Most of our social infrastructure was built incorrectly. It was built on the assumption that everyone is basically physically and cognitively similar, and that people who aren’t need to go away and be someone else’s problem.
People with disabilities have been treated as disposable. Children have been kept out of school; adults have been excluded from higher education. People have been institutionalized, and many are still stuck in institutions.
People live without freedom, and are kept from their communities. People are forced to stay unemployed rather than supported in finding work that they can do. Disabled people have been harmed in any number of ways.
It has always been wrong to exclude people with disabilities like this, and in recent years, more people have come to understand that it is wrong. Accessibility and inclusion are on the table much more often than they used to be (in significant part, because the disability rights community has insisted that they be there.)
Part of what we have to do is be willing to be inclusive, and be willing to change things for the sake of access. That’s necessary — and it’s also not enough. There are a lot of access needs that we flat-out don’t know how to meet right now. For some people, nothing we currently know how to do is good enough.
In order to build a more accessible and inclusive culture, we’re going to have to create things that don’t currently exist. We need better infrastructure and support. We need better technology. We need more resources, and more understanding that funding disability needs to be a priority. We need research and development, we need to learn a lot of things that we don’t currently know.
The only way to get better at accessibility and inclusion is to start from where we are, and to commit to getting better at it. We can’t wait to be ready; we will never be ready. What we can do is understand that the people who are still being excluded matter, and keep building the things that need to exist.
So, sometimes when I talk about disability or racial or sexist or religious discrimination, people will be like “but isn’t that illegal?!”.
If you’re inclined to react that way, consider this list of things that are also illegal in the United States:
- downloading copyrighted movies without paying
- uploading someone else’s copyrighted content to YouTube
- Scanning a whole book and putting it on Blackboard for your students to download
- smoking marijuana
You may have done one of these things in the past week, and you almost certainly know someone who did at least one of those things within the past week.
Illegal discrimination is like that too. It is against the law, but people don’t always follow the law. And, while serious consequences are sometimes imposed, a lot of people get away with breaking those laws without facing any serious penalty.
People who are discriminated against know this. You should keep that in mind when you talk to them about discrimination and the law.
Some people are bullies.
Many bullies target people who have apparent stigmatized characteristics.
If you choose to stop hiding a stigmatized part of who you are, some people will be actively mean to you who weren’t mean before.
- If you are gay, coming out will make some homophobic bullies more interested in hurting you
- If you are autistic, stimming in public will make some ableist bullies more interested in hurting you
- If you wear clothing associated with a stigmatized religion, some bigoted bullies will be more interested in hurting you
This is not your fault, but some people will blame you. Some people will tell you that you brought it on yourself by being visible. You didn’t. Bullying happens because mean people choose to hurt others.
You were already getting hurt by bullies, because hiding hurts too. The way bullies hurt you when you are more visible is a different kind of hurt. Both are equally real.
Some people in some situation find hiding more bearable. Some people in some situations find being visible more bearable. Both are valid. It’s a personal choice. And the consequences are never your fault.
So, I’ve noticed this pattern:
- Someone will describe some act of discrimination or social violence
- And then very well-meaning people will weigh in and say things like
- “They can’t treat people that way!”
- “Wow, you should really report that!”
Reporting incidents of discrimination can be a good thing, and sometimes it goes somewhere. But, hearing this well-intentioned advice can actually be really frustrating, for a number of reasons:
The thing about being a marginalized person is that discrimination is a routine experience, not an occasional outrage:
- Things that sound like aberrations to folks who are usually socially valued enough to be treated well most of the time are daily life for a lot of marginalized people
- If we filed a formal complaint every time we experienced this, we’d have no time or energy for anything else
- And sometimes, we want to get on with our lives and do things other than fight discrimination
- Which means that, sometimes, when we talk about discrimination, we’re not asking for advice on how to make it go away; sometimes we’re accepting that we’re not going to be able to make it go away this time
- And it needs to be ok to disagree about the right way to proceed
Also, sometimes complaints don’t actually help:
- When the bad thing is the rule rather than the exception, it’s unlikely that anyone will care.
- When the offender is much more socially valued than the victim, it’s likely that no one will care
- People who complain frequently are generally seen as problem whiners, even if they are entirely justified in every complaint they make
Complaints are a good idea sometimes. But complaining is a very personal decision. Understand the costs and risks of complaining. Do not pressure a marginalized person to make a complaint in order to make yourself feel better about the state of the world. Do offer to support them if they want to do so.
Talking about how privileged you are and how much you acknowledge your privilege doesn’t do much, on its own.
It has to actually change what you do.
It can actually make things worse, if all you do is mention it.
Because then the implication is “yeah, I know I’m privileged and have all kinds of unwarranted power over others, but I don’t really care and it’s not going to change what I do. Please to be praising me for noticing this. I’m pretty great.”
And people you have power over can come under a lot of pressure to give you the praise you want, and to help you feel ok about the discrimination you participate in. Don’t do this to people.
When you have privilege, you have obligations that go along with it. You have unwarranted power that you can’t renounce, and the obligation to learn what to do with it. If you’re not willing to think about your power and examine what you do with it, you’re not going to be able to avoid abusing it.
There are any number of other implications too. And there are things it’s not ok to participate in even if it would benefit you, and even if it’s hard-to-impossible to get those things otherwise.
Don’t expect noticing and naming your privilege categories to be enough.