Small children all have prodigious imaginations. Observe any preschool classroom, and you will see that every child exhibits some sort of expression of wonderful and nonlinear thinking. Somewhere along the way, many adults seem to lose access to this part of themselves. I would even suggest that our country seems to be mired in a kind of Cold War, a kind of Civil War, between people who can access their imaginations and people who can’t, or won’t.
Evidence of this is the recent news about a group of straight, white men trying to organize a “Straight Pride Parade” for Boston later in the summer. This group of people looks at the LGBTQ community and wonders why they get their own parade; why can’t we straight people have one? Some of the more hilarious comments about this on Twitter and Facebook point out that every time there’s a celebratory parade for a sports championship, that is a kind of straight parade. The problem, though, is that this small group of straight white men lacks the ability to imagine why a group of people might need some sort of public celebration of who they are. The LGBTQ community has routinely been discriminated against, denied access to health care, denounced by religious institutions, etc. etc. (for a better explanation, please read ”LGBTQ Allies at Pride Need to Know These 9 Things Before They Go”: https://www.bustle.com/p/lgbtq-allies-at-pride-need-to-know-these-9-things-before-they-go-9376627). Straight people are not targeted for their sexual orientation. So, for some, it’s impossible to imagine that a group of people could be targeted for that reason. STRAIGHT PEOPLE DON’T NEED A CELEBRATION PARADE because we have nothing to celebrate that our privilege doesn’t afford us every single day. This is an example of a lack of imagination on the part of the Straight Pride organizers.
A lack of imagination, or access to imagination, is clear when you hear someone say “Black Lives Matter? ALL LIVES MATTER!” Again, people who say this are unable, or unwilling to imagine a reality that is not theirs; a reality in which you are at risk of losing your life just because of the color of your skin, or a reality in which you can’t enjoy the art at a local museum because patrons and staff assume the worst of you because of your skin color. Black Lives Matter is necessary because the default in our society is that only white lives really matter. If you are white, you don’t see the discrimination, bias, and threats that people of color experience. Again, we white people need to access our imaginations in order to see things we don’t experience.
A lack of imagination is how our country got in this particular pickle (constitutional catastrophe?) we are currently in. Too many people couldn’t imagine a woman president. Her faults were so magnified that they trumped (pun intended) the daily moral and legal transgressions committed by the person who did get elected. Women must be gold to do a bronze job, the saying goes. We have to be beyond perfect because too many people can’t imagine us in positions of authority or power.
The bias against women, the lack of imagination about who we are and can be, is deep and often not conscious. Recently I was one of 6 composers commissioned for a certain project. At the culmination of the project, checks were issued to the male composers. A check was not brought for me and I had to fight for weeks to get paid. Did the organizers say “Let’s not pay Marti because she’s a woman”? Of course not, but even more insidious is that I wasn’t even on the radar. I am often left off of email lists for groups I am in. Do people do this intentionally? I doubt it. But, once again, I am not on the radar. A former student of mine told me that she, an expert in electronic music and sound production, was not taken seriously by a sound engineer at a concert where she was trying to work on the correct levels for her piece. Every single woman professor I know has stories about the young men in their classes not taking them seriously, and often openly defying them and questioning them. Recently I was at a lecture-demonstration by Dr. Kate Biberdorf (aka Kate the Chemist at https://www.katethechemist.com/). She is amazing and brilliant AND HAS BEEN ON STEPHEN COLBERT so I asked her if she experiences this problem. Her answer? “Every. Single. Day.” What does all of this have to do with imagination? I think we all need to take it as a given that we have unconscious biases about things, and try to access our imaginations to root them out. Once we are aware of them, we are a step closer to eliminating them. Assume that you have unconscious bias about people who are not like you.
In addition to experiencing bias as a woman (and by the way, while the above examples may not seem bad to you, try to imagine them happening all day, every day- it is a death by 1000 pinpricks), I also have the apparent invisibility that comes with age, height (lack thereof), and appearance. Every day I am bumped into, ignored in restaurants, generally treated as if I weren’t there. “I didn’t see you” is not an apology. Try to imagine that there are people around you whom you don’t see at first. Look around, look up, look down. Look away from your phone. See the humans around you and celebrate their infinite variety of existence. Imagine us, and imagine our excellence. I promise you it won’t detract from your own.