to stop looking at this photo of the dress, and find someone who actually owns it, wears it, and can tell us what it’s really like.
And we need to find ways to make heard the voices of those most affected by political decisions.