Charlottesville and how some cats helped me understand racism

Published 7:29 pm Saturday, August 19, 2017

By Erin Smith

What can cats see? Two neuroscientists named Hubel and Wiesel wanted to find out.

They raised a group of kittens in a world made up entirely of horizontal lines. The wallpaper inside of their cages ran horizontally and even the handlers who fed them wore horizontally striped shirts.

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What Hubel and Wiesel found was that cats raised in this environment were then unable to perceive vertical lines. They could see the top of a table and would jump up for a catnap.

But they constantly bumped into the vertical table legs, unable to see any orientation other than lines running left to right. Their neurons were dedicated only to seeing their world a single way.

Humans are like that. It seems there are many in this country who were raised to only see a single, narrow sort of world.

What happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week is appalling. The current culture illustrates rampant racism and fear of those who look, pray, and think differently.

This sort of intolerance exists even here, in my beloved hometown. It seems more and more a culture where hateful ideology isn’t scared to show its face. And I can’t help but wonder how someone adopts such a negative worldview.

Then I remember those cats. Babies define their world only by the things they are exposed to. If children are raised in a world where they only see hatred and violence, they will struggle to develop tolerance, compassion or trust.

If they only see a narrow world that doesn’t cultivate curiosity, they will be ill equipped to see the beautiful diversity that the earth has to offer.

Their neurons will never develop to perceive differences as a gift, but only as something to fearfully distrust. It works in reverse too, of course.

If children are raised in an easy, sanitized and privileged environment, they will struggle to understand that fear and distrust.

So we’re victims of our upbringing, right? Remember those cats? Once those cats were exposed to vertical lines in their environment, their brains started to build new neural connections and, over time, they learned to grasp their world with a new focus.

Seeing that new orientation was initially terrifying; many of the cats showed stress responses like manic fur licking, yowling and fighting other cats during the process. But eventually they accepted their new reality and returned to sleeping and purring.

Like those poor cats, we are limited by our realities and our fearful reactions. But we can choose to nurture a different way of seeing and being in the world.

I was raised with plenty of unearned privilege. I could turn on any television and see my skin color represented, my faith represented, my sexual orientation represented. My nuclear family cultivated the celebration of differences, but I was puzzled by not seeing that diversity played out on a larger cultural stage.

The hair products sold at Day Drugs were for hair like mine, the pictures in my Seventeen magazine featured girls that looked just like me.

As I got older, politicians curried my favor because, seemingly, my vote mattered. I can now commit a crime and the collective judgment will be attributed to me as an individual, rather than to the class and race to which I belong. I can walk up and down my street after dark with no legitimate concern for my safety. I have access to health care.

People don’t assume I’m uneducated, lazy or a thug based solely on my appearance. These societal honors were bestowed upon me without my having done anything to deserve them.

It’s important that I be aware of this, so that I can better understand the struggles of people not afforded these luxuries. Admitting a problem exists is the first step in building a better tomorrow.

I want to see the vertical lines of race, want to explore and understand the ugliness to be a part of the solution.

When Trayvon Martin was shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer in 2012, it shook me to the core. I had nightmares about it, couldn’t stop talking about it with my family, couldn’t stop texting my black friends with questions (to their credit, they must have rolled their eyes in private at the naïve white girl, but were always more than willing to have an honest dialogue with me).

While I would be the first to spew the rhetoric of not judging someone based on their skin color, I realized how little I truly understood race relations in my town and country. Racism didn’t directly affect me, so I couldn’t possibly be part of the problem, right? But silence in the face of racism is, and should be, interpreted as complicity and acceptance.

I want to show up and own up for the part I play in the problem.

So I started to educate myself. I asked my black friends what books they wished every white American would read (see below for my short list). I invited friends of all colors to dinner and we talked about those books. My family started going to some of the black churches in town, praying and singing with people whose skin is darker than ours.

I joined a monthly race relations community group that arose from my Public Innovator’s Training for Stronger Communities through the Harwood Institute. I’ve learned heartbreaking things about Clark County’s history of farmers owning other human beings.

Did you know that so-called “brood farms” were operated in our hometown, where male slaves were forced to procreate with many different women to populate the slave ranks and create more wealth for slave owners come “market time?” This was rape, on a massive, and frighteningly legal, scale. It’s unsettling and disgusting. But it’s far more disgusting to pretend it never happened.

Learning these things was hard. I felt scared at times, like those cats seeing vertical lines for the first time. I’ve encountered truths that make me want to self-soothe, lick my fur and maybe yowl a little in frustration. I’ve felt indignant, prickly, defensive and very uncomfortable.

But being uncomfortable is a necessary part of the healing process. If, as individuals and as a community, we’re willing to show up and own up for our biases, we can heal them. But we must actively look for the vertical lines in our world, must choose to see the world through a larger lens and step outside our narrow confines to become more educated and involved.

Every time we see and accept the scary vertical lines in our world, we leave it stronger and more united.

Short book list

-— “Between The World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

— “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander

— “The Sisters Are Alright” by Tamara Winfrey-Harris

Erin Smith is the owner of the OM place in Winchester, the author of “Sensible Wellness for Women” and the online host of a yoga and mindfulness channel for Eppic Films. She wants everyone to make friends with meditation, eat real food, move their bodies and hit the pillow a little earlier. When she’s not standing on her head, she enjoys being a wife, mother, dancer, reader, flower sniffer, guitar player and wine drinker. Send her a shout out at or play along at