Friday, April 04, 2008


Author's Note: A much shorter version of this essay appeared in comments at Orcinus.

Normally, I agree completely with David Neiwert, who is wise and intelligent and one hell of a writer. His commenters, on the other hand, often get up my nose, sometimes in surprisingly amusing ways. However, today he wrote something I just can't let rest. He said, "Indeed, it is not just hard, it's practically impossible for a white person to understand the resentment that young African Americans feel after a lifetime of having doors slammed in their faces and being treated as second-class citizens."

I don't know that it's "practically impossible." I'm white, and it happens to me every day. Let me tell you about it.

Try being a white person with a visible disability for a while. If you don't notice someone visibly recoiling at your dysfunctional carcass, you'll notice the questions. (I seem to get "How did you hurt your leg?" and "Are you blind in that eye?" most often; it's not unlike how pregnant women find their bodies are suddenly public property. If I were going to be really full of hubris about it, I'd imagine it's similar to the questions people of colour get about their hair, getting sunburns, and that sort of thing.)

That's assuming of course people don't just skip straight to talking to you like you're five years old even long after you've been buying alcohol regularly without getting carded.

Hell, even the landscape discriminates against you -- how many restaurants/public facilities have you been in lately where the bathrooms are in the basement, and/or where the front doors aren't level-access? (Aren't "grandfathered" building code exemptions great?) Try waiting hours for a paratransit bus booked days in advance, only to have it not show up, which makes people think you're unreliable and irresponsible for not making your appointments.

Try hearing statistics like that anti-disabled hate crimes are rising.

Or that where you live, almost one in three disabled people who want to work and are capable are unemployed anyway (compared with an overall rate of six in a hundred). If you actually do manage to find and keep a job, try looking at the dismal state of your finances and then hearing that other, able-bodied people with your level of skill and education are making tens of thousands of dollars a year more than you, and have been for their entire careers. Think about what that means for your retirement, which, for health reasons, will probably come earlier than most people's. (Not being American, I don't even have to worry about being trapped in a crappy job I hate because I desperately need the health insurance -- just being trapped in a crappy job I hate because if I quit I can't be sure I'll get another one before I go broke and wind up "at no fixed address." Again.)

Try hearing things like that the actual medical name of your condition is considered a rather severe pejorative. Try hearing that it's considered to be the worst thing you can call someone. I don't live in the country where it is, but the fact that there is a country where that word is considered to be the worst possible insult should give you some pause.

(I am a spastic, and can people please not use the term as an insult anymore? "Spastic" is the actual medical terminology. It means "muscular rigidity." Have a nice rigidly muscular day.)

Try hearing, "When I first met you, I thought that thing with your eye was really creepy/freaky/weird"...

...from your boyfriend of two years. And your best friend. And various other friends and acquaintances who all sound suitably shame-faced about it, but still.

Bonus points: Watch how it freaks certain people out that you even have a boyfriend, because, ew, disabled people want to have sex?! The upside to the residual cultural freakiness about gimp sexuality is that at least if you're female, the normal rigid looks-based patriarchal gender enforcement doesn't apply to you quite as much. On the other hand, since you're obviously not a sex object, you're going to be trained from the age of awareness to be helpful and obsequious to anyone and everyone, that is, trained as a service object.*

Then try having the humbling realisation that compared to what you would have gone through if you'd been born thirty, fifty, a hundred years earlier, you've got it good. I mean, systemic, looks-based prejudice beats being dead, caged in a crate, locked in an attic, or institutionalised just on general principles.

Then, if and when you admit how angry you are about how bad things still are, people say "I think you're overreacting," "You're reading too much into it," "If you were nicer to people, they'd be nicer to you," "Why are you so bitter?" "There's nothing you can do about it."

While you're watching how few depictions of people like you there are in the media, and how most of them are either tragic characters or victims of violence, watch people blame you for prejudice-related problems. Watch it happen over and over again. Watch them tell you: If you can't get a job, you must be doing something wrong. If you can't catch a break, you just can't get out of your own way.

Count the number of times someone tells you that "you have to stop feeling sorry for yourself." Count the number of times someone tells you that you'd do better if only you would stop feeling sorry for yourself. Count the number of times the same people confuse (conflate) being angry with "feeling sorry for yourself." Count the number of times you suspect they're doing it on purpose because it makes them feel better.

Count the number of times you manage to say something polite back. Count the number of times you don't call someone out on being rude.

Count the number of times you feel ashamed of yourself for wanting to punch that person in the face.

On the other hand, watch able-bodied people insinuate and argue behind your back that you're getting something you don't deserve if you happen to be a beneficiary of government largesse/an assistance programme/affirmative action.

So yeah, I think at least some white people can kind of get an inkling of why black people are pissed off due to the white overclass treating them like shit.

I can only imagine what handicapped people of colour go through...

(Keep in mind, I have had every conceivable advantage of skin colour and inherited class privilege**, this stuff still happens to even me.)

* I can't count the number of times my own mother called me "inconsiderate," and I don't actually think I was really any more "inconsiderate" than any other white suburban kid, especially since the offenses for which I was being called out for were things like grabbing a drink from the fridge without first asking if everyone else wanted one too (and then serving everyone who did before myself, of course).

** Despite having wealthy parents and an excellent education, I'm downwardly mobile; my parents were the first generation in their families to leave the working class, and, despite being a "professional" in that I sit at a desk all day and am not doing manual labour, I'm not in a managerial or supervisory job at all (which makes me "working class" by some definitions). I make less money (in inflation-adjusted dollars) now as a mid-career professional than my mother did in her first 1965. Fuck your "screen inches index," this is reality.


Blogger Vox Populi said...

Interrobang, glad I decided to visit today. I am humbled and appreciative as usual that you have written along the lines of what I am thinking.
It's a DECENCY issue. I don't have any trouble at all relating to the pain of others; I was raised to put others first. For one group to claim all the pain and hurtful words for themselves is beyond my ken. To pass it on as though pain and anger is a treasure really pisses me OFF.
That truly IS the resentment which I feel. I am resentful that they tell only enough for their OWN story.
I felt this same way when the illegal immigrants came out for THEIR rights while not one would show up at the protests against bush. Like they're two different things.
Like we're not all humans. Being stomped on by the PTB.
Like we're all not being hurt by THEM.
Anyway, I really favor this writing.
Thank you.
You are exquisitely honest.
There's a simple rule: Love everyone.
Once I stopped to give a blind student a ride on the way back from a scholarship award and my boss really gave me a hard time for taking her by her house to save her two (HOUR LONG for a fifteen minute walk) bus-rides. (prick) So, I 'happened' to mention it to the woman who asked me if I minded giving her a ride back to campus who ALSO happened to be well-connected. I really did mention it accidentally ... Anyway, she took care of him in spades.
It was very upsetting to me the things he said.
I turned to him and said, "I did mention she is BLIND, correct?"
People are fuckers sometimes. I do believe there is a spark in most. That is what must be reached.
And I feel you. If that's okay to say.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Anne Johnson said...

Very thoughtful and absolutely correct. The blanket statement that "white people don't know what black people go through" is just too glib. Your corrective is excellent. It applies to all kinds of people, from kids like my daughters who have speech impediments, to severely obese people who often get treated worse than blacks.

9:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

[Chinese comment spam removed. --?!]

1:49 AM  
Blogger Book Girl said...

Oh, yes. It's been a long while since I've been able to articulate any of this, thank you for this post.

11:54 PM  
Anonymous Conrad said...

The dude is completely just, and there is no skepticism.
Northern Italy | crotchless pantyhose | girls in bathing suits

4:16 PM  

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