Austin Shinn has another nice post about The Problem of Privilege. And I wanted to chime in, as well.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot – especially lately, in light of my complexifying relationship to autism. Do I call myself “disabled”? Do I accept it as a condition that limits me? Why am I so reluctant to just adjust to that, and integrate that as part of my experience and identity? I’m deeply ambivalent.
I think part of it has to do with how I’m not permanently disabled by autism. My Aspie life is more akin to running a marathon on a bad day, and a 10K minimum on a good day. It makes things more challenging for me. It saps my energy. And many times I feel like I’m wobbling around after a mile-long sprint up a very steep hill. But it passes. I do have enduring executive function issues. But I know how to fix them. I’m working on them — as well as the rest of my life.
I guess I feel like calling myself “disabled” does a disservice to folks who truly are struggling with many, many aspects of their lives on a regular basis. I know I’m not supposed to compare myself to others, but when I do, I come out looking not at all disabled. I mean, seriously, if I just take good care of myself and get enough sleep and eat right and keep exercising, use my supports, and learn as I go, I can have a great life. I in fact do have a great life.
That’s not to say that I don’t have issues which are temporarily disabling. I have huge problems with communication, at times, and meltdowns (while rare, nowadays) are a force I need to reckon with. I don’t get jokes. I have trouble figuring out when to talk on the phone. I hate the phone, period. And some days, the best I can do is just muddle through… or go back to bed and rest till I’m functional again. I am at increased risk of exploitation, because I can be so trusting and naive and mis-read social cues. I’m sure I have over-paid for just about everything I’ve ever bought, because the thought of negotiating never occurs to me in the moment. I’ve really had a terrible time, in the past, and I’ve had to work through a whopping case of PTSD as a result of the “excitement” and “adventures” of my youth.
Autism for me can be disabling at times. It has brought me up short many, many times. But am I disabled? I wouldn’t say that — in fairness to people who truly are.
I’m one of the few people I know who actually understates their difficulties. Most people I know have an “enhanced” view of their own struggles — even the folks who appear to have the most advantage, the most skills, the most money, of the population. And it makes me wonder about the nature of our difficulties, and how we see ourselves as advantaged, disadvantaged, privileged, oppressed. I can’t speak for anyone who’s not in my demographic … so that limits how much I can responsibly say. But I’ll say what I can, because I think it’s important to consider — especially when we talk about privilege, disability, and the assumptions we make about How The World Is.
There’s all kinds of talk going on about white privilege these days, which is refreshing to me. On the other hand, I know a lot of white folks who absolutely bristle at the idea that they are any more privileged than others. The very suggestion really offends them. Even though it seems quite obvious to me, they take deep (and sometimes incensed) exception to the very idea that they have an advantage in life.
After all, they have difficulties. Their lives are not a cakewalk. They really struggle with certain things, and I don’t doubt they experience a great deal of pain as a result. I think what obscures our vision, sometimes, is that our difficulties may make it seem as though we’re not favored or advantaged (privileged) in the ways we most long for. We wish we could get special dispensation from the world, but things are tough all around, and we don’t see any evidence of that being the case.
So, we can think of ourselves as struggling in significant ways without a safety net, when in fact we do have a lot of privilege to fall back on. In my case, I’m a queer woman who’s been intermittently disabled over the years, working hard to make ends meet without a college degree to back me up. I’ve been broke, I’ve been well-off. Now I’m just barely above the “broke”line again. So, that’s not always easy. It makes me vulnerable. But my vulnerability is very, very different from others’.
Case in point: I was technically homeless in the winter of 1990. I walked out of a bad relationship with a duffel bag of clothes and the friendship of one person I could rely on. I was walking around the snowy streets of a major city (in a fairly drug-infested neighborhood), looking for a doorway to sleep in, in case my one contact couldn’t help me. I got lucky. They were home, so I didn’t have to spend the night in a doorway. I was officially homeless for a few weeks, while I looked for my own place. Had that one friend kicked me out, I would have been looking for another doorway.
The thing is, my homelessness was very, very different from that of a Black woman whom I and some friends helped to a shelter, where she was going with her three young daughters. She was apparently leaving a bad situation at home, as well — and it seemed to me that she’d hung in there as long as she could, for the sake of her kids. No, she did not want to talk about it. At all. It seemed clear that she had to go to a shelter, because of her situation. She couldn’t just take her little girls with her out onto the street. God only knows what became of her family. I, on the other hand, was able to pick up and leave a bad situation, just a month or two later, with a sense of elation and hope, not dread and desperation.
My situation was a passing inconvenience, and I knew that because I was a young white, middle-class woman who nobody guessed was gay, I could expect special consideration from others — especially from white men middle-class men who may have seen me as a potential partner. Not that I was taking advantage of that, but I was always so very aware that my homelessness and my difficulties were temporary hardships, at best, which others (white others) would jump at helping me solve. I got my divorce for free, because I worked at a law firm. I got a few pieces of furniture for very cheap, because someone at work told me about a going-out-of-business sale that was happening elsewhere in the office building. I could fall back on an informal network of white folks who looked out for each other (especially attractive young white women), and get the support I needed. I used that network to find a room for rent in a nice house in a safe (white) neighborhood. And I could walk around late at night without too much concern, because young white women especially were protected in that area by men and elderly women who kept a watchful eye.
This is why I am reluctant to call myself disabled or disadvantaged — because beneath the surface, there are forces which look out for “their own” and mitigate the impact. And those forces tend to favor people who look like me. That’s something that precious, precious few white folks are aware of. It’s not that we all have it easy and cushy and whatnot — there is just a whole lot more that we can take for granted… and often never suspect that others can’t.
I can also take for granted that, even if I’m wearing very thin and am having trouble balancing, tolerating light and sound and touch, can’t make myself clear (or can’t even talk at the moment), and I can’t understand what anyone is saying to me… if I just take care of myself, rest up, and use my tools, I can restore my functionality to acceptable levels. I am not permanently knocked out of the perpetual competition that can be life. I just usually feel like I’ve just run a 10K; I’m wobbly, sore, weary, and I don’t have a ton of energy to spare on fruitless pursuits.
My disadvantage is far more of a difference, than it is for many, many people. And while my situation may be intermittently disabling, the last thing I want to do, is compromise their position because I’m showing up calling myself “disabled“, when I can clearly take so much for granted, than they ever could.