Fitting Privilege?

The final installment of the Privilege tetralogy only tangentially relates to disability. While writing the first three entries, I began to notice an aspect of privilege nobody seems to mention. Shared experience.

Listening to a musician introduce his next song, I was struck by the phrase, “You know, like we’ve all experienced.” Implicit in that statement is the assumption that everyone has certain experiences in common, as if life contains a handful of basic elements and variation is built upon them. Unfortunately, the shared event which I cannot remember for the life of me was not one contained in my personal history making me feel isolated from those around me.

Once I began looking, I saw this assumption of common experience everywhere transcending differences of gender, class, race, religion, ethnicity, and even disability. Whether it’s a comedian calling upon shared experience to evoke laughter, someone telling a dirty joke assuming the adult audience has all had sex, being asked if you had a nice holiday with your family when you are an orphan, or even someone using the expression “It’s like riding a bike,” every day in hundreds of ways we all assume certain occurrences are universal to all. (As I wrote in Everyone’s Just Like Me,) I am as guilty as anyone because I routinely assume blindness is shared by everyone.)

The expected life trajectory goes something like this. You are born and grow up in a family. As a child, you learn to ride a bike, fall down and hurt yourself, attend school, and watch Sesame Street. Then you become a snotty adolescent, date people and eventually leave your parent’s home. Next you are suppose to fall in love and build a life with that person. (There are no predictive patterns that the relationship lasts.) Sooner or later you start getting social security. Now it is presumed you will find ways to keep busy until you die having enjoyed a happy life.

For many, this is in fact the course their life takes, which is why there’s an assumption about it in the first place, but like with any situation, average does not mean all. Given that I, someone whose life mostly fits the blueprint, find myself thinking “not me” with some frequency, I can only imagine what it must be like when your life markedly deviates from this pattern.

Conversations with people have shown me that this feeling is not unique to disability or any other marginalized group status. A white, heterosexual, TAB, middle class, Christian employed man can feel it if he’s a geek with lousy social skills who doesn’t date.

I have come to believe having a life that fits the expected pattern is a type of privilege. While it might not get you the kinds of advantages typically associated with privilege, it does protect you from feeling like an outsider. Do not underestimate the emotional advantage granted when you do not move through life routinely reminded that your life does not fit the mold.

Conflict Yoga

Once I understood the concept of
, a situation with my yoga class became comprehensible. My instructor, a truly nice person that I like and respect, cannot see his TAB privilege. With all my verbal skills, nothing I say penetrates.

As soon as I am dressed properly and in the yoga studio, I am expected to allow others to lead me around the room. Should I need to move and nobody comes to help, I must interrupt to stir from my spot. When new people come to class, I must tolerate my teacher using language to describe my disability that I have made clear I do not prefer. I must wait until someone brings me the props necessary to do the assigned poses. If a verbal description of a pose is unclear, I must interrupt to get clarification. Then I must do the pose and hope the instructor has enough spare attention to tell me if I’m getting it wrong. In this way, I seem less capable and competent than I truly am, but I must accept this and any ramifications it engenders.

Are you wondering why I put up with this? First, let me remind you that I actually like and respect my teacher in all ways except this one. The type of yoga I’m doing is the only kind that seems to work for me, this is the best instructor at the studio, and I am fortunate to have a neighbor who takes class there and drives me to and fro. I’m also certain I would not find it to be any better elsewhere.

Why do I think this all boils down to TAB privilege? In conversations with my instructor, he has assumed I should be accepting of my dependency and my frustration with it indicates an excess of ego. Apparently, my presence also provides an opportunity for other members of the class to learn compassion and understand what it means to be a part of a community. I should be comfortable interrupting and in fact it is my responsibility to do so. His comfort-level with terms used to describe me supersedes any preference I state.

In other words, I should accept being put in a position of greater disadvantage than I experience in my daily life. It is incumbent upon me to do more to get the same things out of class other students receive without effort. My thoughts and feelings on the subject are less valid than the instructors because he somehow knows more about being a disabled person than I do.

There are signs of progress. Due to a series of circumstances beyond my control, I missed class two weeks in a row. This happened immediately upon the heels of me trying, once again, to articulate my feelings. When he sent me an email to make sure I was alright (I told you he’s nice), I made it clear I had missed class for specific reasons, but it’s possible he thought otherwise. It’s also possible he thought through my words and finally they penetrated.

He referred to me as “blind!” The rest of his speech to the class was a bit…. distressing, but I am focusing on the progress. It’s the first sign of progress.

More and more, I encounter good people who cannot seem to understand disability no matter what words I use, events they witness, or emotionality I display. If I could write off the individual as a jerk, it would be simple. Life is not that easy. Instead I’m left torn between my fondness for someone and offense at how they treat/judge me. How do you like someone who treats you in ways you find objectionable in the extreme? How do you dislike someone who is otherwise better than the average person? If you figure it out, do let me know.

Derailing is a Privilege

Heaven help all of you, but being so taken with the concept of privilege, I have made it a theme for the month.

If you are a person with marginalized group status (pwmgs), then I am certain you have approached a person with privilege (pwp) that corresponds to your oppression status in order to correct some misconception they have. Instead of a discourse between two intelligent people who show mutual respect, you find yourself trying to swim up Niagara Falls while wearing concrete boots. Whether intentional or not, the pwp utilizes certain tactics to prove you are wrong. Today I want to mention some of my “favorites” culled from Derailing for Dummies as well as my own experience.

Educator without Borders
Some pwp are willing to admit their ignorance which seemingly indicates a chance for true discourse conversation until the crucial phrase, “So educate me” is uttered. At this point, the pwmgs is drafted to “teach” the pwp, whether they want to or not. As if this weren’t enough, the questions they are expected to answer would not be considered appropriate in any other context. “How do you take a shower?” “Can you have sex?” “Who takes care of you?”

Should the pwmgs object, the pwp counters with “If you won’t educate me, how can I learn?” Dispelling ignorance is offered as the means to rid the world of the prejudice faced by the pwmgs and failure to do so is tantamount to agreeing to be oppressed.

Take this example. Pwmgs says, “Excuse me, but as a wheelchair user I can tell you that your assumption that we can’t have sex is misguided.” Pwp counters with, “Oh, yeah. So how do you have sex?” Simply saying you have sex isn’t enough. Unless the pwp knows how, they aren’t going to believe you. Refusal to answer becomes admission that the pwp is right.

Please don’t misunderstand, I do believe education plays a crucial role in changing our social structure, but that does not mean each and every disabled person has been endowed with the duty to answer invasive questions at the drop of a hat. Hasn’t anyone heard of books, the internet, or the thousands of blogs just like mine? Plenty of disabled people have volunteered to have their personal lives and feelings plumbed by anyone, so leave the rest of the disabled people alone, please. I think they have enough to do what with the whole living in a world not designed with them in mind.

If I had a dime for each time a pwp has accused me of being “overly sensitive,” I’d be independently wealthy. As a technique to highjack a dialogue, its power rests on the assumption that displays of emotionality are proof of wrongness. There is a pervasive perception that logic and rationality go hand in hand with superior thinking. in fact, rational is considered a compliment under most circumstances.

The irony here is that a pwmgs is engaged in a conversation that directly impacts their every day life. By its nature, it is not a subject that can be discussed devoid of emotion. On the other hand, the pwp has no vested interest in the subject. Should a man walk away from a conversation about rape still believing it is a woman’s fault if she wears skimpy clothing, it will impact his life not at all. The woman, on the other hand, walks away knowing a man could decide she’s dressed suggestively, harm her in a very personal way, and not be punished because of her wardrobe choice. Being upset about this automatically puts her in the wrong.

I Can Prove Your Lifetime of Experience is Wrong because….
These methods are particularly annoying because somehow one tiny pebble carries more weight than the stones accumulated by a pwmgs over years. Some examples include:

“That happens to me too.”
“I don’t treat people like you in that way, so I won’t believe anyone else does either.”
“Unless you can prove your experience is widespread, I won’t believe you.”
“Well, I know another person from your marginalized group and they disagree.”
“If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t feel/react that way.”

The Pragmatic Principle
Finally, my “favorite” dismissal. It goes something like this:

Pwp: “Blind people want all these special things like Braille signs, audible signal crossings at intersections, and I even had to read the entire menu to some blind guy at the restaurant where I work.””
Pwmgs: “That’s because we need them to get around, find things, and make food choices.”
Pwp: “That’s all well and good, but they are expensive, annoying, and inconvenient. It’s too much.”

Here, a pwp has decided that convenience and expense are more valuable than independence and safety. Time after time and in situation after situation, my needs have been made unimportant based on others’ preferences. I may literally be less safe, but it doesn’t inconvenience anybody so it is somehow acceptable. And people wonder why I don’t see my own worth?

To be clear, sometimes pwps are right and pwmgs are wrong, but not BECAUSE the conversation has been successfully derailed.

Own Your TAB Privilege

Lately I have been struggling with the fact that people I otherwise like and respect are driving me to the brink of sanity by just not getting it. By “it,” I mean understanding the power dynamics of a situation involving them – a member of a majority group – and those with marginalized group status. Finally, the word privilege emerged from my subconscious. Now I am obsessed with the concept because it made insanity into sense.

Privilege is unearned power or advantage bestowed upon a member of the majority. It exists because of the systematic disadvantages the societal structure imposes upon members of a marginalize group. Rather than being about one instance or even type of prejudice, privilege is related to how the world tends to work. Whether earned or not, whether wanted or not, privilege is a de facto power granted solely because of majority group membership.

Thus, male privilege exists because of insidious aspects of our society that disadvantage women thereby bestowing advantages upon men. For example, when I become emotional, I am in danger of being considered a “hysterical female” whereas men can display the same emotionality without risking stigmatization. They have the “privilege” of showing whatever emotions they experience and in fact, are often lauded for “being in touch with their feelings.”

No matter the privilege – white, male, TAB, heterosexual, sisgendered, class, religious, economic, and the list goes on – the crucial element involves a majority group having advantages denied the members of a marginalized group. In this way, though I might be disabled, bisexual, female, and poor, I still enjoy white privilege on a daily basis. (Nobody walks quickly past me standing on a deserted street because they fear being mugged.)

Hand in hand with the concept of privilege is the idea of “othering.” Characterized by using a system of social markers to segregate people into neat categories, it results in “us” and “them.” The methodology highlights difference and assigns meaning to that distinction. To use a favorite example, “Wow, I’m amazed you could do that well especially since you’re blind.” My difference (blindness) was highlighted separating me from the group and then that category was evaluated by a separate set of standards. I became the “other” who can’t do as well at a given task.

Using the tool of othering, it is possible to secure and perpetuate privilege. Because people expect less from me, they also assess me as less capable. Clearly, I am at a disadvantage saddled with such assumptions, but it also means another group (sighted people) are seen as more capable, which is advantageous. Over time, lower expectations shape educational opportunities and job options so that a blind person in fact attains less, reinforcing the devaluation. Expect less. Achieve less. Be perceived as less. Vicious cycle.

The problem with privilege and othering is that they are so entrenched in our social structure that we don’t even perceive their existence. How can you fight against a form of oppression that nobody can perceive?

The first step is to identify your personal privilege, which is known as “owning your privilege.” I shall leave you with some forms of TAB privilege to ponder.

*In day to day life, a TAB knows they can meet their own needs and handle most emerging eventualities.
*A TAB knows the preponderance of strangers encountered will treat them as a competent adult.
*A TAB will be able to avail themselves of whatever facilities needed such as bathrooms, busses, post office, courthouse, and hotels.
*Should a TAB appear in public disheveled, unkempt, or badly dressed, nobody will assume it’s because they lack the ability to do better.
*Nobody will assume a person with a TAB is their caregiver.
*A TAB will not be called inspirational for accomplishing a typical daily activity.
*If a TAB is in a building that catches fire, they have the same chances as every other person to get out unscathed.
*If a TAB needs emergency medical care, they can trust nobody will assess their life to determine if it’s worthwhile enough to save.
*A TAB will not be subjected to questions about how they accomplish tasks such as bathing, eating, using the bathroom, or dressing and be expected to answer in detail.
*A TAB is not expected to thank people who offend them.
*When a TAB does not get what they want or need, they can express displeasure without risking being called ungrateful, overly demanding, or too sensitive.
*A TAB can walk into a yoga studio and take a class without relinquishing independence or being obligated to do more than anyone else to get the same things out of class. More about this last one next week!