Monday, January 27, 2014

For Most of My Life I've Answered Incorrectly

I mentioned, in an email exchange with someone who wrote to ask me a question, that I was often stared at when out in public. I brought it up because it was germane to the question and to ensure that my answer was seen in context with both my experience as a professional and my experience as a person. A couple emails later, I received one that I could tell from reading had been a difficult one to write. Sometimes emails and letters are edited into echoes of the original message. That email asked, politely, why I was stared at.

I forget sometimes that some people know me only through journal articles, not through my blog, not through my lectures, and therefore have never seen me. I appreciated the care with which the question was asked and I began to answer their email. Over the years I've often answered this question and others:

why are you teased?

why are you bullied?

why are you treated as lesser?

I've always explained it simply. Since I became disabled my answer has gotten longer but essentially it's ... I'm different. So I was typing that sometimes I'm stared at because of my disability but I suspect most often I'm stared at because of my weight. I found it oddly unemotional to write these things, but I guess after all these years the pain of constant discrimination has drained out of the words that explain it.

And then.


I stopped.

I stared at the words.

"...sometimes because I'm disabled but most often because of my weight..."

My eyes scanned at focused at first on two words, "disabled" ... "weight."

These words blurred and the word "because" came into sharp relief.

And I knew.

I'm not stared at because of my disability. I'm not stared at because of my weight.

I'm stared at because rude and cruel people choose to centre me out with their eyes. The fact that not every single person stares at me, in fact many, many, do not ... means that those who do are making a decision, they are purposely choosing to stare at me.

Little children are taught not to stare at people.

Little children are taught that staring is rude.

Little children are taught by adults who know that staring is a rude and disrespectful way to treat other people.


They know.

We all know.

And they stare anyway.

I have been making myself responsible for the rude and disrespectful behaviour of others. I have been taking their stares in, and through the alchemy of shame, making their behaviour acceptable.

And I've been wrong.

Very wrong.

I am stared at because there are rude and disrespectful people who target difference with their eyes.

That's why I'm stared at.

That's the right answer.



Jayne wales said...

Yes of ourse it is. Bad manners, nothing else. However I must say just recently in Spain I noticed how everyone stares at everyone. It is not seen as rude there just complete interest and curiosity. I do think they also have a much better attitude towards inclusion, just generally more accepting and maybe just more about community. So having been stared at a lot I'm just not sure whether it was offensive or just quite alright really as it was everyone.
Ill reserve my judgement

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:



Anonymous said...

*grins* Its sad though that people find the 'because I'm different' answer much more comfortable than 'because some people are a-holes". I've been pushing the 'its not me its them' argument for years and have lost count of the number of people who look at me with disbelief and think I'm some deluded egotist who thinks I'm better than everyone else because I take that stance. I think I'm equal to everyone else but we still have a way to go before 'different' people are 'allowed' to feel that certainty of equality.

Ettina said...

I don't think staring is always hostile. I stare sometimes, just because I'm curious about people. I often don't realize I'm doing it, and it bothers me that people might think I'm being hostile when I just want to know more about them.

Bill W said...

In our teaching, we point out the power of our eyes and how they can speak volumes without uttering a single word. A great teacher once said "we don't have to listen to mean people", but that sure does not take away the hurt.

Anonymous said...

ettina, dont know if this helps but there is a big difference between an interested look and a smile, from an alert and interested person, and a stare. sustained watching is intrusive (i agree with jayne, my experience of southern european culture is that a much longer duration of watching is acceptable. but italy at least, i can tell the difference between watching and staring and its on the facial expression of the watcher). even if its friendly. staring is rude. i’ve seen plenty on disability blogs about how ppl want to know more, and ask questions about stuff that is really none of their business, like asking in the elevator, why do you use a cane you look like you walk well?. i know i notice difference and my gaze hovers on what i notice so i smile when that happens. i feel comfortable when others do that to my family but i know some people don’t, they want to go about their business without notice. so i’m not saying its ok to do this, just that after speaking to other families with difference i use the look, smile, AND THEN LOOK AWAY, GIVE PEOPLE SOME PRIVACY to reduce the hostility of my interested looking.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Dave, you are stared at because of your weight and because of your disability. It is what it is. People stare at things they don't see very often or don't understand. Human nature. Does it make the person being stared at comfortable? Of course not. It is a profitable or polite social behaviour? No. But as long as you are different you will be stared at. I often watch someone with a disability not because I am rude, but to make sure they get into the building ok (maybe I need to hold a door)or such. Sometimes I'm staring, but at their mobility device. (Is that the one I was looking at on line the other day?) Or I look intensely at someone trying to assess whether they are having difficulty breathing/choking or if it is their ordinary breathing pattern. Just like I look at a mother berating her child or a man jerking his dog around. Looking intensely is part of the measurement of whether I can help or should help or just let be. I actually performed CPR on a man in a mall because I was staring at his behavior and kept watching his actions. Heart attack. And if you think I don't know what is it like, you would be wrong. I too am obese, I now have mobility problems, I sweat profusely (medical problems/weight) and am almost bald. I get stared at all the time and many times out of concern. I meet the stares with a smile. If it is a sincere look, then my assurance ends it. If it is otherwise, then it is their problem. I'm not taking them on...I have enough of my own!!

Mary said...

Being rude and staring at people because *you* have some misguided paternalistic idea that strangers want or need you to watch over them and see that they get into a building ok is still being rude and staring. I'm not going to be the only woman here who's felt the need to go round the block before going into her own house or workplace because of the unsettling persistent gaze of a total stranger. When you're creeping me out, I don't want to show you where I live or where I work or where I shop.

Being rude and staring at people because you have decided that's a reasonable price to attach to your 'help' is still being rude and staring. Maybe you could assume that people can open their own doors unless they actually ask you (or someone else!) for help.

Being rude and staring at people's mobility devices because you're putting your own interest above their right to a little respect and dignity, is still being rude and staring.

I have a right to go about my daily business without harassment. I don't have a duty to constantly smile and reassure nosy strangers that I'm okay.

I don't have an obligation to put up with strangers creeping me out by subjecting me to intense scrutiny. It's upsetting. You say that you know it makes the person being stared at uncomfortable, but then you dismiss that as unimportant compared to your own wish to involve yourself in their business.

People like you make me feel preyed upon.

It could be, that one day, ae gawker will notice that I'm having a medical emergency, and they will rush over, and save my life... but that one-off chance event won't change the fact that their behaviour was rude and damaging not just to me but to the hundred other victims of their misplaced attention.

Anonymous said...

Excellent response Mary.

Ron Arnold said...

Well . . . some folks are assholes. There are self-aware assholes, and un-self-aware assholes. The trick with the un-self-aware ones is to help 'em be self-aware - because then, when they're being an asshole, they're doing it with intent - and that - they have to live with.

(I wonder if Maslow thought about self-actualized assholes in his hierarchy? Sorry - digression.)

I'm an asshole most of the time. (Ask my wife!) But then you can divide assholes into the likeable / unlikable category too. I try to stay likable (again - ask my wife), and self-aware - so that I'm at least a tolerable asshole with a dash of humility and the ability to know when I've crossed a line a bit too far.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes when I am out and about, I will come across a person with a disability and I find my eyes wandering toward that person repeatedly. Repeatedly because I know it is rude to stare and I stop myself from staring. However, when I look at the person it is often not to stare, instead, as the sibling of someone who is profoundly disabled, I find myself wondering if the person is as happy as my brother, if they have known the same love and acceptance in their family and community that my brother has, and if they have a similar sense of humor.

DandG said...

Some people complain about being "stared at", while others complain that people "pretend I'm not there". Difference attracts attention, so we naturally want to look, then look away so we're not "staring"..... When I see a person who is "different", I try to smile and make eye-contact in what I think is a friendly way. I don't know if it comes across correctly.

I also come from New York, where I was used to "people watching" on the subway with impunity... In New York, EVERYBODY's "different", and that's interesting! What do you think about "watching" vs. "staring"?