He was a big man, wearing a muscle shirt with old-style tattoos running up and down both arms. He came out of the conference room wiping his eyes and reaching for his cigarettes. “God, I hate that crying,” he said to me, a relative stranger enjoying the summer evening. “But I guess you have to do it,” he added with a rueful grin.
I was at a conference of adult literacy students, and in the evenings students would gather in small groups to share stories about being hardly able to read in a society where everyone takes literacy for granted. Stories of secrecy and shame—a grandmother whose husband was the only person in the world who knew she couldn’t read, who had kept the secret for thirty-five years from her four children and her grandchildren, from her bosses and friends at work, from neighbours and people in her church, from storekeepers and bus drivers. Stories of loss when the secret was revealed—bosses who responded by firing, girlfriends who left the relationship, friends who suddenly “didn’t want to know.” Stories of lies told to prevent the secret from coming out—one man said he had a fake cast for his right arm, which he wore to the bank, or anywhere else where he’d have to fill out a form, so he could legitimately ask for help. Others talked about “forgetting” a pair of mythical glasses so they wouldn’t have to read.
For many of the students, this conference was the first time they had told these stories to a group of strangers, and the group’s understanding and sympathetic response was balm to their souls.
As an instructor, I didn’t go to those small groups of story telling; they were safe spaces for students only. But I heard about them everywhere at that conference: people re-told their stories at coffee breaks, and in the main sessions, people talked about how important the evening sharing sessions were.
Some students were inspired to action: I attended a session given by a visiting “expert” on learning disabilities who came with a power point presentation. Seven or eight students stopped him at the first slide, with “We can’t read that stuff,” and refused to let him go on until he agreed to abandon his slides and just talk.
At first, though I realized that the emotions were strong, their experience seemed quite distant to me—I have been reading since I was six, flew through school and went to university. For me, reading was connected with pleasure and praise, with accomplishment and achievement. But something in the charged atmosphere of the conference rang a bell for me. Something political was happening. These people were talking about coming out!
Suddenly, I was connected to their stories. I remembered my own coming out as a lesbian—how difficult it was (and sometimes still is) to say the L-word to new people I meet who ask if I’m married, or “with someone.” How I practiced coming out on strangers and acquaintances, whose reactions wouldn’t be so important to me. How I waited for a long time to tell my family because I knew their reaction would matter most of all. Indeed, how I waited so long my father died before I got around to telling him. And I remembered the stories—stories I told, and stories I heard about coming out in one situation after another. Similar stories to the ones the literacy students were telling, of lost relationships, lost jobs, lost apartments, of embarrassment and shame.
Because I connected to their stories and their experiences, I came out to some of the students at the conference, and we shared what we knew: how to get what you want and need in a society that thinks you’re a freak, and that you should “cure yourself.” How important it is to have allies in the struggle. What a relief it is to find you are not the only one in the world. And what strength there is in numbers.
Flip your experience
Rely on your experience of being oppressed to think about how to respond when you are in the dominant place.
You know what the world looks like when you are in the less powerful position:
- If you have a disability, compared to able bodied people
- If you are the student, compared to the teacher
- If you are a person of colour in Canada, compared to white people
- If you are queer, compared to straight and cisgender people
- If you are on social assistance, compared to welfare workers, storekeepers, landlords, and other such people you have to deal with
- …or in any other way that you are on the “target side” of your Dis/Advantage Profile.
You know that you are always at risk, as you go through the world, of oppressive behaviour by people who are advantaged compared to you. You know that the more powerful person may make jokes at your expense, taunt you, bully you or demean you, exclude you, harm you physically…or kill you.
The dominant person may be acting out of spite and malice, or with “good will” and the best of motives.
The more powerful person may “help” you, by insisting that you should take their advice, do what they say, because (they believe) if you do, you will be more “like them” and therefore better off.
Or, again, the more powerful person may “explain” to you because they know more about your situation than you do, because they are an “expert” in issues of disability/ education/ racism/ poverty, etc.
You can flip your experience with being at the receiving end of oppressive treatment to find a way to behave respectfully when you have power in relation to someone else.
How to Flip Your Experience
Find in your memory bank a time when you were at the receiving end of mistreatment.
Imagine yourself back into that occasion. What did you feel? Humiliation? Fear? Anger? Shame?
Ask yourself: what would you have wanted the dominant person to do if they were your ally, committed to reducing the power difference and working against their own privilege?
If you could have asked that dominant person, now your ally, to support you, what would you have asked for?
Katherine uses a wheelchair. Before she goes to a restaurant she always Googles it to make sure that the restaurant is wheelchair-accessible. Often that is indicated by the disability logo.
When she went to Delicious Family Restaurant, which advertised itself with that logo, she was pleased that indeed there were no stairs to get into the restaurant, and she was given a seat in the main part of the restaurant, not off in a dark corner as so often happened.
So far so good.
She enjoyed a glass of wine and her salad.
Then she needed the washroom. She asked her server where the washroom was; they pointed down the hall. As she wheeled in that direction, she found cases of beer stacked in the hallway, making it impossible for her to pass.
If you are a walking person, you can use your memories of times when you were at a Dis/Advantage in other situations. Your memories of embarrassment, frustration, anger, shame, or helplessness in those situations will help you figure out how to be an ally to Katherine in dealing with the beer blocking the way to the washroom.
And if we don’t flip our experience?
Flipping our experiences of being oppressed is an easy way into beginning to understand the experience of those who are Dis/Advantaged compared to us. Everyone is sometimes in the advantaged position and sometimes in the Dis/Advantaged place. (Even heterosexual white anglo-saxon protestant men with no disabilities, in the prime of life, can remember what it was like to be a child or a teen in relation to parents and teachers, or a private in relation to a sergeant, or … ) If we don’t take the easy way, we’ll have to take the hard way.
Positive Outcomes from Flipping the Experience
When we flip our experience, we get in touch with the emotions the person in the Dis/Advantaged place may be feeling. The shared emotions allow us to connect across difference. And while the particulars will vary, most likely the desires of the person at a Dis/advantage are the same: to be treated with respect, and to have some control in the situation. As an ally when we have the advantage, our mandate is clear: Be respectful, and don’t take control.
What gets in the way?
These are some things that get in our way:
- Being in the position of advantage seems so “normal” that it takes a conscious effort to remember that we have the advantage, and to notice how our privilege plays out.
- It seems that using our position to take control of the situation will be the fastest, most efficient way to get things done. (It isn’t true, but it often seems like it will be.)
- If others are watching, we sometimes worry that they will think we are weak if we give up our privilege.
Like everything that serves to maintain power imbalances, our privilege, our power in a situation, will at first seem normal, natural and appropriate. That’s what makes it so hard to dismantle.