Let’s stop treating everyone the same

“It’s hard when people claim to treat you as a person, but their concept of “person” is so centered on the Caucasian experience … But I’m NOT white. My race is a significant part of my personhood. It affects how I experience things, including jokes about Asians.”

I’d never thought about this aspect of “colour blindness” before I read the above quote in an Empathize This cartoon (see below) created by an anonymous Asian American woman and published on Upworthy. By not acknowledging a person of colour’s race and seeing them as “just another person”, I’m actually ignoring an essential part of who they are, an identity that does impact their life every day, whether I like it or not. As a white guy, my default perception of a “person’s” life experience is white, and so treating a person of colour like my default person is essentially whitewashing them and erasing a part of them that I cannot fully empathise with, no matter how hard I try.

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This cartoon has been especially topical this month, as February is Black History Month in the USA. Today, the general history we learn has still been recorded and is still retold from a white man’s perspective, even when discussing key elements in the black liberation struggle during apartheid and slavery in the USA. It would be easy for a white man like me to ignore the reality that the oppression of the past still impacts the lives of black people today, in terms of income, opportunities and tacit prejudice that I take for granted as simply the way the world works.

I don’t want to detract from that conversation about black heritage, but I do believe that this “blindness” to someone’s individual personhood is not just a racial problem. It also applies to unconscious discrimination of women, people who identify as LGBTQ, and people with disabilities.

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As an amputee, I’m aware of how others often behave thoughtlessly and insensitively to people with disabilities. Sometimes I’ll arrive at an event I’ve been invited to, only to realise there are activities I can’t take part in, toilets I can’t access, or a large staircase in my way. I try to be as independent as possible, and I don’t mind climbing steps on my hands and stumps, but I still need someone to carry my wheelchair. I often find such situations humiliating, even though most people are more than willing to help. More importantly,  different people with other disabilities may not be able to manage this well.

How can someone make circumstances like these easier for me and other people with disabilities? Obviously, it is not always possible to remove every obstacle in the way, and I would hate to live such a limited life that I only go to places that are easy for me to navigate. It means a great deal to me, however, when someone has already considered beforehand all the challenges I might face and given some thought to how they can help, without me needing to ask for it. I am incredibly grateful when someone has given my disability some thought and come up with a plan.

In my experience, people are more conscious of being sensitive to those with disabilities than to people who identify as LGBTQ. As a gay man, I often feel uncomfortable about the way others joke about LGBTQ matters and offer opinions that are clearly not based on any knowledge or understanding of someone who identifies as gay, lesbian, bi or trans. I tense up every time someone in my office or in the mall mocks a colleague or friend with that throwaway line, “That’s so gay.” It makes me feel worthless, scorned and shamed, even though it isn’t being directed at me personally.

Of course we all want people to see beyond our differences – our disability, race, and sexual identity – to the essence of who we are. I’m only just beginning to understand, however, that our differences are not merely optional adjectives attached to the periphery of our being – they are inherent to that very same essence we want others to know of ourselves. It’s time we realised that respect and equality is not about overlooking our differences, but about acknowledging and honouring those differences in one another.

Below is the full comic that inspired this post, but check out others created by members of minority groups on Empathize This.

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Having a physical disability vs having depression

At a media summit last year, a journalist asked me a question that, on the surface, I anticipated would be difficult to answer. After a few moments’ thought, however, I realised the answer was shockingly simple (and rather troubling). The question was, “Which do you find more difficult to deal with – your double amputations and life in a wheelchair, or your depression?” This is what I told her:

Disability on Muscle Beach

And how could I complain about my disability when it allows me to hang out with studs like this?

Every day I am forced to confront and overcome the physical limitations that my disability places on me. I have to figure out how to get in and out of the car, or up and down the stairs, or how to reach a mug on a high shelf. They say time waits for no man and I am no exception to that rule. Unless I allow life to leave me behind and go on without me, I must face these everyday obstacles, and so I do. I hardly have a choice.

Confronting my depression, however, is far more difficult. For years I tried to push it to the back of my mind, but ignoring it only made it worse. Like a wound that goes untreated, it became a festering toxin that tainted all my thoughts and attitudes. That habit of masking my depression and distracting myself with external interests and activities is now a barrier to overcoming it. I must make a concerted effort to acknowledge my incorrect assumptions about the world, evaluate my motives, and construct new patterns for my thoughts and behaviours. It is very easy to neglect these mental processes and “just get on with life”.

Someone who has always placed more emphasis on physical activities, like sport and exercise, may find coming to terms with a new disability more difficult than I have, as my focus has always been on intellectual and creative pursuits. I nevertheless believe that we should all take special care with the way we treat our minds and psyches, because it is much more difficult to fix the unseen than the physical, once it has been damaged.

My trainer’s words of wisdom

This year I have been fortunate to exercise with a local trainer who has taught me a new perspective that has not only improved my physical, but also my mental, emotional and spiritual strength. He has gone beyond the call of duty by trawling the Internet for new ways to adapt traditional exercises to suit my disability, as well as combining physical training with insight into my depression. Thanks Marco!

This post shares just a little bit of what he taught me this year.

You are stronger than you think

Research shows that a positive mental state, being happy, improves physical strength, and vice versa. In a study, researchers asked people to lift boxes. Before they lifted the boxes, the participants had to estimate how heavy the boxes were. Every single participant over-estimated the weight of the boxes, demonstrating how we make things seem far more difficult than they really are. The study also showed that the less socially empowered members of the group over-estimated the weight of the boxes by far more than those participants who held status in the group, i.e. those whose opinions were accepted and who took on a role of leadership. This demonstrates that a perceived lack of social power will affect the person’s assessment of their physical strength.

Mohammed Ali quote

In a separate study, researchers asked a group of people in their 60s with depression to do strength training for a month. A control group did no training. After the month was up, it showed that those participants who did strength training were now in a healthier, more positive state of mind than those participants who did not, as a result of the endorphins released by exercise, the alertness that comes with being fit and the ability to engage with those around them. You are one unit, comprising body, mind, emotions and spirit. Each element affects the other and it is therefore important to respect each part of yourself and practise discipline in each area.

Mind and body cannot be separated

Professional athletes focus and prepare themselves mentally before exercise training or a match/race. It is especially obvious when you watch gymnasts at the Olympics – you can clearly see them composing themselves and controlling their breathing before running up to do their gymnastics. If you drop something and go into a panic, your breathing becomes erratic and your thoughts become jumbled. But just as those external circumstances can affect your internal state, the opposite is also true. By collecting your thoughts and deliberately slowing your breathing, you can calm your movement too.

ParaVolley on Camps Bay Beach

A big part of my fitness this year is thanks to sitting volleyball. We recently had a social on Camps Bay beach.

When you exercise your muscles must work harder than usual, so your mind requires more discipline and determination to instruct your muscles to keep going. In this way, you are strengthening not only your body but also your mind. If your mind is always on something else when you exercise, however, you make it harder on yourself. If your physical labour is not aligned with your thoughts, eventually your mind will begin resisting exercise and making up excuses not to go to gym, because it does not have a positive experience of exercise.

Deliberate peace

When you realise how much is at stake for your mental and physical well-being every time you exercise, you will be more intentional about it and so you will perform better. Think of it as writing exams at school – when you get to the final exams at the end of the year, you know, “Okay, this is it, I have to study hard, because this is pass/fail.”

As I mentioned in a previous post, this year I truly challenged my body physically for the first time in my life and I learnt what it is capable of. There is a sense of empowerment and pride that comes with that knowledge.

*If you are looking for an amazing personal trainer or fitness coach in the Blouberg area, I highly recommend Marco Wentzel. Contact him at kettlebell@mweb.co.za.