Monday, April 16, 2018

Going Pee: A Question About Bigotry

Am I a bigot?

I think maybe.

Thing is I can't trust the opinions of the people I ask, who all assure me that I'm not, because I think maybe that the bigotry against those who have mental illness is deep and pervasive. So, I've come to ask you. I'd really like to know what you think.

Some background. The first thing I realized about having a disability and being a wheelchair user was that I was more of a target for social, and even physical, violence than I was before. That fact combined with the next realization: that I was less able to protect myself from either of those two things. These realizations have stayed with me throughout the many years that I've been a wheelchair user. I guard my safety and make decisions about my safety in ways that I never had to before the chair.

On Saturday we were out trying to get a few things done before the storm slammed into us. Ice pellets were falling hard and fast but the freezing rain had not yet started. We were almost ready to go, I told Joe that I needed to use the washroom. As I rolled over to the bench where Joe was going to sit and wait, where I could take my coat and hat off, I noticed a man noticing me.

He clearly had mental health issues and it looked as if he had slipped into the place to get some warmth. When he saw me he started mumbling loudly to himself, I couldn't make out the words, but as he spoke he was looking directly at me. I became increasingly uncomfortable. Then I saw that he was standing right beside the washroom door. I was going to have to roll past him and then turn in through the bathroom door.

Here's what I did:

I asked Joe to keep an eye on me as I went in and if he followed me in to come in quickly to ensure I was safe. I didn't want to be alone with him in a room out of sight of the crowd when he'd been looking at me and mumbling.

I rolled by him.

Nothing happened.

I went into the washroom.

He didn't follow.

Everything was just fine.

Now I know that people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims, rather than perpetrators, of violence. I know that the stereotypes of people with mental heath concerns breed fear, not understanding. I know all that.

Yet I feared him.

I feared for my safety around him.

I think I may be a bigot.

I think that I have some work to do, in my mind and in my heart, to rid myself of prejudice. I think I do.

What do you think?

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

On the one hand, yes. Simple answer.

(Actually, I don't think it's possible to live in this world and not be influenced by that particular bigotry.)

On the other hand, due care for one's safety is both right and duty. More so when one's frequently a target. That means respecting the prickle of unease which 'unusual' behaviour occasions: after all, some unusual behaviour actually is a precursor to violence, and our limbic systems won't let us forget it.

Next time, however, you'll be so much the better equipped to evaluate the prickle of unease against the cause. The more nuanced the evaluation gets, the more checked against what else one knows of reality, the less like bigotry.

Ron Arnold said...

A healthy awareness of one's surroundings and out-of-the-ordinary behavior isn't bigotry. Did the emotion you have affect that fellow in any way? Doubt it. Over the years I've worked with some folks who have been very ill at times (directing paranoid ideation my way), and at the height of their symptomology - I would be a little nervous about being around a few of the guys (cuz they hinted at wanting to hurt me). When they were less symptomatic, I'd let them know what it felt like to be around them when they were less insightful. It's not like it was their fault - and those discussions were for their safety as well as insight into others' perceptions. (Many authority figures don't respond well to acute paranoid episodes.)

You are keenly aware of your own vulnerability. Taking precautions to assure your safety seems more a wise decision than bigotry. A blanket assumption about a particular group is bigotry. Assessing the behavior of one person in one situation is not.

Sandra Fleming said...

I would not say a bigot. I would classify it as being aware of your surroundings and taking precautions. With peoples' attitudes and actions that you have already experienced I would think you would have much the same actions in every response in a similar situations.
I often ask others to keep an eye out for me -- but must admit it is mostly when I get near a yarn shop.

Anonymous said...

I think examining this can be a very complicated question, because I know that as a woman, I am socialized to discount my intuition about safety. I understand why you're questioning yourself, and I agree that it's an important thing to do--but I also know that it can be dangerous to reject that instinct out of hand. The line between safety for ourselves and rejection of others is not clear at all--and sometimes there's time to take a second and think through what is leading you to have a particular instinct, and sometimes there isn't time.

I'm glad that the situation turned out to be safer than you thought it might be.

Sherry said...

I believe who we are & our circumstances makes us view things differently. You are a wheelchair user and you see things differently than someone who doesn't use one. What if this gentlemen didn't have a mental health issue & just stared at you? You would have would have still been cautious. When you weren't a wheelchair user you may not have thought twice about walking past him to use the bathroom. It's our experiences & circumstances that makes us see things differently. This doesn't necessarily make us a bigot.

Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt said...

Safety first.

Then you could think about making eye contact and saying hi. That would give you another datum to add to the discomfort.

I know men aren't supposed to do that, and especially not in connection with restrooms, but maybe you can learn from women? We do it all the time - and it definitely lowers tensions.

Nothing wrong with listening to your automatic reactions, but that must be immediately followed by questioning them if you're having difficulties in that department. I grind away at that, and eventually am happy when my reaction (two recent episodes showed I've made progress) is less automatic and/or bigoted.

Work of a lifetime.

Kelly said...

You may be believing some of the stereotypes about mentally ill people. That may be something you need to work on. So do that.

Whether or not your behavior in that situation was appropriate or not is another question. You didn't treat the man poorly and you took steps to protect your own safety. Nothing wrong with that.

Rachel S said...

I don't think that question really applies here. It sounds like the sort of judgement we women have to make far too often, to be honest. Something struck you as off about this person's behavior. Perfectly harmless odd behavior? Probably. But better to be extra careful. You really want that part of your brain to be active given that you're extra vulnerable. Being a disabled woman who is very small, well, if my personal alarms go off I pay attention, even if the situation turns out to be fine. Far better safe than sorry.

I think your caution was entirely appropriate. Asking Joe to keep an eye out for a minute was a good idea.

clairesmum said...

You didn't do anything to harm him. You perceived a threat, you took the action you needed to do for safety(set up a plan with Joe), and then went to do what you needed to do. Then you and Joe left.
You did not do anything to call attention to the man by other people and you did nothing to threaten or harm the man who was struggling.
It's ok not to be a warrior all day every day Sometimes you are tired, you need to pee, and you don't have extra energy to fight your own first responses at the moment.

Girl on wheels said...

I would reexamine my views on people with mental health problems to see where those thoughts were coming from, but the fact is you already caught this behaviour in yourself. That’s half the battle, being aware of when your prejudices are influencing your actions. It’s never a great feeling to realise you’ve acted out of prejudice, and when I catch myself doing that I examine what it was that triggered those actions. As others have pointed out you are much more vulnerable than most now, and the fact is we do have to constantly assess our environment when we are vulnerable. As a woman, and now a wheelchair user, I am constantly assessing those around me to see if they are a potential threat. When I do catch myself treating someone as more of a threat than anyone else I examine why that is, is it something specific to their behaviour or is my concern coming from something I’m projecting onto them. Whilst I know statistically people with mental health issues are much more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators, someone talking to themselves is going to raise my anxiety levels. I think as long as you aren’t drawing attention to that person or making it obvious you feel threatened by them, there is no harm in being cautious. Being aware that your anxiety is unfounded is enough in that situation, and hopefully next time you encounter something similar you won’t feel the need to make a plan because you’ll know your anxiety is not needed.

Ettina Kitten said...

I would say yes.

I've caught myself making similar snap judgements. I remember this one guy I used to see around the library right next to my high school, I was scared of him because he had odd mannerisms and talked to himself.

What stopped me was explicitly listing off which psych conditions I knew of that could cause that behavior (schizophrenia, autism, Tourette Syndrome, etc) and noting that I knew full well that none of those conditions were a significant cause of violence. Ergo, he was not someone I should be afraid of.