There was a girl who didn't fall down

There was a scrawny girl with legs and arms too long for the rest of her. And those were crooked, the bones curved wrongly. Her face was almost all toothy grin and huge thick glasses.

When I catch a glimpse of her in an old picture my mind reels. That was me. I know it was but I can hardly relate anymore.

I was beyond gawky and awkward at thirteen. I had terrible posture from being nearly blind and constantly leaning forward to see things. I looked disabled and I was almost entirely socially isolated. Self-esteem wasn’t even a concept. I was in survival mode. Nothing beyond that mattered much.

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

Creative Commons image by Sheila Kaye Matthews

But then there was that one day when a summer camp counselor from the Blind School took me and a few other kids out to the Columbia River where the state Special Olympics water-skiing team was training. They figured, since they had the equipment out there, they would give us the chance to just try it out.

I can still remember how they made us stand on the grass and hold our hands out in front of us with a stick. We bent our knees while one of the adults gently tugged at the stick in our hands, trying utterly futilely to give blind children an inkling of what it would feel like to water ski.

We could hear the noise the boats made and distant shouting. A few of us could see the very beginning, when a skier sitting in the water rose up and seemed to stand on the surface for a second before disappearing beyond our extremely limited visual range. Our concept of water skiing was very shaky.

“The water will push at your feet.” The instructor put his hand on my feet and then on my knees. “You have to bend your knees and lean back against it.” He put a hand at the small of my back and coaxed me to lean back. All I knew was that if I leaned back that far, I’d fall over.

“You will fall down the first time and probably lots of times,” they told us. “It’s not about staying up. It’s about getting up and trying again.”

Adults who teach blind children love cliches.

I thought about all that water. I could sort-of snow ski, so I knew how skis worked. In theory, I guessed that the skis could push against the water if I was pulled forward by the boat, and somehow I’d ski up out of the water and stand on the surface. And then I’d lean back, like they said. It just wasn’t conceivable.

“Don’t worry,” the gentle lady from the Blind School consoled me, patting my shoulder as we walked toward the river, “If it is too hard or anything, you just let go. You’ll fall right into the water like jumping off the diving board. No big deal.”

I realized when she touched me that I was shivering all over. My whole body was buzzing with a fine unconscious vibration, like the hood of a souped-up car..

I waited behind several other kids. Each one in turn stood in the water near the shore while the instructors put on their water skis and then handed them the stick at the end of the tow line. One instructor near the shore would count down and the boat’s engine would rev and then the tow line leaped forward.

Half of the time, the blind kids just let go of the stick and never even fell down. The other half of the time, the tow rope pulled them a few feet forward and they splashed head-first into the river. I tried to make out the scene but all I could get was a general impression as the instructors pleaded with the three kids in front of me not to let go of the stick the instant it jerked forward. Two of them let go anyway and the third splashed into the river.

Finally, it was my turn. The water was cold and my shivering got so bad that I thought I couldn’t possibly hang on. The instructor put my skis on and held my knocking knees for a second. I comforted myself that even if I couldn’t keep a hold of the stick, at least the first pull would show me what it felt like. They said we could try again, if we wanted.

I leaned back as far as I could and felt the skis. I gripped the stick with all my strength. I was determined that at least I would be one of those to fall in the water, not just lose the stick.

“One. Two. Three.” The boat engine revved.

The stick jerked hard and I almost lost it. My body lurched forward and I was sure I’d be in the water face first, but then the skis moved. I crouched low, the way I did on snow skis on a steep slope and I felt the slope rise under the skis.

The rope pulled hard at my hands. My knees knocked and I almost went down as the skis broke the surface of the water and the line jerked even harder. I heard a faint yell go up from the people on the shore behind me.

And then a miracle happened. The water buzzed away under my skis. I slowly stood out of my painful crouch and leaned back into the feel of support from the tow line.

“You OK?” A hoarse yell came from the boat. The shore was long gone.

I gritted my teeth and nodded hard. I was glad for the ability I knew sighted people had to see my nod without my having to unclench my teeth to yell back. I was so cold from the wind that my knees and elbows were still shaking but I was OK.

I felt the way the water was like springy, unstable ground beneath me. I felt the secure tug of the line. The boat slowly eased on a little more speed and the water felt harder under my feet.

I experimented gently rocking from side to side. I tried to dig in one side of a ski the way you do in the snow and almost fell. I lurched forward and then to one side and the boat engine sputtered and nearly cut out when whoever was watching me saw what I had done. But I regained my balance and kept going.

That first time up actually seemed to take forever. Mostly other than the thrill, all I remember is how incredibly cold I was. Finally when I didn’t think my muscles could take another second and I was shaking so hard that it must have been visible from the boat, the motor slowed and stopped in the river. I sank into the water, which felt as warm as a bath after all that cold wind.

The boat circled around and came in close so that I could take off the skis and climb up onto the back of the boat.

I barely heard what the people on the boat said, except for one thing they kept saying, “Two miles.”

I thought it had felt long but that long? I was a rural kid and I regularly walked two miles to reach a friend’s house. That was a good distance.

They took me back to shore and I got to warm up while I waited for the other kids to try again. I was worried that they wouldn’t give me many other chances because after all, I had really had a good ski, while the other kids had just fallen in the water, but within a couple of hours, I got to try again and then again. A lot of the other kids wouldn’t do it after the first few tries.

A few did get up on the skis but clearly I was different. I had never been athletic before and the whole thing confused me. I wasn’t special. Not in anything but academics at least. I was a good student but hopeless in social or physical realms, a complete social outcast and a stereotypical nerd, other than being female and growing up rural with physical chores that made for a bit of unskilled muscle.

Once a couple of the instructors came over to me while I was getting the life jacket on again for another try. One of them seemed to be showing the other one my legs. I don’t remember the exact words but apparently they theorized that the crooked, curved bones in my legs that made me run in a grotesquely flailing and inefficient manner, might have by chance given me a water-skiing advantage.

I spent not just that day but the entire week on the water and I was allowed to water ski just about as much as I could stomach. I learned to cross wakes and ski through obstacle courses. I got to go as fast as I could handle and face fear. I couldn’t recognize anyone’s face because I couldn’t see and the noise of boats made it so I usually couldn’t hear what anyone said either. I was almost entirely cut off from the human world during that time, but I didn’t really care.

It was all physical—the water, the sunshine, the cold wind, the pull of the line, my aching muscles the slap of impact when I did fall, which I did a lot once I started crossing wakes…

It was more fun than I could ever remember having and the only bad part was contemplating the end of the week and my return home to chores, boring schoolwork and mean kids at school who ostracized me.

But then at the end of the week, several adults came to me and said I could join the Oregon state women’s team and go to the National Special Olympics water-skiing competition in Florida. There was even a picture of me in the local newspaper, goofy grin and huge glasses behind a water ski dramatically posed for the camera, but the clipping was lost somewhere in the past thirty years.

I went too. It wasn’t as much fun as that week on the Columbia. There was a lot of waiting around and when I finally got to compete, the place and the skis and everything was unfamiliar and I didn’t do very well.

But that didn’t really matter.

I told myself none of it really mattered. it was “only” the Special Olympics after all. I didn’t even tell my friends at home much beyond that I got to go water-skiing. No one made a big deal about it. I got third place in some category or other but I didn’t feel like I’d won.

That wasn’t the point. The point was that engagement with the physical, that sense of being one with my body, of being physically strong and worthy.

Today when I hear about the Special Olympics facing funding threats or I hear people use the Special Olympics as a slur or a joke, I can’t help but think on that. I did other Special Olympics things as a kid. I ran track and field in the local competitions. I didn’t really like it and I didn’t win with my flailing legs, but it was good exercise. I did know how to push myself. That was good too.

But I know those two weeks of water-skiing—one on the Columbia and one in Florida—changed my entire self-concept as a teenager. I went from just surviving and fighting everyone and everything because I was rejected and wrong and hurt to nursing a ferocious desire to “show them all.”

I’m not saying the second impulse was even healthy. I was driven for the next twelve years to succeed academically and professionally. I competed for and got a scholarship to study abroad when I was sixteen. I competed for and got scholarships to go to a prestigious private college. I competed for and got a coveted place as an international stringer for a national newspaper and became a journalist in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. I traveled through more than 30 countries.

Did it start with that miraculous moment when I didn’t fall down, despite all the predictions? Time-wise, yes. It coincided with the sea change.

Psychologically it is hard to say. But I’ll stand by the Special Olympics. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure it goes on, because I think it did play a role and does play a role with a lot of kids who are beaten down and at the bottom of despair. It’s one way to rise out of that.

Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.

You don't have to forgive

I’ve been staring at photos of Jemel Roberson for almost two weeks now. Every violent death of innocent people—there have been so many lately—is a tragedy. Every time the police in the US kill a black person for no conceivable reason, other than prejudice and disregard for their lives, it’s an outrage.

But there is something about Roberson that has me by the throat. It grabbed me even before I saw the pictures of him with his nine-month-old baby. It’s the context. He saved people from a mass shooting, yet another one. He did what all those who oppose sensible gun regulations keep saying some good guy with a gun must do. And then they shot him dead.

And I watch black men and women speak about it—calmly, with dignity, with tightly controlled emotions. I don’t think I could talk about it in person without getting upset. Writing has always been easier for me that way.

But of course, I’m not black. I haven’t been forcibly taught to control my emotions or hide outrage to such an extreme. I respect that dignified control. I try to emulate it without much success. Today it makes me think of an incident that happened at my house, which was a lesson on self-control, manners and forgiveness.

My daughter bursts in the front door, breathless and wide-eyed. “They called her “black face!’” she gasps.

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

My husband just drove up with my daughter and her Nigerian friend from the city, age 8, in the car.

“Who?” I spin around. Our little town is very, very white, something my slightly brown children are all too aware of.

Still gasping out each word, my daughter points out to the road. She says both my son and a boy visiting us from across town ran up to my daughter’s friend when she got out of the car and started taunting her, calling her “black face” and a the local term for “African,” which isn’t supposed to be derogatory but lots of things depend on tone.

I run out the door and find the little girl on the front porch alone. I bring her inside and ask for her take on the story. She is mostly silent, answering with shrugs, nods and shakes of the head with her lips pressed together.

“Is it okay to call you that?” I asked.

Shrug.

“Do kids at school call you that?” I know she goes to school in a mostly white area as well.

Nod.

“Do you like it when they do?”

Shake.

The girl is only eight and we’re on the leading edge of Eastern Europe. We don’t exactly get consciousness raising here, so I can’t assume much. I explain that it isn’t okay for people to call her things she doesn’t like or to make fun of how she looks. As I explain, she slowly relaxes. This is only the second time she’s been away from home over night with white people and she barely got out of the car when this happened.

Justice will wait a moment in favor of therapy. I spend a good long time reassuring her that this is not okay and I won’t let anyone say those things in my house, no matter what. I reassure her that she is beautiful—and she is objectively stunning for an eight-year-old as it so happens. She nods but looks unconvinced.

I do get confirmation that it was my son as well as his friend calling names and I try not to show that this not only deeply embarrasses me but fills me with rage. She doesn’t need my emotions. but my kids are adopted from a racially marginalized group here in Eastern Europe and they have been called “black face” themselves, although they are many shades lighter than the Nigerian girl.

That my son would participate in this… There are no words.

I give her my own apology and send both girls upstairs to play and go out to slay demons.

When I corner the boys outside, they are initially unrepentant—silly, stumbling and giggling. This almost, but not quite, breaks my cool. I want nothing more than to rip them to shreds.

I ask for their side of the story. They attempt to say they were just playing, just kidding, but admit to using the words. The visiting boy admits fairly easily. He isn’t entirely sure these are bad words. My son knows better and it takes longer to get the truth out of him.

I need to cool off to keep from doing something illegal, so I put my son behind one door and the other boy alone on the porch for a time-out. After awhile, my son is more open to talking and he tells all.

The other little boy is frightened and crying. I know that his father just left definitively a couple of weeks ago and that his mother cleans houses. I note with quiet irony that the Nigerian girl’s mother cleans for a living too.

When children do really bad or dangerous things, things parents want to stop in their tracks, there is a conundrum. It isn’t garden-variety naughtiness and with rambunctious kids like mine, they have already seen every acceptable disciplinary strategy in more than a dozen parenting books. Giving them regular discipline (time-out, apologize, revoke video game privileges) seems woefully inadequate and I want to make this eminently memorable.

I talk to my son alone, keeping my fury in check.

“Why did you call her that?”

“It was funny.”

“Has anyone ever called you that?”

Negative head shake.

“Well, actually I happen to know that they did when you were in kindergarten. Lots. It was a big problem. That one teacher…”

Shrug.

I had to bite my tongue. Unlike the kids and some parents, the teacher had not called him “black” or “gypsy” but she had said “those people have trouble in school” and “it’s about the genes, you know.” In the spring she had insisted that he had a contagious skin disease and would be banned from kindergarten for the several weeks it would take to be completely screened by dermatologists. Fortunately, the pediatrician stood up to her. It was ant bites. But all Marik knew was that he had to go to the doctor and the teacher was upset and the doctor said it was silly. As a mother you protect six-year-olds from some of the world’s worst truths, but kids and parents had said those things to him.

“Do you like it when people call you something like that?” I pressed.

Head shake.

Sigh. “Do you think you can give her a really really good apology?”

Nod.

I am far from satisfied, but I go out to talk to the other boy. He’s wiping his tears on his sleeve. This is even harder, though less personally humiliating, since he isn’t my son.

“Have you ever seen an African person before?” We essentially don’t have any local people of African origin here, so this is more or less how I phrase it.

“No.”

Much as I thought. “Why did you call her those words and laugh at her?”

Shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Have you heard other people use those words about African people or other people with brown skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand that you heard older kids and grownups use those words. That still doesn’t mean they are okay. It is not okay to call people names and I will never allow those kinds of words at my house. Even outside my house, if you use them, you won’t be welcome at my house. Do you understand me?”

Slight nod.

“Do you think you can say you’re sorry in a really nice way?”

“She’s black. It’s true.”

I’m momentarily at a loss for words. He’s only seven. I didn’t expect much resistance, though I didn’t have any great hopes of making a lasting impression on him either.

I again have to leave in order to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone else’s kid.

I leave the boys in separate confinement for awhile yet. Then I bring them both out to the porch. I tell them that they need to apologize extremely well or my son’s friend will have to go home immediately. I know his single mother is looking forward to a day of rest with him here, but that’s just tough. He will go home if he is recalcitrant on this one.

Before I’m finished the two have started giggling again but I reiterate the consequences and they start to get serious, when they realize I mean it. I have my phone out, ready to make the call.

They start crying and we discuss more. My son’s friend unexpectedly states that kids at school do call my son those names. My son argues that it is mostly only one kid. Obviously he wasn’t telling the full truth before. I discuss with them the ridiculous nature of calling someone with slightly tan skin “black” and point out that the Nigerian girl is also not technically black in color, but more like dark brown. I reiterate that these differences don’t matter and it it is not okay to laugh at someone’s appearance anyway.

Slowly they both appear a bit more genuinely contrite. Finally, I leave them to plan their profuse apology and go upstairs to see the girls again.

I ask the Nigerian girl if she would come down, when she isn’t busy. Overly polite child that she is, she jumps up immediately to go downstairs. I ask her if she would be willing to listen to the boys’ apology. She agrees.

We join the boys outside, and I reiterate for everyone that it isn’t okay to call people names or laugh at anyone’s appearance or background. The boys actually do a pretty good job of apologizing and I almost ask, “Do you forgive them?” But I bite my tongue again.

She’s standing there with her head high, looking down on them from the top step of the porch, while they stand on the grass in the deepening dusk. I think on the fact that white people have probably never apologized to her for racism before. It will be a rarity in her future as well, if she ever gets another such apology, and the racism isn’t going to stop.

The handling of this moment is as crucial as any other step I’ve taken in resolving this deceptively childish conflict.

“You don’t have to forgive them,” I tell her. “They can handle it themselves. But you can forgive them if it makes you feel any better.”

She takes a moment more to look down on them and then says with the most impeccable manners I could wish my kids had, “I forgive you. Thank you for your apology.”

Then she turns and goes back to playing upstairs.

I let the boys come in the house and mostly things continue well, except that I discover that it is the Nigerian girl’s birthday. They don’t do birthday parties in her family, so no one mentioned it when we invited her. I decide this is a perfect opportunity to make the rest of the day all about her.

The boys have to work off a bit of their naughtiness by cleaning the floor. I whip together the world’s fastest chocolate cake and make the boys wrap a gift. The birthday girl is wide-eyed and stunned when she comes downstairs again to our impromptu decorations and party. She says she’s seen birthday parties on TV and she does everything just like in the movies, closing her eyes and putting on a dramatic show of making a wish and blowing out the candles.

In the middle of eating the cake, the seven-year-old who had never seen a black person up close before blurts, “At least you don’t have to worry about getting chocolate on your face, since…”:

I growl his name and fix him with a death-glare across the table. He gulps and wisely shuts up.

She doesn’t appear to notice.

By the time I tuck all four kids into bed, I am aching and exhausted. I feel like I have been literally fighting a war. I don’t know if I’ve won anything this day and I am sure that tomorrow and every single day we’ll still be fighting it.

How does this relate to the case of Jemel Roberson exactly? Well, it isn’t just that case of course. But I would say to all the black people who hurt inside or out because of this lethal and crushing racism we are living with, “Thank you for your calm and your manners and your endless attempts to live in peace with us. You do not have to forgive white people, even when we apologize. We can live with not being forgiven. What we need is to learn and remember and do better in the future.”

Exclusion: The abled-privilege knapsack

Shutting down "the privilege Olympics"  should not be code for "screw the disabled"

You too are wearing an invisible knapsack. 

In 1988, Peggy McIntosh explained white privilege in terms of an invisible knapsack filled with unearned benefits and assets that white people carry with them almost entirely regardless of class, economic status, citizenship or other conditions.

It's a good analogy. I am now much more aware of my knapsack of white privilege and I can observe the effects of its contents on a daily basis. 

I have never seen a similar analogy used to describe abled privilege, but it is time someone did. In the last few years the necessity of acknowledging abled privilege has been shoved in my face ever more frequently. Even in social justice circles where such things are typically read, people with disabilities are continually being marginalized and silenced.

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

Creative Commons image by Woodleywonderworks

It is worth noting from the beginning that people carrying the white-privilege knapsack but not the abled-privilege knapsack or visa versa might well enjoy some of the benefits of the one they do hold, but there are assets in both of these knapsacks that are very difficult to enjoy if you don't have the corresponding assets in the other knapsack.

So, as a white woman brought up to be aware of white privilege, I can pick out instances of white privilege that I enjoy. These are not so much unearned privileges as they are privileges earned by every human but accorded only to those who are white--the privilege of driving or walking without a well-founded fear of being accosted by law enforcement for trivial or non-existant reasons or the privilege of relaxing into a social situation in which my race and culture is in the majority most of the time.

Having children who are not white has taught me even more about my own privilege and a few privileges I gave up by being part of a racially mixed family, such as losing the ability to shelter my children from the societal realities of racism and the very real dangers they face because of it. 

However, there are some assets in the white knapsack that I have pulled out broken or severely dented because of my disability. Unlike most white people, I am beset daily by the assumptions and prejudices of others, both unconscious and conscious. I rarely to through a day without being yelled at in public and someone pushes my "difference" in my face at every turn. 

I was once told explicitly that I was denied a job that I was qualified for because of my disability and I have wondered about the reasons behind many other rejections. I have faced social isolation, rejecting neighbors and hostile school teachers as well as accusations of stealing in stores.

I do not claim that it is the same as what people of color face. In fact, I know it is not the same. But people of color who are not disabled do also enjoy privileges that I cannot.

Please note that this inventory has very little to do with the actual health problems people with disabilities may have. It has everything to do with society’s reaction to and ultimate rejection of us. The benefits of privilege represent the minimum of respect earned by every human being from birth and this is true of abled privilege as well. It is our right to be treated with respect and dignity, to have opportunities and to be judged by our actions rather than by attributes we cannot choose.

So, here is an inventory of the abled-privilege knapsack with some prompts drawn from McIntosh's essay and the writings of Emestine Hayes.

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

Creative Commons image by Honza Soukup

If you are temporarily abled, you are wearing an invisible knapsack and in it you will find:

  • You can, if you wish, arrange to be in the company of people who view your physical body and neurological setup as normal and acceptable pretty much all the time.

  • You can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper or open a random Google search and see people of your shape or appearance widely represented.

  • You can easily buy posters, postcards, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys, and children’s magazines featuring people that look vaguely like you.

  • Your body shape is reflected in media, movies, books, magazines, online and in most people's imagination as good and capable, even if sometimes not perfect. As a result, while you may have insecurities or anxieties about your looks, they are not a barrier to social interaction.

  • Beauty, handsomeness, masculinity and femininity are personified by people of your general appearance and body shape. 

  • You can be fairly sure of having your voice heard in a group, even if most of the group has different abilities, body shape and speech from yours.

  • Authority most often rests in people who look like, speak like and perceive the world like you.

  • You do not need to make an in-depth study of the social habits and customary communication methods of your immediate neighbors in order to avoid daily conflicts of misunderstanding and unintended offense. 

  • You can criticize the government and talk about how difficult it is to access basic services without being seen as a moocher, a whiner, ungrateful or a burden. 

  • You can go home from most meetings of organizations you belong to and social gatherings you attend feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, rejected, unwanted, unheard, barred at a distance, or dismissed.

  • You can attire yourself, if you choose, in a way that most people in your community seeing you and hearing you speak will assume that you are capable, responsible and trustworthy until proven otherwise. If you happen to belong to a group where this is not always true, a community of people who do look and sound like you and where you would be respected and trusted does exist somewhere in the world. Even if you don't live there, the knowledge that such a community exists bolsters your courage and self-confidence and in most cases you could move to such a community if outside pressure became too intense.

  • People make eye-contact with you and you are able to make eye contact with them. People make small-talk with you and you are able to make small talk with them. This initial social contact often leads to social connections, builds bridges and defuses potential conflicts. 

  • While you may have been teased at school, your chances of suffering from extreme bullying or complete social isolation in childhood are dramatically reduced. Your chances of suffering from PTSD and other acquired barriers to communication with others are significantly reduced.

  • Teachers at schools and universities almost always look like, speak like and perceive the world like you do.

  • The vast majority of students and teachers all through the education system sense the world, communicate and access textual materials in the same way that you do.

  • The entire education system is custom made and designed with scientific precision to benefit your type of brain and calibrated to meet the needs of your particular senses.

  • The language and writing system of your culture was designed by and for people who communicate and perceive language in the same ways that you do.

  • Public buildings, including schools, were built using models of your body, to make them comfortable and easily accessible to you.

  • You have probably not been called a burden. You were not called a burden to your school while you pursued your education.

  • If you are denied employment for which you are qualified, you can be pretty sure it isn't because of an attribute you did not choose and which does not affect your job performance.

  • If you are given an award, you can be pretty sure it is something you deserved rather than a publicity stunt by the patron of the award. 

  • You can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having co-workers on the job suspect that you got it because of disability hiring incentives.

  • If your day, week, or year is going badly, you need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it is disability related.

  • You can choose public accommodations without fearing that you cannot enter or will be treated with disrespect in the places you have chosen.

  • When you plan social engagements, your way of getting to and into the venue is the same as that of most of your friends and you don't need to strategize, beg for assistance from friends or go to extreme expense to get to or enter the social venues your peers take for granted. 

  • You can always ensure that your living, schooling, work and or social environment will be among people you can communicate with and among which you will be considered "normal" if you desire.

  • You can always find a living, schooling, work or social venue that you can physically access and fully participate in locally if you desire. 

  • If you should need to move, you can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing which you can afford and which you can personally enter and use fully and from which you can get to schools and places of employment.

  • You can be pretty sure that your neighbors in such a location will view you as a full adult, if you are over 18 years old. .

  • You can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that you will be able to access merchandise and that a reasonable portion of it will fit you and be usable by you.

  • Whether you use checks, credit cards or cash, you can count on not being infantilized, shamed or dismissed by cashiers and other people you interact with in public..

  • You can arrange to protect yourself from harm most of the time.

  • You are twenty percent more likely to finish high school than a person with a disability who has similar intelligence. You are twice as likely to finish college.

  • You are at least three times as likely to have any sort of job than a person with a disability and much more likely to have a job that is of some interest to you, that provides some social prestige, that pays your bills and in which you can progress for a career.

  • You are half as likely to be hungry as a disabled person. 

  • You are a third as likely to be a victim of sexual assault and half as likely to be a victim of violent crime as a person with a disability from a similar social or economic group and geographical area. You are half as likely to be a victim of domestic violence.

  • You are twice as likely to have family and friends nearby or who you can contact in an emergency. You are likely to have a circle of friends to enjoy leisure time with and to network with for mutual benefit.

  • You are twice as likely to have a long-term relationship. You are many times more likely to have children.

  • You can swear or dress in second-hand clothes or not answer letters without having people automatically assume these choices indicate low intelligence, shaky mental state or poverty.

  • You can be temporarily out of work or sick without being called a burden or assumed to be unemployable.

  • You can do well in a challenging situation without being called "an inspiration" or used to further the religious or social agendas of others without your consent.

  • With education and credentials, you could become an an acknowledged expert on people who look, speak and perceive the world differently from you and you would not be asked why you did not choose to study your own group.

I am sure I have missed some. It's a large knapsack after all. 

This is one of those posts that will inevitably draw flack. It isn't that I don't care. I have simply decided that the amount of verbal shrapnel I'm getting in "progressive" circles these days for being an uppity person with a disability has reached a point where the potential flack from this post won't be a significant change. 

So let me lay it out there. I am sick of the dismissal of people with disabilities in activist circles. I am sick of being told, "you are white so you need to practice being silent for a while," when I have been silenced, dismissed and sidelined my entire life.

I am sick to exhaustion of being excluded, rejected and sidelined in supposedly progressive groups because I didn't take an insult or bullying in silence and answered back withotu profanity, without insults but nonetheless with unpalatable truth. . 

I get what people of color, indigenous people, speakers of languages other than English and people living in absolute poverty are talking about when it comes to wanting those with privilege to stop yammering about their perspective on society, their perspective on history, their perspective on underrepresented people and their perspective on social justice long enough to listen to the perspectives of those less heard.

I get it because while I have the privileges in the white-privilege knapsack, the English-speaker's knapsack and the resources-beyond-bare-survival knapsack, these are usually not enough to be heard without abled privilege. 

This is not "the Privilege Olympics." It is not a matter of whose usurped privilege is worse. It is almost always so different that it cannot be compared. Still mentioning "the Privilege Olympics" or equivalent is routinely used to dismiss and marginalize people with disabilities in activist circles.

We have huge, life-threatening threats to people of color. The crises for people of color are so extreme in some places that there can be no other priorities or even distractions.

Many of us, myself included, have agreed to this, stepped back and ceded precedence because while there are life-threatening and devastating issues for people with disabilities as well, the numbers seem to indicate that our problems are at least statistically less severe. We activists with disabilities have often felt that we can wait a little while and trust that our progressive activist communities would do their best to include us in the meantime. 

But that trust has been misplaced. 

Not once but again and again. Not only do people with disabilities encounter a lot of social exclusion, bullying and discrimination in society at large, we encounter much the same atmosphere inside social justice organizations and groups claiming to be against bigotry and hate. 

My experiences and the experiences of those I have spoken with are clear. People with disabilities are welcome in these groups primarily as mascots or symbols. We are not respected for in our fields of expertise and study. We are often silenced and rarely given a voice. 

I've been told that my voice and experience are not welcome in progressive and social justice groups on multiple occasions. Usually this was not specifically because of my disability but rather because of my race. I was told that as a white person I am privileged and my role is not to speak. As a blind person, however, given that no other people with disabilities were present or given a voice, I felt that our voice was needed. 

I have been rejected quickly from several groups when my politely phrased protestations against being silenced were regarded as going against group authority. I never used profanity or insults against others in my responses. I did not talk over others but only refused to be entirely silent.

For that reason, this inventory of the abled-privilege backpack is necessary. I welcome any additions that others may find while rummaging through it. 

Political correctness, dismantling the English language or reclaiming basic decency

Donald Trump--with the help of a few like-minded fellows--has unleashed an on-going tidal wave of racist, able-ist and sexist muck by giving bigots a socially powerful role model. This may allow us to see who has been secretly resentful of modern realities, such as black people are no longer their slaves, disabled people appear outside cages and women can vote. But I'm not even sure that qualifies as a bright side.

At the same time, it feels like many of us are doing the equivalent of using Trump's famous paper towels to clean up Puerto Rico, dabbing up droplets that somehow splashed all the way to our homes in distant states. I'm going to get some flak for this from people I really do agree with on everything that matters, but there are times "political correctness" has become ineffective, has been hijacked by people with an oppressive agenda or has become a game piece for social jockeying. 

Author portrait.jpg

The term "politically incorrect" implies that the use of a word or idiom is a problem only because it is incorrect from the standpoint of politics, i.e. it wouldn't be a good idea to say that if you want to be popular. This is the reservoir that stored up all the resentment which fuels the tidal wave of openly bigoted remarks both in public and in private.

The irony is that the people who are now claiming not to be politically correct actually were the only ones being politically correct in the first place. They were refraining from saying things they truly believed in order to be socially acceptable.

By contrast, many of us were never politically correct. We didn't use the N-word because we felt it is disgusting and demeaning both to Black people and to anyone who uses it. We didn't use the R-word because it is filthy, and much more than an F-bomb, it actually does real harm to children in schools all over the English-speaking world. 

It isn't political correctness that should keep a person from using insulting, disgusting, demeaning, hate-filled and violence-inciting terms and idioms. It's basic decency. 

So let's call it what it is. When the use of indecent and bullying terms is labeled "politically incorrect," an implication is made that this isn't actually ethically wrong, just politically unpopular.

When I realized as a young person that the verb "to gyp someone" is a slur against Romani people, it was not difficult for me to remember not to use it ever again. It immediately took on such a disturbing connotation that I simply stopped, even though it was common slang used in the rural area where I grew up.

I learned some years ago about the origins of the rhyme "Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Mo"  in the slave trade and it only took reading about it once to make it very uncomfortable to me. It is not the disapproval of others that makes me cringe and redirect children in my ESL classes who start singing it, but rather my own understanding of the facts and my sense that it assaults the self-respect of anyone who knows its history. 

There is such a backlash against the concept of taking care not to harm those most often excluded with thoughtless words that it has become politically correct to insist that one is not politically correct. Put another way, political correctness is merely a term for what is believed to be widely supported.

This backlash comes, unsurprisingly, from some of the same sources as the current tidal wave of bigoted rhetoric. I recently ran across a list of mostly fake "politically correct" terms on the website of the far-right British National Party. The list was not presented as humor but rather as information to help readers avoid conflicts, and therefore implied that these terms were truly advocated in mainstream society. Mixed in with real examples of polite language, the list gave rise to many claims about how ridiculous the movement for inclusive language is. 

Among listings suggesting a person use "gay" instead of "homosexual", "sex worker" instead of "prostitute" or "homeless person" instead of "tramp," there are fictitious listings advising readers to use "ethically disoriented" instead of "dishonest" or "nasally disturbing" Instead of "smelly." The point is to manipulate far-right readers to believe an exaggerated and patently ridiculous version of inclusive language.

Unfortunately, this manipulation is made easier by some activists for social justice who don't differentiate between confusion, customary idiom and even honest ignorance on the one hand and blatantly harmful, hateful and bigoted terms on the other. If we equate a person not knowing whether another prefers the term "Black"  or "African American"  with intentionally racist slurs, we cheapen the experience of those who encounter the real deal. If we equate a deaf person being called "hearing impaired" when they prefer "deaf" with the R-word, we make it much less likely that disability activists will be taken seriously.

It is reasonable for a group to request that society refer to them by particular terms and refrain from others. Trying to comply is good manners, but not complying is the equivalent of neglecting please and thank you. It's rude if you know better, but it isn't the same as being a morally degenerate bigot.

Not everyone has equal access to information and social interaction. And groups are not homogeneous in their requests. Trying to politely use the terms a group requests is admirable and difficult. If a person uses a term we dislike but their intent is obviously not insulting or demeaning, that should be handled in a much different way than the use of intentional insults. 

To cane or not to cane.jpg

The case of "blind"

I was recently asked to personally weigh in on one of these terms on a public forum. That was, of course, about the word "blind." While most deaf people and their organizations today have been very clear that they prefer the world "deaf" and do not like the term "hearing impaired," many blind people swing the other way, saying they don't like the word "blind" and would prefer the term, "visually impaired." 

In my view, abled people can be forgiven for being confused about this. I appreciate those who try to politely use the preferred terms of whichever group they are talking to. And I beg everyone involved not to make this into either the privilege olympics or a verbal fight. I appreciate our need to define our own identities, but let's not forget the fact that thirty years ago, when I was growing up, we were all mostly just referred to with the R-word. 

I was born legally blind and I have been active in disability rights organizations and efforts since I first learned to read nearly forty years ago. I have been a vehement advocate for the integration of people with disabilities in schools and for non-discrimination in employment. 

I have also been the target of just about every insult and slur against people with disabilities that exists in at least four languages. A stronger reaction to such insults, you won't find.

We don't need to stop pushing for respect just because we've rid ourselves of the worst insults. We can and should progress to defining positive identities for ourselves. However, what we are experiencing just now across the United States and around the world is a reminder that the bulwark against hate and bigotry is a barricade that must always be guarded.

There will never come a time when we can say, "The N-word and the R-word and their ilk are dead and buried. We can now turn to more subtle exclusionary terms and bury them the same way."

That is because they are a different species. "Retard" was used as a vicious insult. Several other terms were also used to put people with disabilities in institutions, sterilize us, deny us education and kill us. Those words, like the N-word and similarly vicious racial slurs are not even in the same dictionary as "blind" and "hearing impaired," which aren't and weren't widely used as insults and which have regular definitions.  

Sometimes "blind" is used as an idiom meaning stupid and ignorant. (Examples: “That politician is just a blind idiot.” "He was blind drunk.") There is no context here meaning something related to senses, just to intellect. This tends to equate blindness with intellectual deficits. If someone is stupid or ignorant or uneducated, call them one of those words, if you must. It isn’t cool or necessary to insult people with physical or developmental disabilities by comparing bigots, the willfully ignorant or bullies to us. Even if these idioms are often unconscious, they can be harmful over the long-term and it is reasonable to ask that they be avoided.

However, I can't personally support calls for the word "blind" to be discontinued in general in favor of "visually impaired." Some partially sighted people, especially those who have not been visually impaired their whole lives, really do object to the word "blind" and if I know that about them, I will try to refrain from using it around them out of personal courtesy and respect.

But it's a word with a definition that has not been profaned by common use as an insult. When it is used with technical accuracy, it has my support. And attempts to draw an equivalence between such a term and much more grievous abuses of language are unhelpful and potentially harmful. 

That's just the opinion of one visually impaired person. Due to my very poor sight--less than ten percent of the "norm"--I'm on that line where I could be called "visually impaired" or I could be called "blind." I often use the term "legally blind" if the point of the conversation has to do with official status as a person with a disability, rather than someone who wears corrective lenses but is not disabled. 

But if someone refers to me as "that blind lady who does herbs" or something of the like, I'm not offended and I don't see any reason to correct them any more than if they had said, "that blonde lady who does herbs." Both are technical descriptions and if someone in the conversation doesn't know my name, they are simply choosing the easiest way to identify me. 

The use of a term like "blind" all depends on the context, tone and intent both when using the word according to the dictionary definition and in idioms

I don't get on anyone’s case about using expressions like, “The blind decisions of the CEO drove the company into the ground.” It’s an idiom and the focus is more on the decision being "short-sighted" or lacking in long-range information, rather than on it just being stupid or unaware. Blind people are not stupid or unaware. We do, however, often lack visual information.

In a sentence like, “the blind obedience of the cult followers is creepy,” the idiom means that the followers don’t consider anything external and act ultra focused, as if they had blinders on like horse going through a tunnel. And yes, "blinders" is another thing that is just a word. I'm not going to stop saying "blackboard" or "whiteboard" if that is the actual color of the board. And I'm not going to stop saying "blinders," "blindfold" or "blinds" on a window. These are not demeaning and don't make people subconsciously think less of any group. 

If someone loses their glasses and laughs about being “blind as a bat” or gets new glasses and moans, “I’m going blind.” I’ll probably slap them on the back and chuckle, “Don’t worry. You’re in good company," even if their glasses are really nothing to moan about. The ability to laugh at one's self is a key survival skill.

But there are situations where the tone or context is hostile. I’ve had people say “I’m going blind,” as an excuse to deny me a seat close to the presenter at a workshop, when they just wear glasses that fully compensate for their minor vision impairment. I can’t count the times someone has lashed out with, “Are you blind or something?” when I failed to recognize their face or read an instructional sign.

I'm fine with the word "blind," in appropriate idioms, in factual description and even in good humor. I am also fine with "visually impaired." I am fine with the word "disabled." I prefer terms that demystify and inform without being insulting. 

I dislike euphemisms. I do not like the term "visually challenged," except in good humor. Vision isn't that much of a challenge. I just don't have that much of it. A challenge implies that if I just tried harder, I might be able to see more. Not gonna happen.

I also don't like the term "handicapped," which comes from a racing practice in which superior horses had to carry heavier weights. I know the term was used to denote people with disabilities as a way to imply that some higher power chose better people to deal with the difficulties of disability. I find the connotation unhelpful because it implies a justification or reasoning, rather than just the factual lack of a certain sense or attribute which is the fact.

I have always felt that actual disabilities are not the primary problem we face, but social stigma, reasoning and machinations around them. Let's keep terminology to the facts and keep society's interpretations out of it as much as possible. Those who argue that their issue with society is not a "dis-ability" because they don't lack any particular ability but rather have a different way of functioning are welcome to avoid the term "disability" and I'll still advocate for their rights to be respected as simply different. 

But not all visually impaired people agree with me. Some truly prefer the softer, euphemistic terms. To me they imply that visual impairment or blindness is something too horrible to say right out or conversely a challenge that I should just overcome on my own without society adapting at all. To me it is neither. It is a lack of a specific sense. It doesn't define the whole person, any more than some other single characteristic, but it is a piece of information that matters enough to be mentioned.

It is my hope that those asking for inclusive language changes can be kind, tolerant and inclusive when asking for them and not assume those who don't know mean harm. I also hope that time will change our language to be more inclusive and technically correct, rather than euphemistic.

We don't need to soften facts. We need to open-minds to the reality that those facts are not a curse.

Make a scene: From bystander to assertive witness

At dusk on Monday evening, I set out for the ESL class I teach a mile and half from home. I rode the diminutive two-wheeled electric scooter that I use to get into town, puttering around the corner by the store run by a Vietnamese family.

I can't drive a car or ride a bike in traffic because I'm legally blind. I can see well enough to navigate safely at walking speed on the sidewalk but not much more. And due to a joint and bone condition I can't walk more than half a mile without intense pain that lasts two days. So the scooter is the best way for me to get around.

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Arimeq of Flickr.com

As I passed the store an angry shout stopped me. "Get off the sidewalk, you stupid cow! You get in the road, right now!" A man was screaming at me in a harsh, ragged voice from a house across the street. 

I knew even then that most people would say I should ignore him and keep going. But as soon as the words hit home, I couldn't hear or see, even as well as I normally can. I recognized the symptoms of a PTSD trigger and struggled to fight the wave of dizziness and disorientation. That meant first I had to stop to avoid running into a lamppost.

"I'm calling the police! You should be arrested, you pig! Get off the sidewalk with that scooter!" The man was still yelling. And I had heard the same thing from another man just last week. In this small town, rumor travels fast and there seems to be an epidemic of people accosting me about my mobility device. 

To be clear, I have been very careful in the year since I've had this scooter. I've never come close to bumping a pedestrian, even though many of our sidewalks are no more than a foot wide. A wheelchair or a standard disability scooter with three or four wheels could not navigate on the sidewalks here and the few people who use such devices travel in traffic. But the traffic is also very bad, crowded and fast. It isn't safe for a person who can't see well. I have small children who still need an adult to accompany them to school. I have no real choice about whether I use the scooter or where I use it.

I have been afraid that people would judge me harshly and so I have made an effort to yield to anyone else on the sidewalk and to go extra slow around dogs and small children. Yet finally my fears have been realized and s group of people are lobbying the city to forbid me to use any wheeled mobility device on the sidewalks. 

"Do you want me to come down there and push you into the road!" The belligerent man threatened. 

I know what my husband and my friends would say. "Just ignore them. Mainly, don't make a scene. Whatever you do, just don't make a scene."

"I can't ride in traffic. I'm visually impaired," I finally called over to the man.

"Then stay the f--k home!" he fumed. "I'm dialing the police right now!"

"Fine. I'll show them my disability ID," I told him and moved slowly, shakily away.

I couldn't exactly make out the figures of people in front of the store several feet away or the figure of the man yelling at me. But I could hear by the shuffling of shoes on pavement that there were witnesses. By their quiet shuffling, I figured they were embarrassed and also hoping to avoid "a scene."

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

Creative Commons image from Aidan Jones

I have made a scene too many times in my life. I have been told over and over again not to make a scene--by my mother, by my husband, by my friends. Mostly I try not to, but there are times when a scene is just what is needed.

For the first 20-odd years of my life I experienced extreme social ostracism and isolation, which resulted in a kind of long-term PTSD, which is different from most PTSD because it doesn't stem from one traumatic incident but from repeated threats over the long term.

The result is that when I am threatened with social isolation, my brain shuts down. I cannot think clearly and talk my way out of the difficulty. Instead my brain can only do fight of flight. And that often means I scream back at whoever is harassing or threatening me and sometimes at anyone at all, if the attacker has managed to make him/herself scarce. The result tends to be more social isolation. Who wants to be around someone who is always making a scene after all?

In this case, I managed to fight the PTSD symptoms. I have been working on that. After 20 years of trying, I can finally respond relatively calmly... sometimes.

But the thing that stands out to me most painfully in the entire incident is not the belligerent man, but the bystanders.

I cannot count the number of times, I have been harassed, belittled, demeaned or even physically attacked in public due to my disabilities and bystanders have been silent or even made excuses for the abuse. I have been told I should not be allowed to have children, because clearly a visually impaired person cannot be safe with children and I watched with helpless horror as a group sat around discussing how valid that prejudice might be, while I was told to be quiet and allow others their say about my validity as a parent.

I have made many scenes, but I have also waited, hoped and prayed someone else would make a scene first.

When I saw the video of Sam Carter, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Arcitects, stopping a concert and making a scene (including quite a few F-bombs) because he just saw someone sexually harass and grope an unwilling woman in the crowd right in front of him, I started sobbing. The same thing happened when I read the story about waiter Michael Garcia who told a diner he could no longer serve him after the man said loudly "Special needs children need to be special someplace else" in a Houston restaurant where a five-year-old boy with Down Syndrome was eating with his family. 

These are rare and famous incidents. It is unfortunate that they are famous because they are rare.

There are a few more incidents like this though that weren't caught on video. Some years ago, I was riding a street car in Prague when I noticed a white man who was clearly intoxicated harassing two young, dark-skinned children. There have always been issues with pickpocketting on the street cars and dark-skinned people are often blamed. But these children were standing away from other people and wearing school backpacks.

I went up to the man and tried to put myself between him and the children. I told him to stop. He pushed me roughly out of the way with astonishing strength. I turned to the other passengers on the street car, who were sitting quietly with their faces averted. I asked them to help and then turned back toward the man who was pushing the children physically toward the exit. The street car stopped with a jolt at a station and the doors opened. 

I told the man I would call the police and demanded that he stop harassing the children, who were clearly younger than 10 or 12. Instead he grabbed the backs of their necks and threw them out of the street car. The driver, apparently wishing to avoid a scene, slammed the doors quickly and started the street car moving again. I did call the police and they said there was nothing they could do after the fact unless the street car driver was willing to get involved, which he was not. 

Often making a scene does not stop the harassment or abuse and thus many people tell me it is useless and a worthless waste of energy.

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

Creative Commons image by Tamara Craiu

I can't speak for those children because I was never able to locate them again, but I for one would not feel it was useless if a bystander had stood with me against the threatening man harassing me on Monday night. 

It is easy to say we are against racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and all the rest. It is not easy to stand up and make a scene, to call a stop to harassment, ostracism or prejudice. It is in many situations damn scary.

I have been a bystander and I have sometimes stood up and sometimes things have happened too fast. I was confused, was afraid or had my own PTSD to deal with. I have wished I had been quick enough to say something or simply show by where i positioned my body that a vulnerable person did not stand alone. Sometimes I have managed to do it.

Once when I was a college student and I was first able to go out to a bar for a drink, I stood at a bar waiting to be served behind a group of three Black women with British accents. The bar tender was serving drinks to people in front of them but then he skipped them and asked for my order. I was shocked. I had talked to the girls and knew they were waiting to order. I slammed my fist on the counter and demanded that he serve them immediately. (This was even before I'd had any drinks, mind you.)

Certainly, there can be times when making a scene actually embarrasses the person you are trying to defend or the person is so triggered by past trauma that they do not realize you are trying to help and they lash out against you. But I for one am certain that some attempt to stand with the vulnerable is better than no attempt. We are not perfect but we can stand up for our tribe. And if our tribe is multi-hued and many splendered, then this is what we must do.

A friend told me about a recent incident in which she was out with a friend who has a condition that causes her eyes to move strangely. A child came up to her in a store and said, "Your face is ugly and you have weird eyes." The woman threw down her shopping and ran out of the store crying. 

I do understand. I have been told many times that my face is not appealing and my eyes appear strange. I have overheard conversations and simply watched as groups of people turned away and excluded me. When you live with a vision impairment or other condition that makes your face different from those around you, it is a common enough problem.

My friend went to the child's mother and told her what had happened. The mother replied that the child's words were simply true and not harassment. My friend objected and asked her to teach her child not to comment on people's bodies or... well, she would have mentioned skin color, except the mother and child happened to be black and she assumed they already knew that.

We are all fallible and small children do say things that are insensitive without understanding.  I have heard the understandable anger of black people when a small white child commented loudly that someone's skin "looks like chocolate." They rightly say white parents should teach their children to refrain from making stereotyping comments. The same applies to all people when it comes to commenting on disabilities and body differences. It isn't necessary to shame children over insensitive comments but it is necessary for witnesses to say something.

What is important is not that we never make a mistake or that a child or even an adult never speaks or acts out of ignorance. What is important is that when you know better. you stand by those who are vulnerable. Stand up and if necessary you should indeed make a scene.

Do we still need feminism?

It took me a very long time to say "me too." on Facebook.

I have to explain this because many of my readers are old-school email junkies and don't frequent Facebook or Twitter much. So in case you were doing valuable non-screen-related things this week, this will get you up to speed. There is currently a movement on social media where women, and some men, post "me too," as their status if they are a survivor of sexual assault or harassment. 

It's a good idea. It comes as a response to revelations of celebrity rape and sexual harassment in the past few weeks, and it is meant to show that these are far from isolated incidents. Many, many women experience sexual harassment on a regular basis and far too many have been subjected to rape or assault. 

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Creative Commons image by Sodanie Chea

Why didn't I quickly jump on the bandwagon then? 

First, I'm always skeptical of these social media campaigns, where you must change your profile picture to this or that or else be branded as a supporter of terrorism or some such. I decided long ago not to participate in those campaigns. It takes several minutes for me to change my profile picture, and being a working class mother of very demanding kids, I can't always guarantee that I'll be able to be on-line long enough to discover and abide by all such trends. I don't want my lack of response to some particular campaign to be taken as a statement. I also know many people with limited internet access for whom keeping up with these things is entirely impossible. If I refrain from all of them, we are all less likely to be blamed and labeled for neglecting one.

But posting "me too" is much easier and less permanent. It also isn't showing support for something but demonstrating a statistic in real-time. So, after some thought, I decided that this is a different situation.

But still I was hesitant. Most of the sexual harassment I've experienced is so mundane that it barely merits a mention and if one hundred percent of all women haven't experienced the same, it is only due to specific and fairly isolated social surroundings. I have been called fat in several inappropriate situations or had the same implied among professional colleagues. it has been many years since random men blocked my path and tried to force me into sexual conversation or made catcalls at me, which apparently means that I am no longer attractive. Either being catcalled or not is a sexual/social signal in a society where a woman's appearance and sexual allure is considered to be a large part of her worth.

I have been asked to clean up the kitchenette in an office where everyone else was a man and been GLAD to have a role because I felt otherwise left out, even though I had a specific professional job to do that had nothing to do with cleaning. Sometimes I don't know what is worse--that men buy into this culture that demeans women or that we do ourselves. 

And that made me hesitate to post "me too" because I do know that so many other women have suffered so much more and I have not been exactly exemplary in my resistance to the male dominated culture. Mostly I have been glad to stand on my mother's and grandmothers' shoulders and accept those benefits of feminism that my generation was lucky enough to inherit without doing much to free my own mind from the treadmill. 

And then there is the fact that I did face actual sexual assault twice and managed to escape, using specific techniques from self-defense classes. This made me perhaps most uncomfortable posting "me too." I did not want to imply by telling my story that women who did not have the good fortune to have the training or who did have the training and either couldn't fight back or simply failed to overpower an attacker are somehow to blame. There is far too much of that blame-the-victim going around as it is. 

I do want women and girls to know that self-defense training can work though. Let's just be clear. I was mostly just lucky.

In one case, I was at a large outdoor festival at night. I was sixteen and had never been on a real date. A man at the party treated me nicely and acted like he wanted to be my friend. I was attracted to him and excited by the prospect of a romantic involvement. But then he very quickly pulled me away from others into a dark field. He squeezed my breast and kissed me forcefully. I tried to back away but he gripped harder. I said "no" and he ignored me.

I had grown up in a culture that said that if I was attracted to him and initially went with him someplace, that I had given my consent. The fact that I was sixteen and quickly decided that the pace of things had gone way beyond what I wanted was irrelevant. Not only my friends, the media and society in general would have judged me to be an impulsive girl who got what she deserved, I thought so too.

I told myself, "That was really stupid. No one would or should help you." As a result, it didn't actually occur to me to scream for help. But I had recently had one of those one-day crash courses in self-defense that parents sometimes put their teenage daughters in, and one of the techniques we practiced was startling an attacker by yelling right next to his ear. I did not want to continue with the encounter and "no" wasn't working. So, I leaned in a bit, got right next to his ear and let loose a wild yell, that went unnoticed by the partiers all around. I have quite a loud voice and it no doubt hurt. His grip loosened and I ran, easily evading him once I reached a more crowded area. 

That night I crawled into my sleeping bag in a pup tent on the edge of the festival, still shivering and alone. As I was settling down one of the older teenage boys I had traveled to the festival with brushed his fingers along my tent and said out loud, "Such a shame. A pretty girl going to sleep alone." His friends laughed and they walked away, not knowing that I had just had to use a self-defense technique to escape a non-consensual encounter. And yet as I lay there I knew those guys weren't dangerous and that they meant the comment in fun. I was even somewhat glad they would call me a pretty girl, even in jest. I had been heavily ostracized and bullied at school for having a disability and being called "pretty" was a strong lure. 

Three years later, I had gained and lost my first serious boyfriend, had lack-luster sex and was started on a life of feeling uncomfortable about--and generally disinterested in--sexuality. I was still occasionally called pretty, but even at 19 that was fading. My first boyfriend and others had called me "fat" many times, though I was actually well within the most limited version of the "healthy" range and I'd love to be that physically fit again. Still I took them at their word. I never felt happy with my looks. I just wasn't that interested. I had more important things to do and I spent my time writing, studying at college and wriggling my way into as many foreign exchange programs as possible. 

One of these was in Siberia. My second brush with sexual assault occurred on that trip. I was studying in a mid-sized city in Siberia called Kurgan. This was 1995 and it was a lawless period. The streets were largely unlit and there were many abandoned buildings and open sewer holes. Organized crime ruled and gangs roamed the streets. Night also fell extremely early, because we were so far north. One evening, I was returning to the place I was staying around ten pm from a small party. Mostly people did not go out alone at night, but I was never particularly popular in social settings and I had not managed to form any close friendships during my stay. I either stayed in my room alone or I walked alone. Those were my choices. Being an adventurous risk-taker who loved learning about other cultures, I just did what I had to. 

So just as with my previous encounter, there are a great many people who might say I deserved to be assaulted. I was after all taking extreme risks. This was not a safe place and I knew it. But that is part of the problem that we are trying to address with the "me too" campaign. Neither iinitial interest nor risk-taking is a justification for assault.

I was walking under one of the few streetlights in town when a man came at me fast from the side. He stepped up and took my arm in a way that could have seemed friendly except that he gripped quite hard. He asked me in a falsely friendly tone how I was doing and where I was going. He told me I shouldn't be out alone at night. He then started to talk to me in a sexual manner that was apparently supposed to entice me. 

I was a naive risk-taker but still smart enough to know this was a very dangerous situation. There was no help anywhere nearby and I knew I couldn't best this larger man in a direct physical confrontation. So instead I used another technique learned in self-defense classes. I pretended (this time entirely falsely) to be interested in him. I joked and laughed and told him I was meeting my friends and my brother. I kept him talking for two blocks, until I was near enough to the building where I lived. The doorways of the apartment blocks were entirely dark as was most of the street. At that time desperate people stole everything, including any unguarded light bulb. Finally, the man's grip relaxed a little as he became more confident of my cooperation. Then I called out cheerfully as if greeting my brother in a dark doorway. His grip loosened further and I judged the second, kicked him hard and ran. Being visually impaired helped in this case. The stairwell I bolted up was pitch black and I could hear him stumbling around as he tried to catch me but I knew every crack in the uneven concrete steps and I reached a door I could lock behind me by memory and by feel. 

I was taught to be prey. Many men are taught that women will flee and the only way they can catch one is by force. I was simply taught to be smart prey, but even so the assumption I held and the assumption of my self-defense instructors was that I would be prey. 

This is why, even though I escaped, even though I am far luckier than many women, I want to support the "me too" campaign. We should not be prey. Sexuality should not be about fear and force and conquest. Being a woman should not be considered grounds for any particular assumptions. 

This is one reason why we still need feminism today. 

We needed it before we had a president who openly declares that a woman's worth is primarily in her sexual attractiveness and appearance. And we certainly need it now that we have such a president. A few months ago The Daily Beast reported that Republican Rep. Robert Fisher (R-NH) wrote under the username FredFredrickson,  “I’m going to say it—Rape isn’t an absolute bad, because the rapist I think probably likes it a lot. I think he’d say it’s quite good, really.”

This kind of attitude still exists today, even in places of power. Rape culture has not been successfully relegated to some small criminal element. Both women and men need to be on guard against it. Both women and men can be legitimate feminists. 

My generation has perhaps been living partly off of the achievements of past generations of women and there are so many other terrible problems in the world to fight against. It is hard to focus on the small, mundane assumptions or the hideous comments of politicians. The "me too" campaign shows how alive and well the scourge of assault and harassment is.

We still need feminism and we still need self-defense classes for our daughters.

Don't become what you resist

As a journalist in the war-torn Balkans, one of my closest relationships was with a "fixer." That's an all-around term for driver, interpreter, cultural consultant and impromptu investigator. 

My fixer was a 50-something Albanian taxi-driver with mild manners and a pleasant grandfatherly face. We went through plenty of scrapes together, walking in single file to avoid landmines, driving fast down sniper-seeded roads, crossing the front-lines from one warring camp to another.

My fixer's sympathies could have been with the Albanian rebels and against the Macedonian home guard they were fighting at the time. He agreed that Albanians faced discrimination.

But he refused to take a side and felt that the rebels' violent radicalism would only harm his people. He could speak fluent Macedonian and often passed as Macedonian to keep us safe when we encountered pro-government patrols.

I recall how we once narrowly made it across the front, only to find that the first rebel sentry was a boy from my fixer's old neighborhood. Joy at meeting a good neighbor kid wrestled in his tone and expression with shock that someone he knew well had taken up violence. 

But after only six months of war with a few hundred dead on both sides, I sat in a baklava shop with the old man and he told me that he was now ready to support the rebels. Too much hurt had been done. He was depressed, having been pushed beyond some limit that allowed him to contemplate acting in a way he once saw as wrong.

Three years later, I too had been pushed, though not that far. My journalism job had evaporated with most others of my  generation. I was on the streets of Prague holding a hand-drawn sign to protest the invasion of Iraq.

By my side, was another man in the process of being pushed--an Iraqi refugee who had helped our international peace group on several occasions. His younger brother had been shot and killed by American soldiers in Iraq a few days earlier and I was one of the first people he called, an honor I wasn't sure I deserved.

These are the memories that come back to me when I watch clashes in American streets, neighborhoods universities and town hall meetings today.

Two lines of demonstrators facing off, spitting curse words at each other, fists clenched. One group has t-shirts with the name of Trump emblazoned on them and stars and stripes across their shoulders. The other group has a motley array of colorful clothing and scarves over their mouths. 

One of the Trump supporters gets particularly excited, yelling insults and inching ahead of his fellows. Faster than thought, a silver snake lashes out from the rank of colorful protesters and blood wells from a lash on the man's head. He cuts off a howl of pain and curls in on himself retreating back behind the lines.

The cell phone camera follows and his friends cry out for an ambulance. The buzz of anger is at fever pitch. In the camp of the Trump supporters there is injured solidarity and iron conviction. 

How many times have I seen this animosity play out? in different cultures and contexts, in different languages, and yet it's all the same. Hate on both sides.

I'm not a saint myself. I can hate if pushed far enough. I can feel it surge up inside me. And then I force myself to stop and to ask who is really doing the pushing. Those I am pushed against, are they really the ones I should hate?

In the days after the election I caught the brunt of just such hate. A friend from my days as a journalist covering inter-ethnic conflict in Eastern Europe turned on me on social media, ripping me for being "white" and declaring "You have been told your voice is not welcome here! Do not speak to me." 

We were both devastated by the election of Donald Trump. My friend had been pushed hard and long. I saw that and I didn't strike back. But the pushers of hate won anyway because the divide between us is still there.

I can't blame others because I have been there. As a child with a somewhat visible disability, I was heavily ostracized in public schools. Most of my friends had to pretend not to be my friends in school to avoid the same physical and verbal abuse that I endured. 

I remember one day in seventh grade with painful clarity. I had found a place where I could withdraw into myself during the lunch period. I would huddle on the steps of a stage set up in the cafeteria and draw with my treasured set of colored pencils. It may seem pitiful to describe, but to me it was solace and a delightful respite from the rest of the day. 

I sat there most days, ignoring the saliva, random kicks and insults hurled my way by other kids who had been ingrained with the idea that what is different or outside the herd is both disgusting and threatening. But on this particular day, my drawing was interrupted abruptly when someone came flying down the steps above me and landed on top of me, scattering and breaking my expensive colored pencils. 

I had ignored it. I had let the insults roll off my shoulders. All year I had kept my head down. And then I snapped. I was a tough kid, brought up with hard physical work and most days outdoors in the mountains. I grabbed the skinny town kid by the collar and hit him and hit him and hit him. 

It was the first and the last time I ever did such a thing and I pummeled his bent back, until a teacher hauled me away. The kid, a quiet, physically weak nerd, was bruised on his back. He had been seized by several bullies and thrown down the steps onto me. 

I don't know the boy's name. What I know is that we should have been friends. We were natural allies, set against one another by those who push hate. 

In the wider world today, I see this happening all the time. One group of the defrauded and abused is thrown against another group of the oppressed and beaten. And it is hard to stop and think. Very hard. You've been ignoring it and letting it roll off your shoulders for decades, not just one day. 

It is very hard to stop.

But what if I had been paying better attention in seventh grade? What if I had stopped to find out what happened and offered friendship instead of retaliation?

What if supporters of Bernie Sanders listened to Trump-voting coal miners the way Bernie did at one town hall that ended with both sides agreeing that single-payer health care is in their common interest? What if white women who desperately wanted a female president took the time to see how similar their needs are to women and even men of color? 

No matter which examples I give, someone is likely to feel put upon. Both sides have a choice but the biggest opportunity for resisting bullies lies with the one who is about to strike back, the one who currently feels most wronged. If you feel pushed around, silenced and beaten down, then it is likely that you are currently the one with the greatest chance to reach out a hand in friendship to someone who has been pushed on top of you by a bully. 

Resist the burning desire to strike back. Yes, resist. Stop and make sure you are not striking a potential ally--someone who is not winning in today's system, even if they appear better off then you. 

The bullies are pushing us around and as much as we talk about resistance, we are still striking at each other as often as we strike at the bullies.

First, we must know what is our core need, that which goes beyond politics. We need a way to live and relieve suffering. Second, we must avoid becoming like the bullies at all cost.