A gender-variant queer person of colour, a straight white male, a white trans queer, and a random white guy whose sexual orientation and gender identity are both unknowns, hail a cab together. I know you haven’t heard this one because no one writes jokes like I experience dreams, and my dreams are rarely witty. Rather, I’m going to describe the dream and what it represents to me, because I realized this morning that it is a remarkable analogy for how I experience what is apparently invisible ableist oppression.
First things first: the gender-variant queer person of colour and the straight white male are both familiar to me. One of them has witnessed, though indirectly, the devastation that unchecked ableism causes a person in my position, and yet decided that protecting the delicate sensibilities of a self-declared “professional asshole” is of higher priority than acknowledging the problem of ableist language for what it is. The other is a person who has butted heads with me repeatedly, as if we were rams stepping into each others’ territory every mating season, because they are completely obtuse to any form of discrimination other than anti-Semitism. I’m the white trans queer, and between the three of us, it just so happens you’re also looking at three Jews (one religious, two ethnic). And then there’s the random white guy. He’s just a complete stranger who happens to be white in this dream.
So we hailed a cab, and because there are four of us, we made sure we hailed a van. I found myself sitting alone in the back seat, while the other three in my company all sat side-by-side in the seat in front of me. As we drove down West Cordova Street through the rain (during the morning hours), I suddenly found myself talking about ableism. All three of them seemed perplexed at the sound of this word, like “What the fuck kind of language is that?” So I started explaining it. “Ableism is the word for prejudice or discrimination against people on the basis of their ability.” They still seemed confused, so I continued. “You know, like, if you make fun of someone because they walk funny or because they are using a wheelchair or they have a mental disorder.” Enlightenment seemed to wash over the random white guy, but the concept eluded the other two accompanying us.
Just then, the cab slowed to a crawl through a crowded five-way intersection. I know it’s supposed to stop, like I know what I’m saying in coherent English to two English-speakers should make sense. But pedestrians started walking around the side of the slow-moving cab, and my very simple ideas about the most base level of respect and dignity offered to people regardless of their proven ability flew over the heads of my two familiar companions. I recognized a face among all the pedestrians, and she recognized me too. I pointed her out — she is one of my former roommates, who has come to represent everything that’s wrong with the black-and-white thinking patterns of a borderline personality. She is familiar to both of the people in the cab with me, who are familiar to me, but they both pretend they don’t know who she is even though she’s staring right into the cab at all three of us with a look of disapproval.
More on this former roommate for a moment: she once told me she won’t date any Asian women anymore, since she had a date with a single Chinese woman, and it didn’t go well. The first time I told her this was really not appropriate to say, she decided not to repeat it in front of me for six months. The second time, I told her it was racially insensitive and that China isn’t the only Asian culture in the entire world. The third time, which was just a few weeks later, I told her this was a blatant demonstration of racism, and she said “I know.” She has heterosexual and bisexual friends who she tolerates perfectly well, until they start acting like heterosexuals by entering the sphere of another body of the opposite sex, in gestures ranging from a prolonged embrace to cuddling to kissing to fucking. Once any of that starts happening, all bets are off, and her deer-in-the-headlights/passive-aggressive behaviour has actually made me extremely uncomfortable on many occasions. I’m not the only person who has been made to feel this way in her presence, but I might be the only person who has attempted to express to her that her apparent heterophobia is no more defensible than homophobia (even though I am the first to admit, the political impact is relatively less significant).
If that was the last of my issues with her, I’d be counting my blessings that I saw it, confronted it, and asked her to leave when I realized that living in this kind of environment is creating problems with my only romantic partner at the time (remarkably, a Chinese man who is, for all intents and purposes, heterosexual in orientation). But that wasn’t it, and she insisted on having a 45-minute long argument with me, on the basis that she’s more entitled to stay than I am. I had to expend every molecule of energy I had within me, just to be patient enough to explain to her without yelling, that she has a vehicle, a license, at least one person who will help her get a job, and at least one person who will put her up in the mean time, at her disposal. I did not raise the matter at the time, but she’s also, for all intents and purposes, an able-bodied and able-minded individual, capable of picking up nearly any job her heart desires. All she has to do is put the effort into applying for it (which, at the time, she had failed to do for four months).
My two familiar acquaintances, to whom she is familiar, failed to recognize her. And given everything these three people have come to substitute symbolically for in my dreams, I find this significant. It was as if Blatant Discrimination and Passive Prejudice were staring Passive Aggressive Bigotry in the face and saying “I’m sorry, I don’t recognize who (or what) this is.” The irony is inescapable, and yet, it speaks to how invisible ableism really is to most people.
We walk around on the streets and can observe sidewalks that are too narrow to allow for the passage of a wheelchair or power scooter. We are able to observe individuals who walk shoulder-to-shoulder with their friends when they see a lone oncoming passerby. We watch the person who is alone stop dead in their tracks, quickly shuffle to the closest edge of the sidewalk, and get scoffed at by the group of people who won’t break formation for even a moment to permit the passage of a single individual. We go into coffee shops and book stores and can readily observe the difficulty or impossibility of getting a wheelchair, power scooter, or stroller containing a person of any size through the door. We go to the train station and walk up a flight of cement stairs without a second thought about what someone would have to do if the elevator behind us was out of service, and they couldn’t get up those stairs because of a mobility issue.
The signs are all around us, and we can literally reach out and touch them if we had to prove to ourselves that it was real. And yet, the prevailing attitude persists; that ableism is just imaginary and in no way systemically represented throughout our entire society, both literally as in concrete structures and abstractly as in normalized everyday ableist language (or the defence of its use by minimizing the importance and persistence of the problem).
I suppose that’s why I decided to start creating sarcastic graphics to thwart ableism. I’m tired of trying to be as pleasant, polite, and patient as it takes to not raise the defences of people who have unchecked ableist privilege and the self-evading prejudice that accompanies it. Being diplomatic isn’t working for me. In fact, without using any emotionally charged language at all, I actually successfully alienated one of the people who is mentioned in this blog journal, simply by attempting to explain to them what ableism is and why their insistent rebuttals that this represents a serious problem don’t even answer anything I’ve stated. Instead of wallowing in how angry I am at this person for betraying our relationship by policing my tone, gas-lighting, and resorting to ableist attacks on my character as a person to try and erase the problem I identified, I’m generating graphics that attack the problem that started this whole mess in the hopes of seeing some changes take place.
Hell, at least one of these would make a mighty fine graphic T-shirt.