Learning About Frames and Lenses from the Three-Eyed People

This is the first post in a new blog series we’re experimenting with that will give us an opportunity to process together some material that takes a topic from of our Sunday teaching series a little further. Starting with our 2019 “Smashing Idols” series, Leah will share some readings, podcasts, videos, or other resources that resonate with the Sunday series.

This week’s reading is connected to the themes from our first teaching in the series, which you can find here. This story comes from a paper by Dr. Robin Di Angelo and Özlem Sensoy, which explores methods for antiracism education. The vignette they share is used in some of the trainings they facilitate. You’re invited to read it and reflect on how it helps illuminate this theme of elevating certain perspectives (or metaphorical “frames” and “lenses”) over others. At the bottom, you’ll find a brief reflection from Leah, and you’re invited to share your own thoughts in the comment section.

The Three-Eyed People Vignette by Robin DiAngelo and Özlem SensoY

Imagine: You have lived your life in a small, gated community. You are surrounded by family and friends and overall live a happy and healthy life. One day the gates open and you are told that you must venture out and make your way in the larger society. You are excited about the adventure that awaits you and all that you will see and discover.

On the way into the nearest city you stop at a café for lunch and notice people staring at you and whispering. A child points at your head while her mother shushes her, and another child begins to cry and hides behind his mother’s skirt. Some people smile at you kindly and offer to help you sit down, while others turn away and ignore you. You ask for a menu and the waitress points it out on the wall behind you, and with an irritated sigh asks you if you need her to read it to you. You turn around and tell her no, you can see it just fine. When you turn your body, people look away in pity or disgust. As the waitress walks away, you notice that she has a third eye on the back of her head. You are shocked and quickly look around to realize that everyone in the café has an “extra” eye on the back of their head. Feeling very uncomfortable, you rush through your meal and pay your bill. When the waitress returns your change, you hold out your hand but she places it on the counter to avoid touching you.

As you enter the city, similar dynamics occur. Although you occasionally see other two-eyed people, they are usually in service positions, working with their heads down. You begin to feel shame and dread as throughout the day it becomes clear that the three-eyed people see you as abnormal and beneath them. A doctor approaches you and offers to “fix” you. He adds that although the technology to implant a third eye is expensive and dangerous, you might be a good candidate to participate in a university study he is directing. You don’t want a third eye; you have done just fine throughout your life and are not interested in becoming “normal” on their terms. You try to explain this to the doctor, but he insists that you would find more social acceptance, which would help you have a better quality of life. “Don’t you want to be normal?” he asks. “We have the technology, why suffer unnecessarily?”

Photo credit:  Morag Riddle

Photo credit: Morag Riddle

You quickly leave the doctor and enter a sunglasses store in the mall. Three teenagers are having fun trying on a range of trendy styles. Although the extra lens at the back isn’t necessary for you, you can still wear them like everyone else does, wrapped fully around your head. You smile, excited by what you see, but as you pick up a stylish “trio,” a saleswoman approaches, takes the glasses out of your hand, and offers you a choice between two “modified trios” while gently patting your arm.

The modified glasses are bulky and unattractive and you don’t want them. The girls stop talking and watch your interaction with the saleswoman. You overhear one of them say, “Oh my god, can you imagine being born like that?” Then one of them calls out across the store, “What happened to you?” At this point you have had enough, so you tell her that nothing happened to you and that she is being rude. Shocked, she replies, “Whatever. I was just asking. You don’t need to be so sensitive.” Her friends nod along in agreement. The saleswoman steps in and says, “Dear, maybe you should go,” as one of the teens snaps a picture of the back of your head with her cell phone. Frustrated and near tears, you walk out. The last thing you hear is the saleswoman asking, “What was she doing in here anyway?”

Wanting to avoid further interactions, you decide to take in a play at the theater. As you purchase your ticket an usher hands you a white cane and tells you that you need the cane to get to your seat. You realize that although you don’t actually need the cane, it does serve the purpose of alerting others to your difference. You sit down and try to read the program but it’s written in a way that assumes a third eye; folded in order to be visible simultaneously to you and the person sitting in front of you. As you fumble with trying to figure out the sequence of the text, a three-eyed person sitting next to you glances over and, speaking very loudly and slowly, asks, “Do. You. Need. Help?” Feeling insulted, you ignore her.

The play starts and you realize that it is a biographic drama. It takes place in a special community much like the one you grew up in. But although you loved your neighborhood, it is clear that from the perspective of the three-eyed people it is a sad and depressing place. The main actor is depicting a character who has lost his third eye in a tragic accident. The play tells the story of his struggle to come to terms with his “disfigurement.” Once considered a handsome and talented young man with his life ahead of him, it is obvious to you that the three-eyed people now see him as ugly and his life as pointless. You notice that the main actor is actually a three-eyed person concealing his third eye (you later learn that this actor wins an award for his “courageous and inspiring” portrayal of a two-eyed person).

When the play ends, you feel very self-conscious about what the three-eyed people who are the majority of the audience might be thinking about you, and quickly exit the theater. You walk home with your head down, feeling ugly, and begin to wonder if you are crazy.

- Vignette from DiAngelo, R. & Sensoy, O. (2014). Calling in: Ways of speaking, thinking, seeing: Cultivating humility, curiosity, and vision in service of anti-racist practiceJournal of Understanding and Dismantling Privilege, 4(2).

Leah’s response: I find this story a thought-provoking and helpful way of illuminating how a privileged perspective in a society can undermine the very identity of someone who doesn’t share that point of view, in ways that are both overt and subtle. As a two-eyed person, in a three-eyed person world, we are reminded regularly that we are “not normal”. This growing understanding takes the two-eyed person in the story from a place of self-love, connection to others, wonder, and curiosity about the broader world, to a place of isolation, anxiety, and self-disgust. Seeing that change take place is a helpful illustration of how oppression can be internalized so that the person suffering under it begins to believe the lies that bolster the system in the first place.

I do not know what it’s like to be a two-eyed person in a three-eyed person’s world, or a person of color in a world made for whiteness, but this story reminded me of how it felt as a young adult to come into the evangelical church and realize how “not normal” I was, simply for being raised by mainline protestants. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t pray or read the Bible like these folks did. I wouldn’t have said I had a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. But I had been attending my parent’s church most of my life. It didn’t connect really spiritually for me, but I was there. I remember one new friend asked me in a very pointed way, “but are you born again?” I had no idea what he actually meant by this. (I assumed it meant you stopped going to church and then you realized that was a bad thing and came back all fervent.) I responded something like, “No. I didn’t need to be born again. I never left…”. It was clear by the look on his face that this answer was not satisfactory. Before long, I found myself so influenced by the privileging of the evangelical perspective in my faith communities, that I myself was now judging my previous faith experience and the people I had grown up with in that church, in the same ways my new friends were. It took me years to see how these biases had become internalized and impacted my capacity to embrace and integrate the faith expressions I was raised in, as well as others.

What resonates for you?