I’m a sucker for tradition, particularly around the holidays. Some of my favorite traditions revolve around watching the holiday TV “specials” that aired while I was growing up. Back in my day (he says, trying not to sound too old) those specials could only be viewed the one time a year that they were broadcast. Of course nowadays technology has removed those particular limitations. As Thanksgiving approached this year, I felt drawn to once again watch “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” to get myself into the proper holiday mindset. And so a few weeks ago I popped that DVD into my computer for this annual rite of the season.
“We’ve got ANOTHER holiday to worry about.”
For those of you not familiar with this small screen masterpiece, the story is as follows: Charlie Brown and his sister, Sally, are getting ready to go over to their grandmother’s for Thanksgiving dinner when Charlie Brown’s friend, Peppermint Patty, calls. Turns out she’s free for Thanksgiving and invites herself over to “Chuck’s” house for dinner. Moments later, with that shock still settling in, Patty calls again and invites another two friends over: Marci and Franklin.
Charlie Brown’s friend, Linus, upon hearing of this dilemma suggests that Charlie Brown could solve the problem by having two Thanksgiving dinners; one for his friends earlier in the day, and then the “real” one with his Grandmother. With the help of Snoopy and Woodstock, Charlie Brown and company get to work preparing Thanksgiving dinner for their friends and hilarious hijinx ensue.
Toward the end of the story, as the friends are all gathered around a makeshift dining table in Charlie Brown’s back yard, Linus gives a stirring speech about the first Thanksgiving. It was as I watched that moving scene that I noticed him for the first time: Franklin, the lone African American “Peanut,” sitting by himself on one side of the banquet table.
Now, I’ve watched “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” probably over 50 times at this point and never noticed the Lone Franklin before. So, I did what anyone in the 21st century would do: I took a screen shot of the scene and posted it to Facebook with the comment:
“Anyone else notice that Franklin is kind of segregated from the rest of the Peanuts gang in a ‘Charlie Brown Thanksgiving?’”
Reactions to that post ranged from surprise, concerns that I was calling Charles Schultz a racist, acknowledgement that at least Franklin was at the table (not insignificant when this was produced in 1973), to exasperation that this was being raised as an issue.
My intent was certainly not to paint “Peanuts” creator, Charles Schultz as a racist. He wasn’t, and his inclusion of an African American character in his strip in the summer of 1968 cause backlash in some parts of America. Neither was it my intent to somehow taint “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” because of the appearance of an inequity. My first thought upon seeing Franklin there was surprise because it took me 40 years to notice him!
That was quickly followed by wondering how much sooner I would have noticed if I was a person of color or someone else who felt marginalized by society. And if I was a person of color, how would seeing Franklin by himself on that side of the table make me feel? Would I just brush it off? Or would I see it as yet another example of my marginalization?
Seeing Franklin made me realize the power of the blinders that I wear each day and reminded me that sometimes I only see what I want to see. It also made me wonder, what else am I missing?
A Knack for Overlooking Our Own Faults
It’s part of human nature to have biases. One of the most common and insidious forms of bias is Confirmation Bias. Put simply, confirmation bias is when we only accept data that confirms our experiences and beliefs and reject, ignore, or otherwise dismiss information that contradicts our worldview.
For me, as a white male, my life experience has not included many instances when I felt marginalized because of what I look like or who I am. I think that made it easier for me not to “see” that kind of a situation when it was right in front of me all the time.
My experience isn’t unique, and it’s not unique to white males. Confirmation bias is part of the human condition. We all experience it. Most of the time we aren’t even aware of it. Because biases are so much a part of human nature, our challenge is not so much to eliminate them (probably impossible!) but rather to recognize them and think about how we act upon them.
It’s a Big World, Charlie Brown
I think confirmation bias is most harmful not when we argue the “facts” of a person’s experience when they’re contrary to our own, but when we deny the validity of a person’s feelings caused by that experience. I find myself doing that at times when I say things like, “You’re being overly sensitive.” Or, “not everything is about race/gender/age/religion/etc.”
That kind of approach shuts down conversation, and closes down avenues of emotional understanding. Because, while I may not be able to relate to another individual’s particular situation, there’s a good chance that I can relate to how that person feels. Experiences may not be universal, but emotions are.
A big part of my epiphany in seeing Franklin was wondering how others might view that same scene. That gave me an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective. It may be a world view that doesn’t feel “true" to me, but it’s one that I can now recognize as “true” to many other people in our society. As a result my world grew at least a little larger. It was kind of like being given a new map which shows that many of the “uncharted” areas on my personal map are actually filled with towns and cities I never knew existed.
Thank You, Franklin!
Once we “see” Franklin he can’t be unseen. Once our worlds gets bigger we’re invited to explore further and to continue to populate the uncharted areas on our maps with the people who’ve been there all along. But this is not one-way exploration. We also have the opportunity to help others erase the uncharted areas on their maps with our own, familiar “geography.” It’s not easy or comfortable pushing against those frontiers, but that’s where new discoveries are made.
So, thank you, Franklin. Thank you for expanding my world. Thank you, even, for making me feel a little uncomfortable as I wrestle with the implications of that expansion. I see you and I recognize that there are many more “Franklins" out there hidden by my blind spots.
But at least now I’ll be looking for you.
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