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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3 recent disability events in SA

Blind Cricket World Cup 2014

This past weekend, South Africa hosted the Blind Cricket World Cup. The final match took place at the Western Province Cricket Club, where India beat Pakistan to become the world champions. In the semi-finals, Pakistan had beaten England by eight wickets, while India had defeated Sri Lanka by 134 runs.

Unfortunately, the tournament was marred by controversy, as the South African blind cricket team had to borrow uniforms and kit due to lack of funding from Cricket South Africa (CSA), not to mention having to sleep in emergency accommodation. The Blind Cricket SA (BCSA) organisation has now lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, due to the inequality of support, funding and publicity given to them, compared to able-bodied sports teams.

Since 2009, South Africa has celebrated National Disability Rights Awareness Month from 3 November (I only recently found about this – so either I’ve been living under a rock or the national awareness of this should be better). This year’s priority has been finalising the National Disability Rights Policy, which Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini says is at an advanced stage.

Last Wednesday (3 December) was the United Nations (UN) International Day of Persons with Disabilities. It has been observed around the world by the UN since 1992 in order to promote the dignity, rights, well-being and integration of persons with disabilities in society, as well as to improve awareness and understanding of disability issues. The focus of the day this year was on “Sustainable development: The promise of technology” to remove the physical and communication barriers that exclude and marginalise persons with disabilities. Below is a fantastic video about celebrating our achievements. It is part of a series by Adelaide City Council.

A gay homophobe

I am gay and I used to be a homophobe. I never voiced it and I never targeted it outwardly at anyone, but I used to resent flamboyant gay men, because they made it look so easy to be themselves and not care what anyone thought of them. Although I identified with them very strongly, I did not allow myself to express that part of myself. My greatest desire was to fit in and be accepted by the mainstream, so I tried to stifle any mannerisms and preferences that might give me away as gay.

That’s so gay

Cards Against Humanity | Calculating every mannerism so as not to suggest homosexuality

This card from the game Cards Against Humanity sums up 15 years of my life

My internalised homophobia was taken to ridiculous lengths. I refused to admit listening to (and enjoying) music by artists like Adam Lambert, Village People, Scissor Sisters and the Pet Shop Boys, who were all obviously associated with LGBT themes. I was careful not to dress too well and faked an ineptitude for fashion.

Even spending time with other gay people was a risk, because my natural proclivities seemed to be magnified in their company and I always feared I would set their gaydar buzzing. Most of the time it seemed my efforts were unsuccessful, as I still got picked out as gay.

Not alone

Now that I am out of the closet, my obsessions with Katy Perry, Glee and Kylie Minogue are common knowledge, but I am still struggling to undo the legacy of prejudices I developed out of fear of myself. I am sure that I am not the only one.

I am strongly opposed to homophobia and I believe that everyone should be free to embrace who they are without fear of judgment or harassment. Rejecting a personal trait within yourself can only lead to you rejecting it in others. Isn’t life difficult enough as it is, without us persecuting ourselves and those like us?