*The images used in this post are of Privilege Denying Dude. You can find out about him at Know Your Meme.*
Earlier this week, Autism and Oughtisms (who I've referred to as A&O from now on) published a blog post called The Privilege Game and as I read it I found myself disagreeing with most of the content, or at least my understanding of that content. It made me want to write an outline of my own personal views on the topic of privilege so I have basically used A&O's blog as a springboard from which I have done a running dive. Feel free to jump in yourself and share your thoughts in comments.
Privilege as a very real phenomenon
I'm genuinely unclear on A&O's view with respect to this. Having read the post I initially thought it was arguing or implying that privilege doesn't exist – the mention of “apparent” and “supposed” privilege for example, and putting the word privilege itself in quotation marks. Then in a reply to a comment on the post from an autistic adult, A&O stated:
“Does privilege exist? Yes. Is it important to recognise and be aware of it? Yes.”
What I am clear on is the fact that privilege is very real and sadly, it has extremely profound and sometimes deadly consequences. Here are just a few examples for you to consider:
- Being not-autistic gives me a built-in advantage when seeking fairly compensated employment. In 2009, the U.S. Department of Education's National Longitudinal Transition Study (NLTS2) surveyed 11,000 young adults with disabilities. They found that the proportion of young autistic adults who had a job was far below the proportion of their peers who were blind, learning disabled or had been subject to traumatic brain injuries. Those young autistic adults who did have a job earned much less than other disabled young adults. (Note, this is not in comparison to neurotypical peers, it's a comparison against other young adults with disabilities).
- Men can be certain that their marital status will have no impact on their earnings from employment. The gender gap in the U.S. in terms of pay is still huge, even accounting for other variables. For example, single women earn only 57 cents for every dollar that a married man earns.
- White people can, on balance, expect to be treated fairly by the criminal justice system. An Amnesty International report, published in 2003 found that in the U.S., “[e]ven though blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of crimes, 80% of people executed since the death penalty was reinstated have been executed for murders involving white victims.”
- Neurotypical individuals can be assured that they will not be abused, tortured or killed by virtue of their neurology. I've written before about the extent to which mental disabilities and mental illness can result in disproportionately inhumane treatment.
- Female foetuses can be at greater risk of being aborted and female babies are at greater risk of infanticide. The average sex ratio at birth (SRB) is estimated at 104 to 106 boys born per 100 girls. In India the SRB can be as high as 120 and in some areas of China, over 130, data which supports the hypothesis that sex-selective abortions continue to be widespread, even though they are illegal in both those countries.
- A straight adult has the right to marry their partner, regardless of where they live. The impact of discriminatory legislation like bans on same-sex marriage has been shown to result in increases in depression and other mental health disorders, as well as increased alcohol abuse amongst the lesbian, gay and bisexual population. This in turn puts them at increased risk of suicide.
This is just a handful of illustrative examples; empirical evidence abounds confirming the existence and effects of privilege.
So what the heck is privilege anyway?
Privilege occurs whenever a group enjoys unearned social, economic, political and health advantages or rights. Men are privileged in relation to women, white people are privileged by virtue of their skin colour, typical people are privileged in comparison to those with disabilities, hetero-centric norms put the LGBT population at an automatic disadvantage – I'm assuming you're getting the picture.
One of the reasons privilege is such an insidious phenomenon is because, almost by definition, privileged individuals tend to be unaware of their privileged status. I'll give you an example. I used to work for what was then the world's largest professional services firm (fancy name for accountants). A course which was compulsory for everyone to attend was “Men and Women as Colleagues”. When I took the course one of the men in my group was an audit partner who was also, incidentally, a really nice man. I'll call him John. He said out loud what many men in the room were wondering – “why, in this day and age, is this course necessary, let alone mandatory?”
John was simply unaware of his privileged position – he hired women, promoted women, worked collegially with women, he didn't indulge in any overtly discrimatory or sexist behaviour – where was the problem? Over the day-long course we discussed both data and anecdotal evidence illustrating the many ways in which men were in a privileged position at this firm. Examples included: the fact that in the Canadian partnership, 50% of new hires were women and yet 100% of the partners were male. Business was conducted in bars, on golf courses and during hockey games and women were often not invited because the assumption was that they would not be interested in attending these events. Women were siloed into 'soft' positions like human resources and required to make choices with respect to relationships and children that men weren't expected to consider.
Peggy McIntosh has written several papers on white and male privilege which someone used to create The Male Privilege Checklist. The last item listed is possibly the most important part to be aware of when discussing this phenomenon:
“I have the privilege of being unaware of my male privilege.”
Why is privilege relevant?
The lack of awareness when it comes to our own privilege is precisely why we need to keep it at the forefront of our minds. Being told that you're privileged is not some sort of coded insult, it's a useful reminder of something that, by definition, we tend not to be consciously aware of.
I view privilege as the quintessential elephant in the room, because, as noted in the examples I listed above, it has an enormous impact on our lives – from birth to death and everything in between, and yet it's so often something we simply do not see. I live in one of the most multicultural and racially diverse cities on the planet. And yet unlike Rawle Maynard, I don't automatically fear the Toronto police. Because I am white I can never, and will never know how it feels to be stopped for just driving a car. Every single day I enjoy unearned advantages simply because I was born a particular skin colour. There are things I will never see, feel, know, experience and most importantly, may not even be able to imagine.
So, as a white person, if a black person points out to me that I don't understand the racial implications of something I've said – I don't reflexively accuse them of trying to silence me. I acknowledge the elephant in the room that is my privilege; I listen, and where appropriate ask questions to try and ensure I understand what they are attempting to share. I don't perceive them as attacking me for my privilege – why would they, it's something I have no control over – I recognize that I'm being made aware of something I was previously blind to.
A&O makes the point that parents of autistic children are a marginalized group (vis a vis parents of neurotypical children) and so when we are told we have to:
“give up our voices each time and seek permission and verification from autistic adults when we speak [this squashes] us from two directions at once. We are squeezed out of the narrative, unless we tow the party line, in which case we’re welcome to the podium.”
Earlier this week The Stir published an article called 10 Biggest Myths About Autism From Moms Who Know. I'm not being disingenuous here, when I saw the title of the article I truly thought that it would be about autistic mothers. The mothers who contributed to the piece were actually allistic (i.e. not-autistic; thanks to Yes That Too for introducing me to that word) mothers of autistic children. Many people, including some of the contributors, commented after the article's publication that the voices of autistic mothers should have been included. Some allistic parents found that notion upsetting and threatening, but if a journalist was writing an article on issues facing women in the workplace, wouldn't we find it pretty bizarre if he interviewed gay men for their insights? I suggest to you that we'd find it even stranger if the journalist defended his decision to solicit the views of gay men by making statements like:
- well, gay men are a marginalized group in relation to straight men
- two of the men are actually transmen and so really, you know, they're women
- several of the men interviewed were actually fathers of working women
- the magazine I am writing the article for is one read predominantly by gay men
- but women themselves don't even agree on whether there is sexism in the workplace
- why are we trying to silence gay men when it comes to this issue?
To me, it's a simple concept – when it comes to autism, the voices we need to listen to are those of autistic people. Women need to be in the driving seat when it comes to issues affecting women. Let's not try and learn more about racial inequalities by asking for the views and input of white people.
The Toronto Star recently published a series of articles under the heading 'The Autism Project'. The articles focused on parents of autistic children, teachers and therapists, as well as scientists researching the causes of autism. It was a classic example of privilege at work – autistic adults were finally interviewed, but only at the end of the project. Parents of autistic children aren't being “squeezed out of the narrative”; for the most part we continue to provide the narrative when it comes to autism.
Parents do need to be listened to and involved in the conversation when parenting issues are under discussion. No-one I know is actually trying to silence parents, especially when it comes to the issues they face in parenting their own kids. And no-one knows your children better than you do (apart from your children themselves). I have a voice as a parent and in that context I have a right to be heard. But my voice is not and never will be an autistic voice or a black voice or a male voice or a gay voice. When it comes to autistic, black and gay issues, it's their voices I want to hear, not mine. In those situations I don't want to listen to those who have privilege, especially if they're denying that their privilege even exists.
When people have been abused, silenced, disenfranchised, locked up and even killed, just because they're autistic, when we become consciously aware of all the advantages allistic people enjoy but have not earned, then in relation to issues about autism it really is time for us to stand aside in favour of autistic people. Becoming aware of and owning our privilege involves consciously giving up our power in order to empower others – otherwise we're just continuing to ignore the elephant in the room.
In practical terms, what does this mean for me as a non-autistic parent of an autistic child?
I'm going to answer this by breaking down A&O's answer to this question:
- “Because of our privilege, we non-autistic parents of autistic children, are meant to make way for the voices of autistic parents and autistic adults;” Yes, in relation to issues about autism, most emphatically, yes. Don't ignore the elephant in the room.
- “pass them the speaking platform when it is offered to us,” Maybe. If a journalist asked me what it's like to parent two autistic boys when I'm not on the spectrum myself, I'd feel qualified and comfortable answering that question. If someone asked me for my views and experiences regarding the placement of exceptional children in the Toronto District School Board, or about the year-long waitlist and the process required to get an Assistive Technology evaluation, I'd share my views and experience. If however I was asked to comment on what I believe the main policy priorities of the Ontario government should be in relation to autistic Ontarians, I'd happily pass the speaking platform to an autistic adult.
- “and give [autistic adults] the ability and position to verify our own views as correct and acceptable.” I've never been asked to submit my blogs or any other writing to an autistic review board.
- “Their views take primacy, and must always be heard over and above our own.” When it relates to explaining and understanding autism, providing insight with respect to the daily disadvantages faced when you have this developmental disability and opinions about how those disadvantages could best be mitigated, um, YES, autistic voices must and always should be heard over mine. When it's in relation to welfare policy during the Clinton administration – well, I wrote my Master's thesis on that topic so let's have a debate.
One of Oliver's favourite shows is Blue's Clues. In one of the episodes Mr. Salt and Mrs. Pepper are discussing with Steve what to do when you become frustrated. Their mantra is 'Stop, breathe and think' which Oliver uses himself when he gets worked up – it's pretty cute. The best piece of advice I can give you if you're an allistic person and you find yourself getting frustrated when talking with autistic people is a variant on Steve's mantra – stop, breathe and listen. See the elephant in the room.