Guest Post: When Your Advocacy Looks More Like Erasure

It’s challenging to communicate the seriousness of the unfair treatment service dog handlers encounter on a regular basis. I’m not a handler, but all I have to do is spend half an hour with one of my handler friends to get a sense of how frustrating it really is to exist in the world when you have a service dog. Watching service dog users interact with the disrespectful public sets my teeth on edge, and I have no idea how they put up with it as gracefully as they do.

It’s tempting, then, for handlers and for me, to use racial discrimination as a direct comparison. I’ve made such comparisons on this very blog, without examining the deeper implications of that choice. Today, a guest poster, who has chosen to remain nameless, challenges me, as well as her fellow service dog handlers, to take a closer look at these comparisons. Compelling as they are, she invites us to consider a more inclusive path forward. I, for one, will be doing a lot of rethinking.


From time to time, controversy rears its ugly head in my network of service dog handlers. A viral news story about a person of colour being mistreated sweeps social media, and inevitably, service dog handlers draw direct comparisons to their own lives. They equate discrimination they have faced due to the presence of their dogs to that faced by people of colour and other marginalized groups. It’s usually sparked by genuine frustration as handlers try to help the public understand why access refusals are problematic, but the resulting conversations usually lack nuance and meaningful intersectionality. Traditionally, I have remained silent. I have sat on the sidelines, scrolling through the comments, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. I’ve been unwilling to speak out, not wanting to risk backlash from those propagating this comparison. After the most recent surge of posts like this, I find I no longer want to be silent.

Before I go any further, I will admit I face discrimination because of my gender, my disability, and, yes, because of my service dog. However, I am white, and I have the privilege of never experiencing discrimination or oppression due to my race. Thus, I will be describing my experiences as a white handler, and I am calling out my peers, because without exception, the handlers I’ve seen conflating their experiences with those of people of colour are white.

As I said above, I am not a stranger to discrimination due to my dog. I have been refused access to stores and restaurants, been turned away from taxis, and even been denied employment opportunities. Is this humiliating? Yes. Does this harm me? Yes. Is this highly illegal, and should violators of the laws be punished? Yes. Does this mean my accessibility issues are on the same level as discrimination that’s racially-motivated?

No.

On the surface, you can definitely identify similarities. It’s easy to compare service dog discrimination with racial prejudice, especially if you want a familiar framework to help nondisabled people understand it. Denial of access to services and employment is par for the course for people of colour, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, etc. When you dig further down, however, you quickly encounter the pivotal difference which, at least in my mind, reveals a false equivalency. That essential difference is freedom of choice.

Using a service dog is a conscious choice one makes with the full awareness that discrimination probably will occur at some point. The service dog programs I’ve attended had info sessions about what to do if you are denied access to a public place or public transit. I was warned that I would be placed in situations where I would have to argue for my rights. I still went ahead with the decision to get multiple service dogs over the years, because I weighed the pros and cons, and still found that a dog was the right choice for me, even if I would occasionally argue with members of the public who are unaware of relevant laws. That is an informed decision I made, and continue to make, regardless of how I’m treated. In the case of PoC, the barriers they deal with are not based on choice, but on fundamental characteristics they did not ask for and cannot change. Make no mistake: I’m not in any way minimizing the importance of service dogs. Service dogs improve the lives of many, and are typically considered medical equipment. I would never choose to be without mine for any length of time, and no one should ask it of me. But that’s a far cry from having a skin colour that automatically sets me up for mistreatment.

Now, I’m not at all saying discrimination against service dog handlers should be ignored just because it is based on a choice we made, but there exists a difference between the two situations that cannot be overlooked. Discrimination based on race and discrimination based on the presence of a service dog are both reprehensible, but they should not be conflated. When a business owner denies me access because of my guide dog, it often involves fear of the dog, concern that my dog may make a mess and/or violate health codes, concern for allergies, and/or a lack of awareness of the laws that grant my service dog access to any public place. When PoC are denied access, it is due to a fundamental mistrust, disgust, hatred, and/or fear of them as people. I may be asked to leave because a business owner is afraid that my dog will shed on their merchandise, while  a PoC may be followed around the store by staff because they are afraid they will steal something. Put another way, I am mistreated because I am accompanied by an animal; PoC are mistreated because some people view them as animals.

Another telling difference is the response by authorities to the discriminatory act. If a business owner threatens to call the police because of my dog, I generally invite them to go ahead. Most likely, the police will be on my side. They will inform the business owner that I am legally permitted to have my dog with me, and if the business owner doesn’t comply, they risk a fine. In fact, I have my city’s police department’s phone number in my contacts, and when I meet a belligerent business owner, I actually offer to call the police for them. While there have been a couple of occasions where the police have also been unaware of the laws they have sworn to uphold and have told me that I must leave with my dog, that is the worst thing that can happen to me. I leave the business and promise myself that I will never patronize it again. Maybe, if I have the mental fortitude, I send a letter to the head office of the company, or to the media, to lodge a complaint, which may net me an official apology if I’m lucky.

This is not the story for many PoC. I am sure most of you have seen news stories regarding business owners calling the police on PoC who were quietly minding their own business in public. In many of these cases, a huge police presence arrives, the PoC is arrested, and physical harm can sometimes follow. Many PoC have spoken out saying that they fear and distrust the police, with good reason. As a white person, I can freely assume the police are my allies. PoC don’t have that vital privilege.

Those who conflate these two types of discrimination frequently justify it by claiming it’s the only way to call public and media attention to the plight of service dog handlers. I have seen several social media posts in which a white service dog user points to a news story where a PoC was ejected from a store or denied access to an Airbnb, urging their followers to replace the PoC in the story with a service dog handler. While it is true that discrimination against guide dog users rarely makes the news, it is also true that the overwhelming majority of discriminatory acts against PoC fails to reach the media, too. I do believe that society would benefit from a more robust media that fairly covers issues relevant to PoC and people with disabilities, but I do not believe that erasing the experiences of the PoC for the benefit of service dog users is the right way to achieve that aim. Both issues need to be in the spotlight, and even though people with disabilities often feel justifiably ignored, I don’t believe white handlers should be pushing other marginalized people aside to draw attention to our own issues.

What about empathy, you ask? What about common ground? Empathizing is important, and we are absolutely free to use our experiences as service dog handlers to show empathy for other marginalized groups. I have personally felt the humiliation of being ejected from a public place, and I know firsthand that it feels terrible. That being said, I wouldn’t use my ability to empathize as a method of erasure, especially when the discrimination caused by my dog has a much different origin, and far less harmful results. I can see the ways in which my experiences relate to what a PoC goes through, but I’d never state the two are interchangeable.

Fellow white handlers, we can and should do better. We should call out discrimination when we see it because we know it is wrong, and we know that it hurts. We should stand together and demand equal rights for everyone, not just the groups we are a part of. And we should work against the instinct to erase or distract from the voices of other groups to amplify our own. There is plenty of room out there for all our grievances without denying anyone else the attention theirs deserve.

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Pleasing The Unpleasable: Say Goodbye To The Middle Ground

If you’ve spent a lot of time on social media—particularly Twitter and Facebook—you might have noticed a diversity spectrum. At one end, (let’s call it right, for giggles) we have people who are passionately opposed to diversity. At the far left, we have people who are equally passionate about encouraging diversity. There’s a whole lot of middle ground, but the opposite ends are usually warring with each other, and those in the centre are subjected to the excesses of both sides.

I’m not sure where exactly I’d place myself on this spectrum—though certainly more left than right—but I think it’s difficult to self-assess these things. It’s nearly impossible to examine my own behavior with an objective lens and decide where I belong. Even diverse and oppressed populations find ourselves unsure of where we stand, especially when we get caught in the intense crossfire. Objectivity itself is disturbingly scarce, in an age when we put less and less stock in fairytales, harmful superstitions (adopt the black cats, guys, pretty please!) and even extremist ideologies. There are a few publications that conduct ethical, verifiable research intended to challenge our cherished, long-held beliefs about the world. They are too few, though, and in a world of black-and-white thinking and instinctive loyalty to one’s beliefs, their voices are not nearly loud enough.

Now, the righthand side of the spectrum is a very real threat. These are the people—usually powerful majorities, but not always—dismissing diverse authors because they’re not “good” writers. They look down on women in comedy because, I kid you not,women aren’t funny. They despise disabled people because we are a drain on the system, robbing them of hard-earned pennies and indirectly taking food from their children’s mouths. (They conveniently refuse to educate themselves; many of us aren’t on benefits at all.) They’re usually the ones promising same-sex couples they’re bound for hell, calling black people thugs, and branding indigenous populations lazy drunks. Their claims sometimes stem from personal, unfortunate experience; even so, their attitudes are obviously detrimental to society. I think many of us can agree with that, at the very least. But …

It would be a mistake to consider the far left pure, just, and incorruptible. The Social Justice Warriors (as the right so affectionately calls them) are genuinely trying to fight the good fight as they see it. Overtaken by their intense fervor, though, they seem to neglect those in the centre of things. They are fighting for what they perceive as justice, but many of them are unwilling to entertain the idea of grey areas, full stop. They don’t appear to acknowledge (or care) that the tactics they so despise from the far right are often the ones they adopt themselves. Take it from someone who is left but not all the way left: more often than not, it’s safer to avoid getting involved, because you’ll feel ineffectual and exhausted in short order. It’s gotten so bad that more than once, I’ve taken a “mental health break” from social media, or at least from controversy. While I have been guilty of this overenthusiastic dog piling, (and may be again), I recognize that it’s largely ineffective and stressful for everyone involved.

If you examine the far left’s strategies more closely, you’ll begin to spot the multitude of contradictions:
• They hate to see diverse populations silenced by the right, but are constantly telling everyone to #SitTheFuckDown, including fellow diverse individuals.
• They occasionally consider evangelism deplorable, yet they preach every bit as loudly and proudly as the religious right. (I personally have no issue with preaching on either side, but it’s still glaring hypocrisy.)
• They accuse the right of being too exclusive, yet will ignore anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. (Try entering a conversation about race or disability if you’re white and/or able-bodied, even when you support the cause and honestly want to know how you can help.)
• They are forever telling majorities, (especially straight, able-bodied white men) to shut up, then accusing them of failing to do enough for the cause. (Either you want them involved or you don’t. Pick one.)
• They criticize majority artists for failing to include diverse characters in their books and movies (which they should, really), but then turn around and berate them for cultural appropriation. This is a very real and very important concept, but it is ill-defined and confusing. (This can be a powerful source of anxiety for writers who want to do the right thing but feel as though they can’t win either way.)

There are numerous voices for marginalized groups who either encourage majorities to get involved, (This book is an excellent example) or at the very least encourage them to boost the voices of diverse populations. These instructions are relatively easy to follow, and they allow white, straight, able-bodied, Cis-gendered males to take part without routinely saying the wrong thing or supporting the wrong people. Others, however, are simply unpleasable: they want you as an ally, but only if you say what they tell you to, when they tell you to. They want you to help, but then dismiss all your efforts because they’re insufficient. They refuse to guide your attempts, then spit on you for making a mistake.

This is not to say that all allies are perfect little angels just waiting to be told what to do, of course not. Many people who want to be allies have suspect motives, condescending perspectives, and narrow minds. Take, for example, the plethora of articles about how “inspirational” people with disabilities are. The gooey rhetoric of the able-bodied can be dangerous as well as irritating, trust me. In my experience at least, you’ll attract more flies with honey than with vinegar: if you calmly and kindly explain why this inspiration porn is not okay, people are generally willing to listen and take note. There will always be those who think they know best, but quite a few people out there are all too willing to learn, so long as we can tell them how best to do so. We can’t blame everybody for stumbling a bit along the way; none of us is immune to a stumble here and there. We need to be more compassionate, we really do.

Sadder still, the unpleasable, comparatively rare though they are, often drive people away from the message they’re trying to send. The medium is the message, so if you convey important ideas via abusive rants on Facebook or angry tweet storms on Twitter, your words will be lost in the mayhem. If you barge into a stranger’s Twitter mentions or Facebook posts specifically to deliver personal attacks and invective, don’t expect them to absorb your message with delight and say “Yes! I shall change immediately.” I recognize the need for anger, and passion, and even temporary preference for justice over mercy. There are many on the far right who do grievous social and even physical harm, and that’s something worth fighting against. So, yes: be angry. Be passionate and stand up for those who cannot do so for themselves. Be unafraid to express what you think is right; after all, I’ve been doing that here for over a year now. Be dedicated in the wish to educate and advocate. I’ll be right behind you.

Take care, though, that you do not push away the very people whom you claim to represent. If I, a disabled person, am bombarded by a barrage of social justice warriors because I dare to have a slightly more moderate opinion than they do, I’ll be tempted to abandon their cause altogether. The quickest way to divide people is to pit them against each other, and forming a “diversity club” is one effective way to do it. Silencing fellow diverse people because they don’t follow your exact specifications is going to damage your credibility and distort your message.

Those who silence others do not represent me. Those who gang up on vulnerable people are not my peers. Those who refuse to accept and guide allies do not help my cause. Those who shame, degrade, and dismiss other diverse populations for the sake of their own agendas are not my friends. The unpleasable are not my allies. If your only goal is to shut everyone up so your own voice is the only one that matters, then go your way. Don’t expect me to follow you.