Saturday, February 17, 2007

On the Outside, Looking In

"God damn you to hell," writes Arthur Silber in a post that outlines precisely what the difference is between being a white, heterosexual man and a white, homosexual man. Small things can make all the difference in the world. I've written before about how I've noticed the intersection of class and race issues in my life, or maybe I should be more broad, yet more specific, and say "the intersection of class and prejudice," since (being so white I'm practically blue in a city where pale is the overwhelmingly dominant skin colour) I don't really get hit with the racism stick, but I certainly have had to deal with ablism, size discrimination, and other forms of looks-based discrimination.

In my experience, dealing with discrimination of that sort can be an overwhelming, self-reinforcing negative cycle. The more shut out of things you feel, the less inclined you are to even try to abide by nominal social norms, and the more severe the social penalties are that accrue against you. One of the most catastrophic social penalties (as opposed to financial penalties) that one encounters here in Whitebreadville is invisibility. That doesn't sound so bad, does it? I recommend you go off and read Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man to start with, and/or, if you're pressed for time, track down a copy of Robert Silverberg's story "To See the Invisible Man." (It's available in the "New Stories from The Twilight Zone" anthology, edited by Martin H. Greenberg, and it was also made into an episode of the New Twilight Zone in 1985).

Of course, since Canadians are relatively polite, while they're working hard to unsee you to keep from staring (because staring at someone would be rude), being effectively invisible may not keep you from getting served in a restaurant (as in Silverberg's story). It certainly won't keep you from getting arrested, but it may keep you from being able to ride public transit (as I learned to my dismay during my most outrageous punk-rocker phase when bus drivers would just not see me at bus stops, repeatedly), and it may cause people to try to walk through you on the street, which has happened a couple of times while I was wearing my scarf around my head*. It can also effectively prevent you from buying anything in certain stores, since the sales staff will actively ignore you. This latter can happen here in Whitebreadville even if you're merely insufficiently dressed-up enough for their taste. If you happen to be female, that's a fairly high standard, these days. Forget about going to the malls in the nice parts of town if you're wearing a pair of jeans with the bottom hems going raggy, unless of course you're also highly groomed and made-up and wearing a $200 pair of high-heeled boots and an expensive coat and outfit.

The choice is fairly simple: Conform to the narrow norm, or have other people's prejudices limit your options for you. This directive is particularly limiting when it's aimed at you in ways that you simply cannot conform to. Case in point, I was once given an extremely rude talking-to by a (white, male) recruiter on the grounds that the outfit in which I had shown up to a job interview was not "conservative" and "dressed up" enough for his liking. (I had turned up in a black business suit with a pink blouse on underneath, black and pink being a very hot colour combo at the time.) Most job interview dressing guides emphasise (even now) that female job-seekers should wear skirts, nylons, and high-heeled, closed-toe shoes.

Now how am I going to conform to that narrow norm? I cannot walk in high-heeled shoes (and most pumps won't stay on my feet because my feet are oddly shaped and two different sizes, and I have no heels to speak of**); I'm allergic to nylons (they turn my skin red and itchy), and, because of the way my disability makes my legs look, I'd draw more negative attention from wearing a skirt than wearing pants. (It is tangential but useful to point out that job-interview dressing advice aimed at women has not changed substantially since the mid-1960s.) However, dressing to accommodate my disability -- which is nothing I can control -- and, incidentally, to minimise other people's discomfort with the sight of my non-standard carcass still carries a social penalty.

As Silber says in another essay in the same series,
[P]ower flows from the primary cultural structures which embody and disperse that power.

This simple and inescapable fact has consequences that reverberate in countless ways through the lives we all lead. It affects the jobs we have, the jobs we believe we can hope to get, where we live, how well we are paid, how we socialize, the people whom we befriend, those whom we marry, and almost everything else. Let me be very clear: I am not endorsing some form of cultural determinism, nor am I saying that we all must inevitably be constrained by these choices. But our choices are not infinite, either; they are limited to a very significant degree by the particular culture in which we live at this particular time. When we seek to transcend the limitations imposed by our culture, such efforts require daunting work over a prolonged period of time -- and the costs, in numerous ways, can be enormous. For many people, those costs are prohibitively high.

In my case, here in Whitebreadville, the "primary cultural structures" are overwhelmingly white, affluent, professional, and socially conservative in certain ways, especially pertaining to gender differences.

Perform the gender of the affluent, white, professional, conservative woman, bitch, or else. (Performing affluence^ and conservatism are equally as hard as performing the prescribed notions of femininity, if you are not affluent or socially conservative, let alone cisgender.)

In this case, the "or else" is, among other things, " won't get that job," "'ll get passed over for promotion," "'ll wind up making tens of thousands of dollars less per year than people your age with your qualifications," "...people will talk about you to other people that you know" (in a city as disturbingly interconnected as Whitebreadville, where there often literally are only 2.5 degrees of separation between anyone and anyone else, that's no idle threat), "'ll be invisible." And so on.

Social costs. Indeed. Daunting work, yep. It's a fucking daunting amount of work just trying to deal with people whose default gender settings for people with female bodies are either "conforms to narrow heteronormative standard" or "lesbian, and can be treated with contempt." It's a fucking daunting amount of work just dealing with people whose default settings for physical existence are "normal" (read: don't notice) and "plucky cripple," or "obvious physical disability = hidden mental disability." It's a fucking daunting amount of work dealing with people whose default socio-economic settings are "normal" (read: rich like me) and "white trash" or "social-services abusing minority" (the contrary to that is, of course, "one of the good ones," "a hard worker," "articulate," et cetera).

A Tangential Obama Aside: It really stung me when I read the commentary on "articulate"^^ being used as a racist codeword in the case of Barack Obama, since "articulate" is something that people frequently use to describe me. Now, I probably am more articulate than the average bear, but now I'm also wondering if I'm being contrastively described against those (ideational) other handicapped people, who presumably aren't articulate. (Which is funny as hell, since there are an awful lot of non-articulate able-bodied people out there, many of whom are in positions of nominal power, and who speak the godawful local rural dialect.)

Do I sound a bit angry? Bitter, perhaps? Maybe. Here's Silber again, from his essay We Are Not Freaks, after having described a case where school officials wanted to use a little boy with a slight deformity as a "case study" in teaching genetics and heredity (they couldn't use eye colour like everyone else in the world?): "If he allowed himself to experience fully the humiliation and the shame, and the immense rage to which he was fully entitled, and if he felt it for more than a couple of minutes, it would kill him. That's how the repression begins in the case of the innocent victim: it is the only way he can survive."

Damn right. Buy in, sell out? I own a collection of designer blouses, some very expensive, conservative suits, and a pair of flat, loafer-like "Republican shoes." Deal with it.

*I feel bad for anyone who wears a hijab out of a sense of religious obligation or for any other reason here in Whitebreadville if idiot frat boys from the local university try to walk through them, too.

** The backs of my feet are essentially straight up and down.

^ The existence of Whitebreadvillian thrift stores where $200 designer blouses et al can be gotten for a pittance by the intrepid and lucky is a blessing, especially when one is a consultant and socially obligated to try to look rich when hustling for business, especially against the myriad female types here whose husbands have cushy, well-paying jobs and who consult, part-time, and then don't understand why you can't pony up $1200 to come to their "really beneficial" seminars, et cetera.

^^ I have nothing to say about this.


Blogger Shelly said...

Hoo boy, I hope that kid's parents sue the crap out of the school.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Sinfonian said...

That is a genuinely excellent essay. I'm glad I read it. It definitely deserves broader play.

(Thanks also for being a regular visitor/commenter at Blast Off! -- I enjoy your input. Too bad I'm an average-sized (not slender, although not heavy), short-haired geek ... but I'm quite good at bearing gifts. :) )

6:31 PM  
Blogger Anne Johnson said...

Excellent essay. You know what I wish? Maybe you'll do it. I honestly don't know how to deal kindly with disabled people. No one ever taught me etiquette. Of course it's not polite to stare, but it sure is worse manners to act like someone's invisible. Very elderly senior citizens get the same kind of treatment, I've noticed. As if they don't deserve to be breathing anymore.

Would you do me a favor and write an essay about how you would like to be treated? Just in an ordinary, walking down the street kind of way.

I'm truly not being snarky. It's a defect in my education.

As for the kid in school, well. My daughter suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When she was in 8th grade, the health teacher assigned each student a "disease" and a set of "symptoms" to act out. One of the diseases was OCD. My daughter saw herself mocked in the hallways when the kid pretending to have OCD walked backward, tried not to step on cracks, and stopped to wash her hands in every drinking fountain. The same health teacher actually made one kid wear a blindfold and pretend to be blind. Of course the kids thought all of this was a riot. My daughter was furious.

5:57 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Here from the disability carnival. Great essay - I've run up these culture walls gently a couple of times, and then hard recently and everything there rings true.

8:34 AM  

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