Occupying the Spectrum

20 Nov

This is a beautiful, thoughtful piece about privilege. Reposting with permission from the author. Please visit the blog (and view the original post) at Occupying the Spectrum.

What It Takes

“Adjust your own mask before assisting others. Adjust your own mask before assisting others.” I repeated the warning to myself like a mantra. See, I’d been perseverating since I left the General Assembly at 4:30 with a blinding, screaming migraine. The migraine was because aside from the Doubleshot I gulped that morning, I had forgotten to eat or drink. I do that. Anyway, I’d been perseverating. For those of you who aren’t intimately familiar with the peculiarities of the autism spectrum, we can use the more familiar “obsessing.” I couldn’t stop feeling guilty and ashamed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I was walking away from, how so many of them were risking arrest and violence, and how no matter what I tell myself, I probably won’t be able to stay through the night even once at the encampment.

I simply don’t have what it takes.

What I do have is severe social anxiety. What I do have are communication issues that make me struggle to carry on “normal” conversations in person without a defined script. What I do have is a sensory processing problem that makes loud noise intolerable; under stress, even the sound of human voices becomes unbearable.

For me, Bruin Walk is a gauntlet – huge numbers of people trying to communicate with me, make eye contact, touch me, shove things into my hands, ask me questions. For me, sticking around for a whole class is sometimes a major achievement. For me, a protest is meltdown central – crowds, shouting, chanting, socializing, emotion, words, conflict…

I know all this about myself. But you, fellow protesters and interested bystanders, you don’t know it about me. You don’t know that when I was at the rally in front of Kerckhoff, I began to shake so uncontrollably that my pictures turned out blurry. You don’t know why I had my iPod on and my hands over my ears – not because I didn’t want to hear you speak – I desperately wanted to know what you had to say, but the noise of that crowd was excruciating. You don’t know that I had to sit on the ground at the back of the crowd and rock because I couldn’t bear to leave but I couldn’t cope with the sensory overload. You don’t know that when a fellow occupier at GA asked us to text our friends, I couldn’t think of a single person, because I have been here for months and I still only have classmates (whom I regard warmly but don’t know all that well). You don’t know that when someone suggested small friend groups within the Occupation, I began to panic, suddenly felt out of my depth. You don’t know that as soon as I got home, I fell asleep, and I couldn’t function for the rest of the night because I had been so mentally and emotionally exhausted just by four hours of protest.

But I was there. I took pictures, I thought, I helped with People’s Mic, I even spoke a couple of times. (Abruptly and painfully, but I’ll take what I can get.) I was there because I have the privilege of being there – as difficult as it was for me, it was not impossible, as it is for some. I was there because this movement, this moment, is life or death. Sure, I may have to walk away – over and over – guilty and frustrated – but I’ll keep coming back. I’ll give what I can.

I’m talking about this for a few reasons. First, I want people to know that we are not, as one spectacularly insensitive person claimed on Facebook, just “chilling in Wilson Plaza” because we “have nothing better to do.” I want people to know just how offensive it is to characterize us as lazy miscreants. For this, I think it’s important for us to share our struggle – to publicize our pain – to make it inescapably obvious that for many of us, just being at a protest is hard work, is itself a sacrifice.

Second, I want to shed more light on an issue that’s at the forefront for a lot of us interested in social justice: privilege. Usually that’s a word with negative connotations – it goes hand in hand with marginalization. “Speaking from privilege” denotes a kind of ignorance, an insensitivity that lifts you up at the expense of others. But in this strange situation, we end up with people saying things like “I don’t have the privilege of being arrested,” because being arrested is a privilege relative to being arrested and then deported. Those of us who are able to be at this university, those of us who can take part in this protest, have privilege of various kinds, and it is beautiful and positive to me to see people using that privilege to sacrifice what they can, to dismantle the system that upholds it. But I want us to be mindful that for any given action, there are people who don’t have what it takes, and sometimes the thing they’re lacking isn’t commitment or courage. Sometimes, “what it takes” is itself a kind of privilege.

Third, for my own safety and comfort within the movement, I want to give some insight into some of the different ways in which ASD and other disability might affect protesters at an Occupation. (That’s the purpose of this blog.) I want people to understand that if a person is, for instance, sitting on the ground rocking with her hands over her ears, she might simply be in shutdown from sensory overload, in which case it might be helpful to prompt her to go someplace quiet. (Use caution, though, and try not to be condescending about it.) Also, there is a sad history of police violence and discrimination against people on the autism spectrum, who are seen to be “acting suspiciously” just by being themselves.* While I’m privileged in that I “pass” well enough to slip under their radar, things happen, and others might not be so lucky. I may not, for instance, be able to coherently answer police questions or immediately follow directions, especially in a situation of sensory overstimulation. I plan to take responsibility for this as best I can by monitoring my internal state especially in these sensitive situations, but I want people to be aware that this is a possibility, and other protesters might have similar issues that they are not able to control as easily.

Finally, I want to both reassure and challenge those people who haven’t come out to join us yet. I know you have reasons for not being there, and some of them are very powerful reasons, and I respect that. Adjust your own mask before assisting others. But I want to challenge you to give what you can. Even if you feel like it’s not enough, even if you’ll have to walk away, anything you can do counts. You can learn about the issues from the safety of your home, and even that will be something. Don’t think in terms of why and how you don’t have what it takes – think of what you do have to offer this movement. Then offer it. That’s what I’m doing.

*A note on the links: Some of the language of disability included in these links is problematic. Also, it is powerfully evident that race played a major role in some of these instances of police brutality; they are situated at the intersection of race- and ability-based oppression. My racial privilege means that I cannot speak to these issues as knowledgeably as disabled POC can, but I will make an effort to include those perspectives in the future, if only by linking to them.

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