Like People I Know

Please note: I am, as you may have gathered, not a person of color.  Therefore, I do not really think that I have any place in talking about these events at all.  POC are, as they should be, leading the conversation.  But I do think that white people have an important role to play in educating other white people and in fighting racism within our own communities and I do think that this is my own blog so, yeah, it is supposed to be a bit self-centered.  However, I also acknowledge that my white background and white privilege may have given me false impressions or ideas that I may convey here accidentally.  Please know that everything here is written out of love and compassion, and I truly do not mean to come across as ignorant, racist, or as anything or anyone but myself.

They look like people I know.

That’s what I can’t get over.  That’s what I keep thinking about.  That is what is keeping me up at night.

  • Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lee Lance
  • Depayne Middleton-
  • Clementa C. Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Daniel Simmons
  • Sharonda Coleman
  • Myra Thompson

They look like William.  Like Janey.  Like my (sadly now-moved-away) minister.  Like people I’ve met at disability-rights groups, people I’ve chatted with at playgroups, sat next to on busses, people I’ve connected with, laughed with, worked with.

Some are beautiful, some are plain, but all are people, all are Americans, and all could be my neighbor across the way.

I’m not going to lie and pretend that I, like most white people, didn’t grow up in a mostly-white town and a mostly-white society.  As far as I know, there has never been a person of color at any of my extended or immediate family’s gatherings. However, as I have grown older, I have realized that this lack of diversity is a deficit in my life, and I have deliberately sought out places and environments where I can enjoy a more varied palette of skin tones, cultures and accents.  I’ve discovered along the way that when a gathering is more diverse in terms of color, culture, sexual orientation, you name it, they are also more diverse in terms of abilities, and they are also more welcoming to my neuro-diverse self.  It is my theory that because POC are used to being judged unfairly, they tend to, as a whole, judge others a bit less harshly, to take a bit more time to see beyond appearances and get to really know a person.

It pains me to admit that, though, however hard I try, the majority of my social circles continue to be a sea of people of European ancestry.  Maybe I am not trying hard enough to be diverse enough?  Or maybe it is the result of my grandparents, and their grandparents before them, deliberately choosing to Other people of color in order to more fully blend in themselves.  At one point, the Irish were not considered white, nor the Italians.  To become white, they had to invent whiteness as a culture and as a race.  To become white, to rise to power, they had to push other groups out of the way, they had to Other them and tell themselves that they deserved it, they really did deserve it, and these other groups didn’t deserve it – whatever It was.  Education, wealth, safety – all of these things white people systematically deny to people of color for absolutely no good reason at all other than their own self-interest.

In recent days, I have come to realize that we in the United States of America are at war.  Nine black churches have been burned.  NINE!  If they were Mormon temples we’d be talking about a war against religion.  If they were Jewish synagogues there would be comparisons to the Nazis.  The mainstream media, however, is disturbingly quiet on these acts of domestic terrorism. Headline in my paper today: the price of eggs.

We in the United States of America are at war within our own borders, and most people do not even know it.  People of color are being persecuted and murdered on a daily basis by a majority-white population that is scared as shit that soon they will no longer be the majority in this country.  Fear causes people to lose control of their emotions.  This I know.  What I don’t know is why losing control of your emotions is seen as a justifiable excuse for executing innocent human beings.  Is their skin color really so scary?  Is their existence really so threatening?

Maybe it is because of my autism, maybe it is because of my own self, I don’t know, but I have never really seen a person’s skin as a deciding factor in whether or not I like or trust them.  I truly believe, however, that autism gives people an advantage in terms of racism, because many of us are simply so incredibly oblivious to social mores and attitudes that we simply do not pick it up.  We simply do not notice color or any other body part enough for it to be what we judge.  How you smell?  Oh, we’ll definitely judge that.  If you haven’t bathed in a week or are doused in chanel du chrap, we’ll notice and dislike you on the spot.  Language does not come easily to us, and our excellent memories mean that the actions of others are forever imprinted on our brains.  If you speak to us in a baby voice because of our autism, if you pat our friend in a wheelchair on the head, if you refuse to listen or accommodate us, we’ll remember that.  If you’re wearing really sparkly, dangly jewelry that begs to be fiddled with, if you have a Great Dane, if you understand the difference between identity-first and person-first language – we’ll remember that, too.  But skin color?  Not that high on a list.

Propragnosia, or face-blindness, affects many people on the spectrum.  We do not interpret or notice faces the way that others do.  I have mild face-blindness, nowhere near as severe as some people I know, but bad enough that there are members of my church I’ve known for years that I still don’t recognize or know the name of.  Yesterday at our local pool I ran into a couple kids I’ve known for years.  Luckily, they knew me, because I certainly didn’t know them, especially out of context.

Oddly enough, I have an easier time distinguishing people of color and remembering their names than I do white people.  Perhaps it is because the majority of my social circles are white, and I simply know more white people, but white men from about 15-100 all look basically the same to me.  They all tend to dress the same, too – jeans or khakis, button-up or t-shirt, flat, dark-colored shoes.  In speech therapy at one point I worked very hard on facial recognition, but I still identify people by their voices as much as their images.  Facebook, actually, is quite helpful in this regard, as it reminds me on a daily basis of what my friends look like.

I believe that I have mentioned this in this blog before, but diverse populations are more welcoming of diversity.  When a group is not homogenous in terms of race, class, gender, or sexual orientation, when a group includes people who has a history of oppression, then they will be able to understand the history of oppression that disabled people have, and they will be more open to neurological differences.  Code-switching, which is when one goes from talking/acting in a certain way to talking/acting in another way, is something many people of color do daily, almost without thinking about it.  I have come to realize that I code-switch, too.  When I’m in the autism or disability community, my body recognizes it as a safe space and so I stop having to make eye contact, regulate my tone of voice, or calm my body down.  I can be free.  I can be myself.

The majority of spaces, however, are not disability-community ones, just as the majority of spaces in this country are not people-of-color ones.  (I’m taking this idea, of black and white spaces, from an essay I read this week which unfortunately I can’t find to cite right now, but I do not want to take credit for the concept.  See bottom of essay for links to more of the idea.)  The church has traditionally been a black space.  It is a safe space.  It is where culture and religion and history and family all combine to form community.

And then some white guy decides that they don’t deserve to have that safe space?  That they don’t deserve to have a simple prayer meeting in peace?

Imagine how the autism community would feel if somebody shot up the ASAN offices.  It is terrifying to think of. It is absolutely abhorrent- who would do such a thing?  Yet that man – I will not say his name – that white man violated the African-American community in just such a way.  He committed terrorism.  He murdered nine people.

And in the time since their murder, nine black churches in the south have burned.  Nine more spaces that are no longer safe.

I don’t know what to say.

How do you fight a war when nobody knows it is going on?

How do you convince people to join your side when they don’t see a conflict to begin with?

How do you deal with the loss of nine people when there are so many others dying, so many other causes, so many other day to day problems that need to be dealt with, today?

I don’t know.

If I believed in heaven, if I believed in God, I could say pithy things like, He works in mysterious ways, or Jesus is listening to our prayers or, They are in a better place.

But I don’t have faith, not like that.  I only have my plain, ordinary, autistic mind, trying to make sense out of things that are beyond human comprehension.

I’m not good with faces, but I’m good enough to know this: they look like people I know.

I hold the hands of the people I know.  I hold their hands, and I do not let go.

More on ‘black space’ and ‘white space’



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