Disability and Representation

Changing the Cultural Conversation

Does My Presence Offend Your White Able-Bodied Male Privilege?

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I had several errands to run today. I went to CVS to buy some things for the school supplies drive at the bank. Then, I went to the bank to donate the supplies and deposit a couple of checks. And then I had to mail some paperwork at the post office.

All of my errands went smoothly, everyone I spoke with was very friendly, and I was feeling pretty damned wonderful. And then I got hit with a faceful of entitlement on my way out the post office door.

I was about to walk out the door went I saw a man coming directly toward me. He was white, around the same age as I am, and judging from the determination and speed at which he was walking, physically able-bodied. He was also a big man — over six feet tall and strong. From the way he was walking toward me, it was clear that he assumed that I was just going to get out of his way.

Please bear in mind he was looking at a woman who is 5’1″ and uses a bright red cane. The only way he could have missed either of these things is if he were walking toward me backwards. Which he wasn’t.

Because I am a courteous person, and because I tend to take the long way around people with a lot of attitude, and because it used to be possible for me to make sudden quick movements without risking injury, it’s been my habit to move aside for people like him. But in this case, I instinctively knew that if I tried to get out of his way as quickly as I needed to, I was either going to stumble or I was going to twist myself the wrong way and injure my hip again.

So I just stopped for a moment, made clear my intention to keep going along the same trajectory, and said, “Excuse me.” I figured that he wouldn’t be such a total jerk as to run right into me. And he didn’t. Instead, he audibly sighed, stared me down with a look of utter disgust on his face, shook his head as though I had just committed some sort of unthinkable breach of social ethics, and went around me.

I turned around to look at him, and as he walked away, he was still shaking his head as if to say, “What is the world coming to when an able-bodied white man can’t expect people to get out of his way?”

I was just shocked. I find that I lose my ability to speak in these moments — not because I have nothing to say, but because I am an inveterate problem solver and I know straightaway when problem solving is out of the question. This was one of those moments. The level of privilege that came at me was extreme. He really assumed that the space I was standing in was his, and he didn’t stop for a moment to think, “Wow, that lady is using a cane. Perhaps she might have difficulty moving out of the way. Perhaps she is in pain. I will be gracious and go around her.” Oh, no. God forbid.

As I stood there feeling a combination of powerlessness, shock, anger, and sadness, I realized that I had to say something. Anything. It almost didn’t matter what it was. I was hoping to say something that felt powerful, but all I could do was to shout after him:

WHATEVER.

Oh, God. So not good enough. I mean, it’s okay in a pinch, but I’d like to figure out some brief and effective way to say, “Excuse me, white able-bodied dude. I know you’re not accustomed to the idea that other people have the same right to space as you do, but on most planets THIS BRIGHT RED CANE is a signal that YOU SHOULD BE THE ONE TO MOVE.”

I’m open to suggestions.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg

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    9 comments already | Leave your own comment

  1. 7/11/2013 | 4:18 pm Permalink

    I always assume that ppl using mobility devices own the space and that I’m automatically in *their* way, because either they need more space to get by or they have more built in inconvenience of moving elsewhere. Which leads to me saying “sorry” if I even think I’ve delayed a person by not letting them have the whole space they need. Which apparently is rude (i read so on another disability rights blog but never quite understood why).

    No idea what you should have said to the guy. Maybe get 2 canes, one for whacking his ilk over the head with.

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  2. 7/11/2013 | 6:16 pm Permalink

    This post made me think of one I’ve seen several times on tumblr:

    http://bonnienoire.tumblr.com/post/47136484422/penjolina-piddlebucket-randomstabbing

    I find it so so hard to NOT get out of the way for (apparently) white cis guys, and some days I don’t have the guts to try to take up my own space and make THEM move. But ever since I became consciously aware that this happens, I do try.

    Go Mom for not moving and hurting yourself!!! That jerk needs people to move out of the way for him less often.

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  3. 7/11/2013 | 7:15 pm Permalink

    “Excuse me, I’m disabled. I go around you and I will fall on you. Please go around me.”
    Nice, succinct, polite.

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  4. 7/15/2013 | 11:16 pm Permalink

    I experienced something similar in my pregnancies with my 2 youngest. After having 2 children in my 20s, I got remarried and had 2 more kids when I was 40+. I am also plus-size. People would actually try to squeeze by me, pushing me out of their way in a store, I suppose thinking that someone 40+ and large could not possibly be (gasp) pregnant! And I totally “get” the disability issues here, too. I have a lot of disabling conditions from FM to lupus to foot problems to auditory processing, and the list goes on. There are lots of things people “expect” me to be able to do with two young children in tow (now ages 8 and 4). Just wanted to bring up the pregnancy story to show the correlation.

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  5. 7/16/2013 | 12:43 am Permalink

    I can’t imagine how truly HARD it is to be disabled – I can’t even get out of bed with a bad back from PMS – but this article truly re-opened my eyes about my own bad behavior. I am forever complaining about other people’s bad manners, especially healthy people parking in handicap spots. And yet, I know for sure in a fit of frustration or anger that I have stormed out of the DMV or wherever, frustrated, hurried and never even looking or thinking who I just cut off, banged into or blew away with my rudeness and ignorance. It’s pretty hypocritical I know. At 51, I should know better. Thanks for the reminder to be a better human.

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  6. 7/16/2013 | 2:00 pm Permalink

    In today’s world manners certainly seemed to have fallen by the wayside. I am sorry that you had to stand your ground and I’m glad you did.

    I do take some exception though to your description as to what that man had been thinking in his mind, you wrote “What is the world coming to when an able-bodied white man can’t expect people to get out of his way”. Why in the world did you have to put “white” in there? I have come in contact with many rude people in public of ALL colors, ethnicity,religion, etc. Color OR lack there of certainly does not designate someone as rude, aggressive, nice or courteous.

    I feel you had no reason to go THERE and I certainly wish everyone would stop going THERE. The less we see people by their skin color and more we seen them as fellow human beings, the better everyone will get along.

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    • 7/16/2013 | 2:52 pm Permalink

      Alexia, you ask a good question. My point was not that only white men engage in these kinds of microaggressions. My point was that, in this instance, the man’s racial, ability, and gender privileges were all working together to make him feel that he had the authority to occupy that space. There was an authority about his demeanor that was a taken-for-granted kind of authority; it felt very different from a person of color taking the same authority over the space. The attitude of authority that comes from oppressed people usually feels hard won; it does not feel as though they grew up believing the world was simply going to open to them. The kind of authority that comes from non-oppressed people feels nearly effortless, as though they were born into it and take it to be part of the natural course of things. I have that kind of authority as a white person; it’s somewhat undercut by my gender and ability status, but it’s still there. I assume that I’m *supposed* to have authority. Part of the crisis of being diagnosed with disabilities was my sudden realization that I was losing part of that authority by entering a stigmatized group. I can never lose it all, however.

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