Monday, July 27, 2009

On Neurotypical Privilege

Bev at Asperger Square 8* is drafting, with the help of her commenters, a list of privileges that come with being NT, along the lines of Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" and various online checklists dealing with male privilege, straight privilege, (temporarily) able-bodied privilege, cisgender privilege, thin privilege, Christian privilege, class privilege, etc.

Here are a few that I really like:
I can assume that police officers will not become alarmed at my natural body language, and find it necessary to subdue me in advance of any wrongdoing. (Bev)

I can reveal to my boss and coworkers that I am NT, without fear of losing my job. (Bev)

I can assume that most restaurants, theaters, stores and other places I would like to go will not be so loud or brightly lit or crowded that I will become unable to function at a basic level. (Bev)

I am never told that the fact I have a certain cognitive skill means that I am lying when I say I lack another cognitive skill. Nor am I dismissed as incapable of things I truly can do, because I lack certain cognitive skills. (Sanabituranima)

If my parents or spouse abuse me, I will not be told that my neurology drove them to do it. (Sanabituranima)

If I am murdered, my murderer will not be let off because killing someone of my neurology is an act of mercy. (Sanabituranima)

The services that I need to survive not only already exist, but even if I use those services on a 24-hour basis, I will always be considered independent. (Amanda)

If I am having a bad day or even a bad and stressful period where I am under a lot of strain, people will not say I am 'regressing' and panic, fret or automatically tell me I need medication or intensive treatment. (Norah)

My deficits are not considered deficits at all. Instead, they are considered universal faults in human cognition (even if they are not universal). And a good deal of effort is undertaken by my entire society to compensate for those deficits. (Amanda)

If it happens that I am better at something, more empathic, more sensitive, more honest or authentic, it is not considered a defect. (Anemone)

I will never have people tell me that I am a mindless waste of space and then deliberately fail to make any attempt to save my life in an emergency. (Amanda)

I have never had to use physical violence as my only means possible to communicate basic information. (Amanda)

My behaviors, abilities, and skill levels at age 2 or 3 are considered indicative of an immature phase of life that will pass naturally, not as representative of my prognosis for the rest of life. (Combative Autistic Wench)

The skills and talents at which people of my neurology tend to have an advantage, around which the system of the society in which I live is founded, are presumed to be objectively more important than those more commonly found in people of other neurological types. (Combative Autistic Wench)

If I fail, most will encourage me by telling me that I will ultimately succeed. (Wandering Jennie)

I can pursue a particular interest or hobby to my heart's content without being told that I am engaging in an unhealthy "fixation." (Sarah)

If I fail to understand autistic people, this is attributed to a deficit inherent in autistic people, rather than in me. (Amanda)

My neurology is not classified as a mental disorder. (Combative Autistic Wench)

No one sees my neurology as being in need of prevention, treatment, or cure. (Combative Autistic Wench)

If my sexual orientation, gender identity, lifestyle preferences or beliefs are deemed nonstandard, others will not suggest that I am pretending, incorrect, jumping the gun or unable to really know such things about myself because I am neurotypical. They will not use my neurotypical status as a basis for defending intolerant remarks or beliefs about any of these identities. (Pazi)
I've not had to deal with a lot of these things, fortunately; though I don't think I quite pass for "normal," I also don't read as "severely disabled," either. When I am overloaded, I don't explode in an emotional outburst; instead, I freeze and stay in one spot, silent and unmoving. I may not be capable of doing anything to get myself out of the situation, but I also do not attract any attention to myself that might get me carted off to someplace even more unpleasant. I also have the power of speech most of the time, and have been getting good at recognizing the signs of overload and asking for help, even from strangers. (I have done this in an airport, even!) Finally, I've been hugely lucky in the people I have as relatives, friends and associates. People in my life tend to listen to me, to treat my problems as real problems and offer whatever help they can, to respect my right to decide things for myself and to take my perspective into account when making group decisions.

Even with that, though, I've still experienced some of the silencing tactics listed above. I've been assumed to be incapable of knowing my own mind, my own needs, or my own feelings. I've also internalized some of this stuff: I hold myself to a fairly high evidentiary standard before self-disclosing anything "nonstandard," like bisexuality**, polyamory or (suspected) transgenderism. I do this because I suspect I will be met with an unusual amount of doubt when I try to "come out" as whatever.

I also noticed (along with Norah and Anemone) that some of these barriers and prejudices overlap with those facing people belonging to other marginalized groups.

First, the various items about needing to suppress one's natural way of moving, speaking or expressing emotion reminded me of the double standard governing women's, and people of color's, public expression of anger. If a man is assertive, a woman doing the same thing will be considered bitchy, shrill or hysterical. Similarly, a person of color speaking up, voicing disagreement, or complaining about being wronged, will be seen as much more aggressive and out of control than a white person doing the same thing would be. Black men, in particular, are always assumed to be violent thugs, even when they're just minding their own business.

Lots of the items about being pathologized also echo much of what women experience from doctors and from popular notions of female biology: if a woman is angry, or frazzled, or upset, or in any way "off," she'll probably be asked if she's menstruating. She's also held to a much higher standard in general for staying calm, civil and reasonable --- even in very heated discussions --- lest everything she says be chalked up to "hormones" and ignored.

With the specific matter of one's love life being seen as inherently pathological, there's overlap with the double standards gay and lesbian couples face. No matter how stable and healthy a gay relationship might be, it's usually judged less legitimate than even the wobbliest straight union, which feeds into double standards around marriage and adoption.

With the items relating to medical care, and having one's complaints ignored as being just part of autism, there are obvious intersections with other invisible disabilities, especially those involving chronic pain. People with chronic pain are commonly told they're imagining their pain, or that they need to suck it up and stop dwelling on it. There are also intersections with fat --- see this blog for examples of just about every serious health problem imaginable being attributed to the patient's size, and being dismissed with "Just lose some weight" --- and with femaleness and blackness.

Items about employment discrimination overlap with every other marginalized group: people of color, poor and lower-class people, fat people, ugly people, visibly disabled people, invisibly disabled people, women (in all but a few female-dominated spheres, which are usually lower-paid, or become lower-paid as they come to be feminized), trans people, gay people, and sex workers. Items dealing with anxiety over whether to disclose one's membership in these groups applies to all identities it's possible to hide --- like, say, atheism(or membership in any minority faith), being gay, being trans, or having an invisible disability.
The other items that strike me as being almost universal among marginalized groups (at least, those that currently have an active civil-rights movement) are these, which deal with speaking publicly about autism-related issues:

I am never or rarely asked to explain what it means or what it's like to be neurotypical.

I am allowed to use the word "we" without being accused of trying to speak for all neurotypical people.

People are not pre-inclined to view anything I say in certain ways because I am neurotypical.

My neurotypicality is never used as a joke.

If I achieve some sort of success (academically, professionally, socially or otherwise), I will not be patronizingly turned into an "inspiration" for other people.

If I write an autobiography, it will be labeled a book about me as an individual and/or a book about specific things I have done (acting, mountain-climbing, sport, science, music, whatever) rather than a book about neurotypicality.

...and these, about engaging with potential allies:

If I make even a half-assed attempt to look like I advocate for autistic people, I will be considered a hero, and I will not be considered to be acting out of self-interest. Autistic people will be afraid to call me out on my obvious abuses of nonautistic privilege because "beggars can't be choosers" when it comes to allies.

No one expects me to gratefully embrace them as an ally when they tell me that they support an organization that's dedicated to preventing more people like me from being born.

...and then these, about one prominent (or notorious) autistic standing in for all autistics:
People do not assume that NTs all have the same taste in food, books, music, film, television shows and similar.

People do not assume that all NTs have the same views on politics, religion or philosophy.

If a non-NT *does* say that non-NTs (or certain types of non-NTs) are better than NTs, I do not have to explain millions of times that I do not agree with this person. Nor do I have to repeatedly tell everyone that accepting my life as valuable does NOT mean assuming others are inferior.

If I tell someone my neurotype, they will not automatically assume that I must be just like another person of my neurotype that they know.
All of these things --- the need to be extra careful when speaking publicly, both to avoid seeming angry, whiny or irrational and to try to fit as many different issues and perspectives into what you say as you can, because you know you might be the only member of your group many members of the dominant group have ever encountered --- I've seen in just about every other civil-rights movement I know anything about. Some might have more of one tendency than the others --- I don't think women typically get lumped in together as some sort of hivemind --- although you could make a case that feminists do --- but one thing I do see a lot of in mainstream feminism (not so much in radical feminism, which tends to distrust men) is the extra-low standards for male allies. Mainstream feminists are often so overjoyed that a man might be interested in feminism that they're willing to praise him much more for writing, saying or doing something that would be totally unremarkable coming from a woman. The black civil-rights movement seems to have the opposite pattern: white allies do not occupy a privileged spot within their movement, as male allies seem to do in feminism, but society at large does a terrible job of seeing black people as individuals. This, despite the fact that the black civil-rights movement is one of the oldest movements in the U.S., and its leaders have been speaking --- and disagreeing --- publicly for close to a century now!

The last universal I can think of is the invisibility of people belonging to more than one category. Feminism and GLBT activism often act as though only white, able-bodied, neurotypical middle-class women's/queers'/trans people's issues are feminist/queer/trans issues, and, just as often, female, gay, trans or disabled people of color are marginalized (or oppressed --- certainly women within more conservative communities, like immigrant enclaves from patriarchal Muslim countries, are oppressed as immigrants and people of color from without and oppressed as women from within) within their communities, and, though I don't see much of this within the disability-rights movement itself, disabled people are often assumed by society at large (and doctors and caregivers in particular) never to be gay, or trans, or have an otherwise complicated identity. A lot of this is specific to sex- and gender-related stuff, as most non-disabled people think of disabled people as large children, and thus asexual and not concerned with gender identity.

*Another recent post of hers that I liked is this one, of which I was quite forcibly reminded in the comment thread on this post at Sarah's blog. When did feces-smearing become one of the Hallmarks of Actual, Real Autism, anyway?

**I didn't know I was bisexual at first; because my first serious love was a woman, and because I was generally indifferent to men at an age when most people were dating and having sex, I assumed I had to be a lesbian. Of course, later on, after I had been calling myself "lesbian" for some years, and had IDed myself as such to all of my friends, I fell in love with one man, and then another. I'm sure the ol' credibility hasn't been quite the same since then.


The Goldfish said...

Excellent post! I reckon there's quite a lot of overlap with other disabled people with various conditions, but I don't think it matters. As you say, all kinds of prejudice interact and there are always hierarchies, always some of any given group who are considered more or less acceptable for fairly superficial reasons.

Bisexuality can be a bugger like that, and I think it is a common experience for bisexual people to imagine themselves one thing or another to learn otherwise later on (snap!). There are even some gay people who don't take us seriously for this reason.

Anonymous said...

"...First, the various items about needing to suppress one's natural way of moving, speaking or expressing emotion reminded me of the double standard governing women's, and people of color's, public expression of anger. If a man is assertive, a woman doing the same thing will be considered bitchy, shrill or hysterical. Similarly, a person of color speaking up, voicing disagreement, or complaining about being wronged, will be seen as much more aggressive and out of control than a white person doing the same thing would be. Black men, in particular, are always assumed to be violent thugs, even when they're just minding their own business..."

Yeah, good points!

Also, how about when a white person calls a black person a racial slur (see ) or dismisses a black person's complaint about racism (see ) and will be considered to be most likely doing that on purpose and asserting white privilege? Or when a man closely follows a female stranger (see’s-rapist-or-a-guy’s-guide-to-approaching-strange-women-without-being-maced/ ) and will be considered to be most likely doing that on purpose and asserting male privilege?