This is a fairly long post, so I split it into two parts. I ask however, that you not respond to either of them unless you have read both. There are nuances to both parts that I think are pretty essential to one another. Because this is dealing with some heavy and possibly delicate areas of theory, I’m pretty terrified of some of it being lost.
I’ve run into similar arguments before at different times, being told that black people cannot be ableist. At the time I believed, and still do, that the statement is completely false. Not only is claiming that black people are not influenced in the same way by social prejudice as everyone else seems to me like a form of benevolent racism which is still harmful, but it is especially damaging to disabled black people. By that logic, a disabled black person who has to struggle with ableism in her community and in her family would be told that her experiences are not real.
It can be tempting to excuse a black person’s ableism towards a white person given the history of racism, but even with the racial power dynamics at play, ableism hurts black people too. A person who feels comfortable insulting someone on the basis of disability because they are white, is unlikely to treat disabled people of their own race any better. The ableism will inform their actions towards other disabled people, and even when it doesn’t, the ableism they display at disabled white people, will cause splash damaged to disabled black people.
However, in having the discussion, it is important for me to be aware of my own privilege.
I commented to a friend recently, that in these discussions the framing is always a white woman talking to a black woman, but why can’t it ever be framed as a disabled woman talking to an abled woman. This was, after all, a discussion about ableism and I was speaking as someone affected by it.
The answer of course is because it is always both.
Even if the discussion is about ableism, I can’t ignore the way racism also influences the conversation. I can’t ignore that it is possible for me to be racist even while making a point about an area of my own oppression. The conversation could be taking place in a space that is reserved for women of colour, at which point my interjecting the point regarding ableism would be out of place and an example of a racist microaggression. If I am centering a conversation about racism on myself instead, that would be derailing a conversation to center myself as a white person. It is important for me to remember my white privilege in how the situation is brought up, in how those power dynamics come into play with regards to where the conversation is taking place, how it is taking place, what the words being used are, and so on.
As long as the conversation is taking place, it will always be a case of a white woman talking to a black woman, and the inherent power differentials in that statement.
The opposite is also true however. Even while my own white privilege can influence the discussion, so too can the other woman’s abled privilege. There are power dynamics at play here that are just as real as those faced by people of color in relation to white people. It will always also be a case of an abled woman talking to a disabled women.
To claim that ableism is something that black people can’t participate in, is to silence every black person who has dealt with minimizing behaviour from their families and friends. It’s a form of erasure, telling disabled PoC that they don’t have a place within the fight against racism. Worse still, in painting it as a white person thing is to play into the same racist-ableist tropes that lead to black people being prescribed less pain medication, having less access to medical care, not being believed by doctors, or being accused of lying just to be able to not work.
In addition, dismissing ableism as being non-existent in certain communities, to claim that disability justice isn’t a thing, is actually an ableist dogwhitsle. It’s been done.
(This seems like a great place to interject and praise the Black Lives Matters Toronto protest during Pride parade, where among their demands they included calls for greater accessibility and more inclusion of disabled people.)
Going round for round on oppressions and who has it worse is pointless, even within given axes of oppression, the impact may vary – an extremely wealthy cis straight abled black man is probably going to have a slightly easier time than say a poor disabled queer trans white woman, so is it fair to say that he can’t be ableist against her? No it’s not. He can’t be racist against her, that part is true, but ableist? He sure can. By spending time comparing who has it worse, in trying to determine whether you have to bother to care about not hurting one another is to waste time that could frankly be better devoted to fixing things for the both of us.
I’m not saying we all need to come together, because yes, that’s crap. A PoC doesn’t owe a racist a chance, it’s just that a disabled person doesn’t owe an ableist a chance either. We can all do better (and yes I include myself in this. I too need to do better.)
In order for these discussions to take place, both must be willing to address their own level of responsibility and privilege. They must be willing to engage fairly with one another as being united by a common purpose of social justice. This doesn’t mean that a black woman should swallow racist microagressions against her in order to fight ableism but it does mean that she has to be willing to consider her own privilege even as I have to consider mine.
Me bringing up ableism with a black woman has the potential to be racist and this is something that I need to be aware of and careful of. However, the act of bringing it up is not necessarily in and of itself inherently racist. Moreover even if delivered in a racist way, it wouldn’t automatically make my point incorrect. So that even while someone is deservedly ripping into me about the racism, it is important that the ableism also be addressed.
Similarly, in a situation where an abled woman says something ableist, that ableism still exists even if the call out itself is racist. She has a right not to listen to the person hurling racism her way, she has a right to call out the racism and make it clear that it is unacceptable, but her statement continues to be ableist nonetheless. She has a right to cut out that person as unsafe and to call out their racism, but she doesn’t have a right to ignore the harm her ableism does. She doesn’t have the right to ignore her own abled privilege and excuse it not being harmful in the face of her own oppression by racism. Why? Because her privilege doesn’t only harm her oppressors but harms others who face the same oppression as her and that faced by disabled people as well. It’s not about giving in to white supremacy but rather recognizing that racism is not the only form of oppression and acting as if it is harms PoC too. Don’t center white people in discussions of racism, but don’t center abled people in discussions of ableism, and don’t step on disabled people to make your point, just as disabled people need to not step on PoC to make theirs.
At the same time, it is also important to consider how internalized prejudice can affect your perception of a situation. Was the statement really ableist, or did it seem that way because of your internalized racism? Alternately, was the response really racist, or did it seem that way because of internalized ableism? It is not unheard of for someone to use one axis of oppression to excuse a different axis of privilege. How many times have white men claimed that they couldn’t be racism because they’re poor? Or couldn’t be sexist because they’re atheists?
What makes all of this even more difficult is the potential for gas-lighting. If you know that as a white person you are always at risk of acts of racism even when you don’t intend racism, then how do you know when it is a case of you being racist, or of your words being perceived as racist due to internalized ableism? How do you know when something actually was ableism and not a result of internalized racism? And given the power differentials at play, who gets to decide?
And at what point do those self-same anxieties surrounding our own potential to both do harm and be gaslit about whether we are doing harm, create a different kind of segregation: not where you avoid people over whom you have some element of power over because you have malice towards them, but because you are afraid of doing harm? That result ends up replicating the exact same erasure that happens when the influence is active malice. It is just more of the same.
How do we find a balance between a scorched earth response to bigotry and acts of apologetics? How do we balance a need to protect not just our own safety but the safety of others, like our friends and family, who might be vulnerable in some ways, with the idea that everyone makes mistakes and that if we immediately cut off everyone at the first mistake, how long before we end up alone – either because we’ve cut everyone off or because we ourselves have made a mistake and have been cut off? How do we balance the need for education and pointing out the ways in which we participate in oppression even when we don’t mean to or didn’t know and maybe had no way of knowing up to that point that they were acts of oppression, with tone policing?
There is no easy answer, and ultimately everyone needs to find their own balance. For some people, myself included, anger works better. It is what is right for me. For others, their balance might lean heavily towards being conciliatory. Each person gets to make that decision for themselves – but in doing so must not impose their own choice on others. No one owes civility to anyone, no one owes people a second chance, being civil is not the better option it is a different options.
Even while finding this balance is important, it is also important to know that there are legitimate times when we might need to go to certain extremes.
It is appropriate to go scorched earth on someone who is a predator. Someone who harms, not unwillingly but willingly and intentionally. Similarly, no one owes anyone a chance. Cutting someone off because they have done you harm is completely reasonable, and further, if that person has showed themselves to be willing to further victimize you by using your friends against you, then it is reasonable to ask that others choose between you two as a way to protect yourself. You have a right to cut off people who don’t want to.
It is also important to understand that there may be times when you can’t cut someone off completely, even at the request of someone you care about. You might depend on this person in some way. Or perhaps you need to maintain access to a person in order to be allowed to maintain access to someone else who you are deeply about. Consider women who have to maintain contact with their past abusers in order to maintain contact with their children. Or children who maintain contact with abusive parents in order to maintain contact with siblings? However, even in these situations, where the extenuating circumstances might be understandable, the victimized person has a right to choose to cut you off for their own protection. You both have a right to protect your own safety. For you that might mean staying friends with the person who you are being asked to unfriend, for them it means choosing to unfriend you.
Similarly, it can be unfair to demand that someone who is struggling with poverty cut off someone who consistently helps them avoid homelessness and starvation. It can unfair to expect someone to always be able to address problems on their own feeds, when they might be dealing with a situation that has to take precedence. If I am in the midst of a panic attack or have been triggered, then it can be unfair to expect me to respond to someone’s comments on my wall immediately. If I’m in the middle of a crohn’s flare, which leaves me exhausted, and I’m taking a nap, it is unfair to expect me to respond to every notification on my wall immediately. In fact that expectation could even be ableist since it ignores the ways disability might be affecting the ability to respond at that time. That said, if I never moderate anything on my wall, or consistently only appear after the issue has been resolved, or just never say anything – then it is not unreasonable for someone to recognize that pattern for what it is, and it might be worth taking a moment to recognize it yourself.
So how do we decide when it is appropriate and when not? How do we avoid having unrealistic expectations, while also having a reasonable need to have people address oppressive dynamics in their own spaces and take responsibility for their friends who are actively displaying bigotry and causing harm? How do we balance fairness without creating excuses?
The answer isn’t simple, and will ultimately have different results for different people. I personally think the answer lies in a combination of pattern recognition and empathy, where the benefit of the doubt I extend to a person is directly proportionate to how they’ve responded to being called out on something in the past. Their willingness to take responsibility for their own words and actions.
These types of discussions are important because without them, we cannot really deepen our understanding of the myriad of different ways that all types of oppression are intertwined in ways that are never possible to be completely distinguished from one another. We need to have these discussions because exposing these threads is ultimately how we untangle them.
But while these discussions do need to happen, it is also important that they happen appropriately and in the right situations. The deeper we delve into the interplay of different axes of oppression, the more advanced the discussion. These discussions are the master classes of the studies of social justice.
There are different levels of discussions regarding social justice. One of the frustrating things we face as SJWs is how often more advanced discussion regarding social justice topics are derailed by someone demanding that the conversation center their 101 understanding. Often it can feel as though we are not allowed to explore issues further or more fully, because there is always someone who has to interrupt to “Just Ask Questions” or “Play Devil’s Advocate” on an issue that the people having the discussion already have an understanding of.
It is extremely frustrating always being expected to discuss everything at the most basic level. To go over extremely basic, or superficial points over and over again, especially since this very tactic is often used by people who have no intention of learning, but only because they are trying to derail or silence the discussion.
This is why jumping into a conversation to ask specific clarifying questions is seen as an act of hostility. This why it is an act of hostility, even when it isn’t meant as such, when it is done by someone who is one the privileged side of the oppression(s) being discussed. Because you are demanding emotional labour and the prioritization of your level of knowledge over that of the need for the discussion to happen.
Not everyone had the same understanding of different issues. A white person, growing up in a mostly white community, surrounded by white people in authority, with white teachers, and so on, is not likely to have a deep understanding of racism without being introduced to it and having at least parts of it explained by someone, though not the person who they are directing acts of oppression at.
At the very basic introduction level, generalizations may be necessary in order to build understanding.
If you try and tell someone who has never been introduced to any of these concepts that their act of sexism was also racist, ableist, transphobic, homophobic and classist all at once when they still haven’t completely been convinced that sexism exists, then you are not going to get very far.
For this reason, there are times when we might need to concentrate on introducing to them how it is an act of sexism, before delving deeper into the many ways it is also all these other things as well. To jump into an introductory class and expect everyone there to maintain discourse at a graduate level is similarly unfair and frustrating.
Often, people are more receptive to understanding axes of oppression that affect them directly. It is easier to convince a white atheist straight cis man that anti-atheist oppression exists and that people participate in it even when they don’t mean to, then it is to convince this same person that that homophobia, racism, trans antagonism, sexism, etc. etc. exist.
Once we can get them to understand how pervasive anti-atheist bigotry is, how even as atheists themselves they can sometimes participate in this type of bigotry, the hope is that it can be used as a foundation to get them to understand types of oppression where they themselves are privileged.
One risk of this however, is the mistaken idea that if someone has a deeper understanding of one level of oppression, that they automatically have a deeper understanding of all other levels as well. I’ve seen respected feminists fall into this trap when they assume that their knowledge of feminism is sufficient information to be able to navigate the intersections of race and feminism. They end up as white feminists because they assume that their experience of sexism is universal and that their feminism equips them to be able to recognize all forms of oppression. Similarly, they get called out on ableism and assume that it is a made up form of oppression since they personally have not heard of it.
It is important to have very basic introductory conversations from time to time, so that people can correct their own misunderstanding, so that they can work on refreshing their understanding, and so that others can get an introduction into the basics of different areas of oppression. In the same way that it is inappropriate to jump into a 404 level conversation to ask 101 questions and doing so derails important discussion, so too can introducing 404 level concepts into 101 level discussion.
Expecting someone who is trying to introduce a concept to people that are barely prepared for it, to include the caveats that refine these issues, is a way to set them up for failure. It is the same way that we teach science, that we teach math, and many other courses. We start with truisms as a foundation, and then refine down. We start with basic concepts like understanding numbers before we move on to addition, subtractions, multiplication, division, geometry, algebra, and so on until we get to advanced concepts like calculus, topology, and so on. Walking into a kindergarten class and expecting the teacher to use calculus terminology around people who don’t even know how to count yet is ridiculous.