March 7, 2013
I am often not a big fan of the language of privilege. While I have found it a useful concept and thinking tool, and one that I tend to think people should take the time to understand…I’ve seen it turn already highly-charged discussions rancorous. Particularly when both “sides” in a discussion are in fact vulnerable in some way. The word has such a negatively loaded connotation in its everyday usage that it can turn unproductive quickly when participants aren’t familiar with its meaning in a social justice context, or legitimately feel vulnerable, overtaxed, or externally threatened…only to be told that they may in fact be privileged. I try to stay away from it. I usually think that there are better ways to explain things that don’t send people straight into self-defensive mode.
So I was mildly surprised, and humbled, last week when a college friend on Facebook thanked me for alerting her to her own state of privilege, in response to a link I’d posted about a recent event, in the sense of privilege being a circumstance in which you never even had to think about how an issue affects you.
You may have heard about this: Somebody noticed and blogged about the fact that if you Google-searched “autistic people should,” or “autistic people are,” the autocomplete search suggestions–generated automatically by the most searched phrases completing that sentence–were all hate speech:
In response to the attention from bloggers who organized a flashblog to counteract those results, Google announced that it would revise its search algorithms to more effectively screen out death threats from the top suggested search terms. (My contribution was here.)
There’s been a lot of discussion of privilege in the interactions between autistic bloggers and autism parent bloggers lately, which I’ve mostly stayed out of (and characterizations of war between the two groups, with which I mostly don’t agree).
But on a whim, I tried something. Try it for me now if you want.
Go back to the Google home page.
Type in “parents of autistic children should,” “parents of children with autism should,” “parents of children diagnosed with autism should,” or “parents of autistic children are,” and don’t hit enter. Let autocomplete do its job.
And see what the suggestion for that query is.
Here’s what I got:
That is the magnitude of the difference between the assumptions that society makes about you, and the assumptions that society makes about us. That’s privilege.
You may feel like autistic people, or other people who don’t know what’s like to parent an autistic child, judge you too harshly or unfairly, make ridiculous accusations, or hold you to impossible double standards. There are times when you
may be probably are right. That there is a privilege differential does not mean that you can’t be hurt or bullied or wronged on an individual basis by someone of a less privileged group.
But society at large doesn’t wish you would just go away and die. Major charities and research organizations don’t actively seek ways to make that happen. There isn’t a federal law entitled the Combating Autism Parents Act.
(There is a federal law called the Combating Autism Act. Think about what that really means if autism is an inextricable part of your psyche.)
Privilege is not about parents vs. autistics. It is not about which group of us has had it harder, or that we could somehow count, add up, and compare the number of strikes against us. It is not about how we feel about you or you feel about us or whatever personal wrongs or misunderstandings we might have done each other.
Privilege is about how the world at large sees you, and how the world at large sees us–and people like your kids–and the consequences of those conditions in who gets listened to and how. And people–including parents of autistic people–are way, way more likely to get listened to seriously when they say that the world would be better off if people like us didn’t exist any longer, than when they say that we are acceptable, that we are not a tragedy, that the value of our lives is not best measured in terms of our financial burden on the country…or when parents like you say that you love your kids the way they are and only want their happiness and acceptance.
Privilege is the poisoned water that we’re all swimming in; it’s not about laying blame for who did the poisoning. We all get wet; none of us can help but be affected in our views and the way we live our lives and interact with others…that doesn’t make it the fault of the people who aren’t the targets of the poisoning. But we can all help unpoison the water.