“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.
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.
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.