Saturday, January 07, 2012

Sometimes It's About Prejudice

Recently I experienced disphobic hate that was specific, targeted and purposeful. I was so stunned and hurt by the encounter that it took several days for me to process and a couple of weeks to attach words to the experience. Joe, too, was stung by the force of the blast. Without question we were victims of a disability hate attack. No, I haven't written about this. No, I'm not going to now. As it happened in a public building, done by a public employee, I'm dealing with this through very, VERY, formal means.

I was talking to someone I know and trust, I must describe them here for the purposes of this post as 'non-disabled'. I was asked if something was upsetting me. And there was something. After finally dealing with the trauma that arises from blatant bigotry well enough to do something about it, I had sat down at the computer. First I composed myself, then I composed a letter. Just putting the experience forefront in my mind to describe it was painful. But I felt that I needed to do it. A few hours later I was asked about my mood. For the first time, out loud, I described what happened. The listener was suitably horrified.

But then they did something quite shocking.

They said, 'Well, let me tell you, that kind of thing doesn't happen just to disabled people ...' Then I was told a story about a rude clerk and a dismissive interaction. I listened and said all the right things. But inside I was seething with upset and maybe even anger. I felt entirely dismissed. Yes, the story that was told me was about a nasty person and a nasty interchange. That wasn't the problem. The problem was using a story of general nastiness based on mood and circumstance to disprove the larger point that bigotry against people with disabilities exists at all.

I wished I hadn't told my story.

Later, with someone else, I decided to try again. And the same thing happened. My story, of being victim of a specific, targeted and purposeful attack against me as a person with a disability was dismissed and my fellow conversationalist followed up with a bad customer service story. And again I felt as if I was being subtly told that prejudice against people doesn't exist ... 'Don't think that happens only to disabled people ...'

Now I'm fearful of telling the story at all.

It's true that we live in a world where common courtesy isn't so common and common decency is entirely uncommon. I know that. I think I can tell the difference between a chance encounter of nastiness that has nothing to do with anything other than I am at the receiving end of someone's bad mood or horrid temper, and when someone specifically targets 'me' and my 'disability' for harsh treatment BECAUSE AND ONLY BECAUSE I am a disabled person. And there is a difference in emotional reaction to a bad temper and a hate crime. Seriously.

Part of me wonders why people who I know are generally quite sensitive to disability issues would be so dismissive of my experience. I don't think these are bad people at all. I think that somehow they think that helping me to minimize my experience by explaining it away as a momentary lapse of unkindness will be helpful for me. And I think, in reality, that it is helpful - but to them, not to me. Having to acknowledge the existence of prejudice towards people with disabilities means having to be more careful in scrutinizing one's own behaviour. Those who believe that reports of 'racism' are exaggerated claims by oversensitive people looking for offense never, ever, ever, have to examine their heart for racist thinking. It works. It's comforting.

Again, I don't want to imply that those I spoke to about this were purposefully dismissive - they just were. I wanted them to acknowledge that what happened was deeply wrong and part of a culture of devaluing people with disabilities. I wanted them to be horrified at the existence of such prejudice in others. I wanted them to understand the source of my upset and even, maybe, acknowledge the trauma that resulted. I wanted their words to hug me and reassure me. Instead I felt brushed away like a child told simply to ignore bullying.

Let me tell you here and now, from my experience, prejudice exists towards people with disabilities. More than that, the experience of prejudice is always hurtful - to the core hurtful. It needs to be acknowledged in order to be challenged. It needs to be challenged in order for change to happen.

And I guess I'm figuring change is a long way off.


Happy said...

I think it's hard for people who have never been in a minority group to even fathom what it is like. I had a dim view of it from being a woman, but women don't really experience much discrimination any more in the US.

It wasn't until I became an American immigrant in the UK that I started to face actual hostility because of what I was that had nothing to do with me as a person, but simply the group I managed to be a part of. And now that I've become disabled, I feel the hate being poured out towards "benefits scroungers" from the current government's campaign against the disabled. I have yet to experience a personal instance of disability hate crime, and I hope I never do. But I know the fear of it. I know when I read about it, it hits me in the gut differently than it ever would have before.

If I had never "joined" these two identity groups, American ex-pat and disabled woman, I would never have known what it feels like to be a minority. I might also have responded in what I thought was a sympathetic, but completely misguided, way by comparing an incident of random hate to a hate crime.

If I were that misguided friend, I'd want you to say "I've experienced the sort of nastiness you've described, but it feels different when it's targeted at you because of what you are" and try to explain your feelings. I'd want to be educated. I think they simply don't know, and that you, having always been a member of a minority group, have an equally hard time imagining what it must be like to live in a world where you are the "default" setting.

I hope the formal process gets the appropriate results, and I'm very sorry you had to experience this.

Anonymous said...

My friend started a facebook thread, what’s the most racist thing that has ever happened to you? A black journalist in the UK asked this question to well known black figures in the UK and published responses in a newspaper.
After a series of posts from people of colour, white people have posted their experiences of racist comments on the thread too.
Prejudice and privilege cut both ways. I think it’s right that both people of colour and white people should respond about their experiences of racism. But there needs to be acknowledgement of the weight and impact of systemic inequalities and differences in the racism that white people and people of colour experience.
Picking up on Happy’s suggestion, my stab at it would be to say ‘we have both experienced nastiness and I’m sorry that it’s happened to you and to me. The nastiness I experienced additionally reiterates perjorification of my identity as a disabled person and is part of a wider systemic abuse that I, and people who share this identity, are subject to on a societal as well as a social scale. Individuals, organsations and communities are starting to understand and take responsibility for this and for this reason I have written to the organisation outlining this and am also doing so in my chat with you’.
Well not that I think I or anyone would actually say that in a social situation. But it helps me to have the space and community to say it with here.
Thank you Dave and commenters.

Anonymous said...

I am very sorry that you had to expierience such a discrimination. I hope that you and Joe can find a way to recover.

Nevertheless thank you for sharing your feelings about it and giving me a chance to learn from it.


Belinda said...

It seems apt that today I wrote about a personal "blind spot" experience that I would have been oblivious to had I not had a good friend who opened my eyes.

The people you shared your story with had a blind spot. It's not their fault but I bet they, as well as I, will be grateful that you fill in their blind spot with regard to the difference in what you experienced and what they experienced. It's part of becoming progressively and none of us, no matter how caring we think we are; and maybe especially if we care; stop this process.

You do such a great job of helping us roll in your wheels!

Andrea S. said...


I've absolutely been where you've been. I have sometimes told stories about situations where I was treated unequally as a deaf person and been told that "other people experience rudeness also" and that the same people who are sometimes jerks toward me are probably also jerks toward others. This response dismisses the fact that some people actually DO behave very differently toward disabled people (or any people from a group toward which they are prejudiced) than they do toward others. One employer at a motel swore at me on the phone and hung up on me when I was attempting to politely request that he ensure my hotel room had the accommodations I needed as a deaf guest. But according to other hearing people who had gone to the same motel, that man was unfailingly polite to them. He only became verbally hostile when a deaf client, me, asserted my right to accommodations.

This response also dismisses the way that "jerk-like behavior" that we receive specifically because of who we are does hurt a lot more than, and in ways different from, receiving similarly nasty behavior in a more neutral context.

And it further dismisses that people with disabilities are going to be inherently impacted a lot more when we confront this kind of behavior from others because we may very often be dependent on them for things we need in a way that others aren't. Most non-disabled people in most contexts can simply walk away from jerks and brush them off. But if you have a disability, then you may really NEED the jerk to provide you something you need--for me it might mean I need them to write down their instructions so I understand what they need me to do, for you it might mean you need them to unlock the chair lift for you. And that can make the interaction not just unpleasant but down right scary and threatening at all kinds of levels that don't happen in quite the same way or quite the same intensity as it does for non-disabled people.

I, too, have had the experience of having others try to convince me that I was over-reacting to a hearing person who simply was inexperienced in interacting with deaf people when, actually, I *DO* know the difference between someone who is genuinely trying but clueless versus someone who doesn't want to try in the first place. For example, I have met many hearing people who have difficulty remembering to slow down a little so I can have a better shot at lipreading them. And, no, I *DON'T* get angry at every random person who does this. They're human, they're fighting a strongly ingrained habit, and even if they're trying very hard to do better it's not easy to adjust--I get this and, although it may frustrate, I don't get angry. In fact, I have gotten on quite well with, and become fond of, people who handle their own failing with humor and grace--they forget and talk too fast, then catch themselves, apologize, and try again. And try again. And try again. I ALWAYS appreciate an honest attempt even if it doesn't always go as well as intended.

What *does* make me angry is when a person clearly just wants to not have to deal with me in the first place and flatly refuses to make any attempt to accommodate my communication needs at all. Who just doesn't care that I am being cut off from communication because of their refusal. But some people I know seem to discredit my ability to tell the difference the nice but humanly clueless person and the person who doesn't care. But I've had my entire life from early childhood on learning to tell the difference. By now I'm an expert at it. And I wish more people would recognize that.

Lene Andersen said...

you're right - we live in a culture that devalues disability. Sometimes subtly and sometimes, a great deal of work is put into the process. When you're part of a devalued minority group, people have trouble understanding that such a minority group access, nevermind that discrimination. Or hate crimes.

I'm very sorry to hear that you were the victim of a hate crime. I would like to think that our society is different, that it might engage in thoughtless discrimination, but not all the way to that though some expression of prejudice. Alas, this is not the case and dismissing it only serves to entrench it.

CL said...

Chiming in with a story of poor treatment (unrelated to disability) is absolutely an attempt to invalidate your interpretation of your own experience. It's saying "But everyone experiences poor treatment. It's not worse for you because you are disabled." Which is actually very offensive on multiple levels -- denying that it occurs in society, and denying that you know what you experienced.

In fact, there's a section about this on "Derailing for Dummies," called "But that happens to me too!":

I agree that people do this to make themselves feel more comfortable, so they don't have to analyze their own actions. I also think that when privileged people hear stories of discrimination, they feel somehow threatened because they hear it as saying that their own hurtful experiences aren't as bad as what you have to deal with. And it makes them defensive, like they have to deny that you experience "worse" mistreatment because they want their own bad experiences to get just as much acknowledgement. What they don't understand is that nobody is saying bad things don't happen to everyone -- that's not the point of talking about discrimination and oppression of people because of who they are.

Kristin said...

I'm so sorry Dave. No one should have to experience prejudice and no one should have their experience dismissed.

Bronwyn said...

After working in the inner-city (I'm white but none of my students were), I noticed that when I'd explain incidents of clear racism, usually on field trips, people would try to justify "Oh, that happens to kids, it's not because they were black..." And to me (as a white person even) it was SO clear that it was because the children were black. I mean, it was racism! And I never understood if people were just really trying to believe the best of people or why they were trying to invalidate the experience.

I honestly don't know what you can do to "prove" that it was due to prejudice, and you shouldn't have to, just like my students shouldn't have had to prove that they were the victims of racism. If you ever figure out why people do it or what our reaction can be, I'd love to hear. Until then, I'd like to validate your experience. Prejudice is real and sometimes people are victims of it. And it sucks.

Kristine said...

I figured this life lesson out one time when a friend completely brushed off my claim that someone had been rudely condescending to me, treating me differently because of my wheelchair. While the original incident was small, and I'd have gotten over it quickly, my friend's invalidation of my experience was HURTFUL. I've noticed the same thing happening with the same friend several times since then, and now find myself more defensive around her.

The life lesson came, though, when I suddenly made the connection between this, and my own interactions with my students at school. I teach ESL, and my mostly Latino students would sometimes tell me about their encounters with racism. It's not that I didn't believe them, but I somehow wanted to soften the blow for them. Especially when it involved another teacher at the school, I would try to smooth it over and explain it away as something other than racism. It was like a protective instinct taking over, or something. When I consciously realized what I was doing, and how ridiculous it was to think that I could "fix" the situation that way, I changed my approach. Now I listen better, validate more, and, I think, make it safer for my students to talk to me.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you're having to deal with this and I appreciate you sharing as much of it as you're able. As an adult on the autism spectrum, I grew up attempting to follow the social norms of others, but I think I also unknowingly learned some bad behavior in my attempt to learn. I think your post is an important reminder that compassion doesn't come in the form of "oh that happens to everyone, listen to what happened to me blah blah..." Sometimes I forget that it's OK to just say "wow, that is really horrible that happened to you. I'm sorry" and leave it at that.


rickismom said...

I'm not sure that these people are denying per se the discrimination. I suspect that what happened is the (terrible) tendency of people , who on hearing someone complain, will try to make them feel better--ie, they try to "fix" the probelm by telling you how it wasn't so bad, when they SHOULD be listening.
People have to learn that they need to listen and commiserate; that the can not "fix" someone else's problems.

Belinda said...

What I wrote first time around sounds so inane when I read it again. It sounds like I'm making excuses for the two people who didn't get it when what I meant to say was that sometimes I too really need someone to tell me when I'm not getting it. And it is too bad that your experience was not understood and validated.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

I am sorry you experienced this hate crime. It really doesn't matter how much nastiness anyone of us has experienced as a person who is able bodied. It is very different when you are targeted for hate because you are a person with a disability. I hope that your formal address of this crime gets some good results.

I can't think of anything to say that doesn't sound trite, cliche or patronizing - so I'll spare you. Just know that I send my hope that whatever you need to help you heal from this hurt - is yours.


Dave Hingsburger said...

Thank you all for your comments today. I always appreciate comments, and they've been thin on the ground recently, but today in particular I needed affirmation. It's important that we all discuss these things so that we can both learn from each other and support each other. I created this blog for moments like these ... you are appreciated.

Anonymous said...

"It's true that we live in a world where common courtesy isn't so common and common decency is entirely uncommon."

While I feel horrible that you were victimized by disability-related hate, I feel worse that you live in the world you noted above. I've had some atrocious things happen to me, but courtesy and decency still prevail in my world. It must be awful to exist in a world so lacking.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry you both experienced what you did; both when the even happened, and then when you were trying to find someone to just listen and care. I know I'm guilty of what your friends did ... and not just listen, and care for my friend ... and think of my friends' needs. I'm not suggesting what they did was right or wrong; but, that they were not taking time to "tune-in" and really listen to you. I know when others have shared a hurtful experience, sometimes I end up sharing information on a similar experience (which I have encountered). I guess in certain ways I was trying to let them know that I understood how they were feeling; but, I'm sure ... just like you experienced (as have I), that sometimes we just need someone to just "be there" or "just listen" or "affirm they are listening". I'm sorry your friends were not geared-down and "in-tune" to hear what you really needed.

I do hope you're feeling better. Take care,
Elizabeth & Andrew

ivanova said...

I wonder if comments like that come from the same misplaced impulse for empathy that makes people say things like, "I understand how you feel [about a person dying], my pet died once." Or, "I understand how you feel [about being afraid that police will hurt you based on the color of your skin], because I've felt unsafe in bad neighborhoods." People try to compare two things that are not even in the same category. I think sometimes people feel like the only way to express sympathy is to say they've been through the same thing.