Most of my career as an advocate for people who are homeless, low-income, disabled, etc., I’ve been taught to do what I did in this sentence when referring to people in conversation. Use “people first” language. It’s the idea that you recognize a person’s humanity first, and their condition second. Rhonda is not a “homeless person” – it’s not like having red hair, it’s not a naturally occurring part of the human condition – she is a person, who is without a home at the moment. So you would say “Rhonda is a person who is homeless” instead of “Rhonda is a homeless person.”
Through my studies in the realm of urban planning, I’ve looked at spacial relationships in neighborhoods and developed a subconscious way of looking at the built environment where I consider accessibility, and a myriad of other factors, when I’m walking down a sidewalk. Generally, my approach is to discern whether a space is inviting and welcoming for anybody that might want to use it, and to figure out how to upgrade that space to make it more open to the community.
I recently came upon this article and it immediately struck me because it challenged that People First philosophy I’d been indoctrinated in. The author, Lisa Egan, a disability rights activist, states, “I am disabled. More specifically, I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way.”
I find this fascinating not because it’s a semantic challenge to the way I’ve been taught to refer to people, in fact the article didn’t convince me at all to stop using people first language. The thing that got me thinking was the idea presented by Lisa that society has disabled her by not being considerate of people with mobility impairments.
In Downtown Olympia, WA we have some of the worst sidewalks I’ve seen in a downtown area. With the exception of sections around newer developments, you can’t continuously travel down any block without coming upon cracks or buckles in the sidewalk, not to mention street trees, parking meters, store signs, displays etc. All creating an obstacle course for an individual in a wheelchair. Try to imagine how that must feel to a person. I imagine it feels frustrating, at the very least, to have to navigate through that or travel far out of your way to get to your destination. It also must feel like you’ve been forgotten by the local government that hasn’t made it a priority to ensure that you can travel conveniently and safely through your own city. Add to this the fact that our cities don’t really budget for sidewalk improvements, but just kind of passively wait for developments or scheduled maintenance of other utilities to trigger upgrades. Thus we have decades old streets and sidewalks, all patched together over the years. It looks like nobody cares, and to a person with a mobility impairment, it probably feels that way also.
Anytime I hear a label placed on someone, it gives me pause. I always wonder, “why is it important to apply that label?” What purpose does that label serve?
“I saw this black guy….”
If the end of that sentence is, “…juggling in the park.” Then I have to wonder, why is the fact that the man was black important or relevant to the fact that you saw someone juggling?
Lisa’s article got me thinking more and more about the labels we use and the impact they have on people. It got me thinking about the way labels have evolved over the years. We say “people of color” today, but that’s just an evolved way of referring to black people that started with the word nigger. “People of color” itself is a direct derivative of “colored people” a term that is today considered offensive. Am I being overly idealistic if I express that I long for the day when we can eliminate casual references to skin color when we refer to one another? I understand the need to collect data and that collecting demographic information from people can lead to better and more efficient services being provided and money being allocated to the areas of greatest need. So I get the need to create categories for that purpose. But why do we keep doing it in everyday conversation?
When I started thinking about it in terms of race, knowing that race is a construct invented and used to divide people and especially to differentiate them from people of power a.k.a. rich whites, and knowing the way people of color are treated in our society, I started thinking about the point Egan made about society disabling her. We switched from colored person to person of color, but isn’t that the same as what Egan is saying about disability? Both of them switch the burden to the person and away from the system. Race is an arbitrary societal construct used to marginalize and oppress, created by people in positions of power. People aren’t “of color” – they were colored – by a society and a culture that wanted to separate and divide people. Just as society disables Lisa Egan by not providing her and others with mobility issues the means to live the same quality-of-life as anybody else, we stifle black folks too. We’ve prevented them from achieving the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that we hold so dear by assigning them an inferior designation. From the beginning, we called them savages and treated them like animals and created a mystique that prevails to this day – yesterday’s savage is today’s thug. This is why white America can watch black people being killed by police, or live in third world conditions in our inner cities and still sleep like babies at night. If as a society, we really did believe that we’re all equal, we would have ended this madness long ago.
We’ve Got To Stop It
In 1957, when we were all living in a white wonderland and everything was Leave It To Beaveriffic, we used to physically prevent black people from using portions of the built environment. That became gauche – but only because enough people were beaten and/or killed on TV that blatant, overt manifestations of white supremacy couldn’t be ignored anymore by politicians, clergy, and by the moderate whites who joined the struggle out of sympathy. Some rights were eventually secured, and we’re better off for it, no doubt. But sympathy isn’t equality. Sympathy is a hierarchical device. While we as a nation rallied around the civil rights movement, we never broke the separation, both spiritual and physical, that the construct of race instilled in our culture. Today, we like to think we’ve progressed as a society and have started to transcend race, and I think we’re deluded. How can we read the news everyday of police brutality, rampant drugs, poverty and violence in black neighborhoods, combined with little to no opportunity for upward mobility, aka The American Dream, and then turn around and talk about progress in a way that makes it seem like we’ve almost got this problem solved?
We have a lot of work to do as a society. Step one: admit there is a problem. I’m not talking about segregation, income inequality, police brutality, the new Jim Crow, or any one specific issue. The problem we have and need to fess up to is that every single white person, whether we like it or not, perpetuates racism and white supremacy through prejudice and implicit bias that has been transmitted over generations. Some of us are confederate flag waving racists who are proud of it and wear it like a badge of honor. Most of us see those people and write them off as relics, and proffer an ‘ignore them and they’ll go away’ approach of dealing with them. Well we can’t ignore it anymore. Every single white person who claims to be at all liberated should be there to shout them down. Yet we don’t show up. We don’t show up any time racism rears its head, and especially in its more surreptitious manifestations. The racist joke, the hate crime, the hiring panel – we remain silent, because it’s easy, because nobody expects otherwise.
I think people choose to ignore it out of fear. We’re terrified of what we might find inside of ourselves if we look too hard at racism and our society. There is a darkness there that we continue to swallow because it’s too painful to let it out. There is shame, guilt, and complicity – so we deny, deny, deny. We want to think of ourselves as above it, as better people than that, as somehow separated from the problem. We’re not above it. We ARE the problem. We allow it to happen. The deaths, the imprisonment, the poverty, all of it. That’s on us.