If you’re the member of any sort of minority, chances are you’ve run across this. Some friend, family member, or vague acquaintance ends up in a situation where they are confronted with their own inherent biases in some way, and they feel the need to run to you as the Representative of Minority Co. to explain the situation.
For example, imagine you have a friend name Betty who is the owner of a small business who is hiring someone to work as a part of that business. She has narrowed her choice down to two ideal candidates, who are identical in terms of qualifications. Both have the right amount of experience, the same great attitude and personality that fits into the team dynamic, in terms of “reasons to hire” the two are completely interchangeable. Except that Candidate A is abled while Candidate B is disabled.
Now Betty is not a Capital A Ableist. She knows that disabled people are just as capable as abled people, she truly believes that the world should be accessible, and has all the empathy for disabled people having a difficult time being able to find gainful employment. Betty has signed countless petitions to make accessibility more prevalent, her own brother even has a disability. Betty is an ALLY!
But Betty’s business is small, and even with the added help, she is hopelessly overworked. Candidate B’s disability will require the company to undergo some work to make it completely accessible. Maybe, it would even cost her some money to get some needed program or service, or to make some changes to the physical location of the business. She was already putting pressure on her budget by hiring a new person, the added finances would be just too much. She would have to close up shop, and it’s not really fair to her or to any of her other employees, or to her family, to jeopardize her business for the sake of one person. If they had been better qualified and the best option than of course, it would be no question, but the two candidates are completely identical and really it’s a coin toss one way or the other. Wouldn’t it be just as unfair to Candidate A to only not hire them because they’re not disabled? She makes her choice and then next time at dinner with her brother’s she lays the whole story out and asks:
“Can you understand where I’m coming from?”
Maybe she even admits that she essentially didn’t hire someone because of a disability, but see really, it wasn’t because of the disability, but rather her inability to be able to adequately meet their accessibility needs without taking on more than she could handle. She’s only one person, it’s not like if she did hire that person, she would have solved the problem. They needed to be working together to solve the bigger problem so these little problems wouldn’t be such an issue.
Whether she realizes it or not, what Betty is asking for is absolution. She wants the reassurance that she is not a bad person, that she is not as bad as those ableists out there, that what she did, while wrong, was understandable.
How Oppression Works
It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the way oppression works. There is this belief that oppression is the result of deliberate conscious choices to oppress. That it is the work of individuals doing things in the active pursuit of oppression of given people as the end goal. That it’s a series of cartoon villains, twirling their mustaches and thinking up schemes through which to keep their particular targets down.
The insidious reality is that oppression works because it’s the result of countless thousands of understandable choices. Systemic systems of oppression are set up in such a way so that continuing them is the path of least resistance, while dismantling them is made up of endless barriers. The easiest way to make sure that people continue participating in upholding these systems is to not have them realize they are doing so. To make it so that their participation happens unthinkingly but that stopping that participation involves significant effort and a need to take responsibility for having upheld those systems in the past and facing the reality that they will likely do so again all unthinkingly.
As gradually some of these truths are faced however, and people previously blissfully ignorant, or perhaps willfully ignorant, to their own participation in various isms are suddenly faced with a theoretical potential for having to face actual consequences for harmful behaviours. Since the pain of the consequences is felt personally, while the resulting harm of their actions is at best only academically understood, the existing potential is treated as being the same as oppression. Meanwhile actually facing those consequences is perceived as an attack.
One obvious display of this dynamic for example is one like rapist Brock Turner, who consciously and with forethought committed a crime, and yet who is acting as though facing the consequence of this crime is an attack on him by the victim and not the logical and legally outlined consequence of his actions. This all despite the fact that the consequences he faced were actually significantly less than what they should have been by law, and the fact that the consequences of his actions for his victims were significantly worse.
When you add to the whole aforementioned set up to system that generally causes hardship for all but a chosen few, and then blame those oppressed groups as being the reason for this hardship, and you have a perfect recipe for a self-sustaining system that seem nigh on impossible to escape.
The privileged individual connects the effort of confronting their own participation in the oppressive system with the accusations that the vulnerable population is actually the source of the hardship they themselves are facing. This acts as “evidence” for those accusations, despite the fact that those same individuals experience even more hardship on average, and face additional barriers.
“I’m not a bad person but they are saying I am doing bad things and that makes me feel bad about myself, therefore they must actually be the problem.” Except that it’s not the vulnerable groups that are making them feel bad, but rather it is the guilt of the realization that their actions have caused harm, even if they didn’t mean that to be the result. It feels bad to realize that you’ve done something that hurt someone else, but that bad feeling is not them attacking you.
They see the bare minimum accommodations given to address those existing injustices as being favours and indulgences, cheat codes if you will, which they’re told are taking from them what is rightfully theirs.
It’s how we end up with privileged white boys claiming they’re the real victims of oppression, or white people, or Christians, or other privileged people claiming that they’re the only demographic that people are allowed to make fun of these days. As though our media isn’t saturated with tired old tropes so overdone they’re hardly even recognized for the stereotypes and bigoted portrayals they are. It’s how people can ignore the evidence of their own eyes and still believe they’re the victim.
Back to Betty, who is currently caught up in the currents of these dynamics. She’s aware enough to recognize that her decision not to hire someone fundamentally because they are disabled is wrong. She is not a cartoonish villain however, and so she cannot be a bad person. In order to make peace between those two thoughts, requires the blessing of a symbol of the one she’s hurt. Enter her brother.
The problems with this however are manifold.
The Token Friend
To start with, it’s unfair to expect a person who is a member of a certain minority population to represent the entirety of that population. With something like disability, to begin with, there are a variety of widely different disabilities and the experiences and difficulties of one, are not necessarily the same or even related to those of a different one. There may be certain commonalities, but if you design a building with say wheelchairs in mind, there is a good chance it wouldn’t address all the needs of someone who uses a cane for example, let alone the needs of someone who is blind.
Even when the disability is the same, the individual experiences can still be different. A lot of factors play a role in what people are comfortable with and what people struggle with, including elements like upbringing, severity of condition, access to assistance whether financial or otherwise, even individual’s accessibility requirements can change. By asking them to act as representatives for all disabled people everywhere, you are treating them like a token and not a person.
That’s without even addressing the fact that someone might not feel comfortable actually discussing the situation and all the ways in which your actions actually reinforce harmful systems. They might not even know and just feel uncomfortable with the whole situation either way. Maybe they don’t want to be reminded of the ways they are discriminated against on a daily basis. Or perhaps they don’t feel comfortable with the inevitable confrontation that might come up from disagreeing with you. All of these might compel someone in that position to just go along with what you are saying, despite not actually being ok with it. And so, we end up with “well my friend said it was ok.”
The fact is that the situation is more complicated over whether we understand the difficult position that someone like Betty is in. From Betty’s perspective, the issue is that when faced with two identical candidates, she caved in to outside pressures like finances to choose the abled candidate.
But in reality, the issue goes much deeper.
You Have to be Twice as Good to be considered Half as Good
Let’s start with the perception that both candidates were equally qualified. Internalized social biases influence how we rate a person’s competence, often negatively. We’ve seen studies that consistently show for example that faced with identical resumes people will unconsciously rate people with privilege in certain areas higher than those who are vulnerable in those same areas. A woman’s resume is rated as weaker than an identical resume with a man’s name. A resume with a “white” name is treated as being stronger than one with an “ethnic” name and especially those that are associated with people of colour. Similar bias influenced perceptions come into play when it comes to disability.
People have a tendency to inherently equate disability with incompetence. If their disability was a visible one, the interviewer was likely unconsciously already thinking of the difficulty in accommodating their needs. These unconscious considerations likely coloured their perception of their skills and qualifications, making them more heavily weigh any negatives.
This means that in all likelihood, the disabled candidate was better qualified but their disability had already played a factor in their ability to receive the job. Meaning that actually their disability was likely used against them twice to deny them that job. This is exactly part of why so many people who are otherwise able to work, find themselves unemployed. It doesn’t matter how good they are, the perceived inconveniences will more often than not outweigh the quality of their resume.
Accessibility is Expensive. If I can’t work, how can I afford it?
In the same way that Betty saw the expense of accessibility as a barrier to her being able to hire a disabled person so too is it a barrier for many if not all disabled people. Disabled people can’t find work and so cannot afford the accessibility tools needed to let them integrate in society. Yet businesses also use the cost as a reason to deny us work. It’s a cycle that is not meant to be broken since as long as disabled people are prevented from integrating in greater levels into society, the harder it is to advocate for full rights and respect and fair treatment. So long as we are prevented from being seen as members of society, it makes it easier to paint us as useless burdens and a drain on that same society. It’s a type of segregation, that gets exponentially worse the less privileged you are along other axes as well.
As a business, Betty is more likely to have access to funding availabilities to implement accessibility, either in the form of tax breaks, or even potentially grants. There might be organizations that are prepared to help her business become more accessible for certain disabilities. It is also possible that the accessibility solutions she thinks will need to be implemented are actually not as extensive as she believes, or not actually things that require a lot of effort. Perhaps the solution involves allowing the employee to work remotely, or perhaps they already have the equipment necessary to implement these accessibility needs. Betty’s decision is as much based-on assumptions about what it means to have a disabled employee.
Betty could have taken an opportunity to discuss the issue with the potential candidate and figure out what would be required. But the inherent perception of disabled people is that they are burdens.
A while back, I remember watching Switched At Birth, that show about two young girls who discover that they were somehow switched in the hospital and ended up going home with different families. One of the girls is Deaf. If I remember correctly, she gets a Co-Op at a Restaurant, where the chef basically throws a tantrum over how Deaf people don’t belong in kitchens because there is no way to make it accessible for her without disrupting the whole flow of the kitchen. She counters by putting in simple mirrors around her work station so she can figure out when someone needs her to look at them.
The assumption that disabled people are burdens is exactly what informs a lot of ableism. In coming to her disabled brother to make her feel better about her actions, she is asking a member of an oppressed minority to sympathize with his oppressor. She is putting the emotional labour of her ableism on him when he already has to deal with all the ableism directed at him.
Emotions and Feelings Exist for a Reason
She wants him to make it so she doesn’t feel bad. But she should feel bad. She should feel so guilty that she works on understanding her own culpability in systemic ableism. She should feel so bad that she works at advocating for more accessibility and for more funding for accessibility. That she does her own work in helping to dismantle ableism further, including in her own self. The guilt of knowing she helped support ableism should encourage her to continue picking apart the many ways in which ableism has been internalized by her. Because what she needs isn’t absolution but rather to make amends. What’s more, she should come to understand that what she is working for isn’t forgiveness but is just the right thing.
The simple reality is there will be times when yes, circumstance will put us in a position where we have to make a decision about whether to prioritize our own safety over doing the right thing, or whether to sacrifice ourselves for a greater purpose. A lot of factors will come into play including for example their own relative vulnerability. For example, what if Betty is a black woman who is also a business owner, and the candidate in question is a white man. Should a black woman, who historically have faced significant barriers to business ownership, sacrifice her business to employ a disabled white man? That doesn’t seem right either does it? Nor does it seem helpful.
This isn’t to say that the existence of racism excuses ableism if it is coming from a black person, but rather is meant to convey that in a world of grey sometimes isms are rationally unavoidable. THIS DOESN’T MEAN THEY’RE OK. And while they ARE understandable to some extent, that doesn’t make them excusable or more specifically, that doesn’t mean that what happened wasn’t an act of oppression itself as well.
Too often, we use the fact that something is understandable as a way to put it from our minds or as an explanation for why this obvious oppressive thing isn’t actually oppressive.
If I did it for a good reason then it wasn’t actually bigoted right?
It doesn’t work that way. What’s more, if it did, that would be a dangerous precedent. After all, there are always justifications available for doing the easy thing rather than the right thing. The guilt over the fact that we did something harmful is a part of the motivation to do the right thing. It should motivate us to do everything we can to avoid having to make that harmful choice.
In this example, this could mean talking to the candidate to understand their needs and how to implement them. Looking into possible funding for these grants. Looking into places where perhaps they might be able to adjust spending to be able to afford to implementing those necessary accessibility solutions, or looking into less expensive alternatives or work-arounds. The idea is to make sure that it is a last resort option. That it really was UNAVOIDABLE.
Does having committed a harmful ableist act mean that Betty is a bad person? No. If oppressive actions were only the domain of bad people, it would be a lot easier to fight.
Does it mean she deserves to have her business boycotted or ruined? No.
But it does mean that you shouldn’t compound one ableist act with another.