Imagine an alien accidentally teleported to your neighborhood and started exploring your favorite stomping grounds. What would they
What conclusions would they draw about their new environment?
Would they be able to pinpoint the country? state? city? street?
The answer is…maybe.
Anthropologists believe that “place” is shaped by our sensory perception and vice versa. Every single corner of the globe is a unique amalgamation of visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile input/output. If we pay close enough attention, we can use this information to orient ourselves and make interpretations about our surroundings. In this light, our five senses not only help us discern physical phenomena, but they also provide a vehicle for cultural understanding.
Think about the last time you traveled somewhere “foreign”. Picture yourself stepping off of the plane and taking everything in. Maybe you saw pine trees or heard crows cawing or smelled leaves burning in the distance…. whatever the combination, you determined you were in novel territory based on these new sensory experiences. During your stay, you collected more data and, ultimately, left with an enlightened view of the region and its inhabitants.
Far more challenging, however, is pinpointing what makes “home” feel like home. It is very difficult for human beings to separate themselves from their milieu, particularly to the degree that they can be objective about their own cultural framework. For instance, I grew up in New England and never thought of pine trees, cawing crows, or burning leaves as exotic. Maybe you had a similar reaction to the aforementioned example as a local New Yorker reading this blog post. Instead, our default is to assume that our experience is the norm.
David Foster Wallace alludes to this notion in his famous commencement speech, “This is Water,” when he compares us to fish; fish have no idea they are swimming in water because they were born into an aquatic ecosystem. They simply cannot conceptualize any other existence. Similarly, it is nearly impossible for us to fathom how much our circumstances dictate the way we construe ourselves and the world, let alone recognize all of our inherent biases.
Yet, I believe we could be moving towards a higher level of collective consciousness in the United States. A global pandemic has taught us that we are not, in fact, all in this together. COVID-19 impacted people differently, e.g., some people were laid-off while others profited from it. At the same time, regardless of how it affected you, the virus forced us all to hit pause in one way, shape, or form. Slowing down enabled us to pay more attention to the present moment—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the feelings. We became more attuned to ourselves and each other.
In the wake of this shift, a viral video reminded us, once again, that anti-blackness is deeply woven into the fabric of our society. Some of us privileged enough to plead ignorance are coming home to the fact that our nation was founded on, and continues to benefit from, systemic racism. Now it is our task to step back and look at our own ecosystem with fresh eyes, ears, and hearts. Awareness is the only way we will all come close to seeing what is—water—and foster the resilience to fully realize what could be.