Privilege and the Lack Thereof
By Lisa Macafee
I am reading an amazing book, So you want to talk about race, by Ijeoma Olou. In it, the author talks about microaggressions and privilege. She asks us to think about the ways in which we have privilege and not to highlight the ways we don’t. A better understanding comes from first acknowledging our own comparative advantages.
Ijeoma speaks to microaggressions and the responsibility to apologize if something you’ve said has harmed someone, even if you don’t understand why. Reading this book has got me thinking about all sorts of things. We all have relative advantages and disadvantages. The work I’m doing in LGBTQIA+ organizing draws particular attention to how hard it is to be LGBTQIA+ AND a person of color. My heart aches thinking on the struggles some of my students have told me over the years.
I try to extend my circle of compassion to incorporate folks from different walks from my own and I try to understand the struggles people face that are different from my own. I am flawed. I know I make mistakes. I’m thinking on the people who told me I hurt them in the past and wondering about a better way I can handle situations in the future.
The situation: I had a Black co-worker remove me from her social media because I talked about some of the gang members I worked with. She said I made problematic assumptions but wouldn’t elaborate.
I think she thought I was assuming that they were in gangs because of their clothing. She said that she had never encountered any gang members at the school we both taught at.
This is an example or where privilege and race gets tricky.
We worked with mostly Chicanx students who were poor. She was a middle-class Black woman and presented as such. I am a white lady. When comparing the two of us on paper, I would assume that our most troubled students would go to another person of color who might better be able to understand the challenges that they face. They didn’t. Honors students and other college-bound students often went to her. Some students with significant barriers related to poverty and abuse came to me.
I think this is why.
I openly shared with my students my father’s sexual abuse and neglect as a child and subsequent alcoholism. I told them about the challenges I faced because of my dad’s difficulties - not having a lot of money, dumpster-diving for food as a kid, working full-time while attending college, struggling with teenage drinking and drug use myself. Because I talked about these things with my students, many who struggled in similar ways would come to me.
I didn’t assume my students were in gangs. One nice thing about being autistic is that we don’t tend to assume much of anything. We also don’t tend to judge or huff at people the way many neurotypicals do ("A GANG, oh my"!).
One of my favorite students – highly intelligent, great sense of humor, Asian, good looking, outgoing, and friendly – was in a gang. How do I know this? Because he told me. He told me that the first time he saw it as a real problem was when there was a drive-by at his high school graduation party and his neighbor was shot in the leg. I asked him why he joined. He said it was because his parents worked a lot, his mother was a gambler and never home, and he wanted someone to love him. He could articulate that to me. That he just wanted someone to love him, and the gang offered him that.
Another awesome student told me (in a substance abuse group that I ran after school outside my work duty) that a third student had shot at him in their neighborhood at least four times. I gave statements for a fourth student’s trial. It didn’t seem to help – he was put away for life for gang-related murder. He was the sweetest boy - so quiet and very smart. I have a fifth student, nicest guy, who was also put away for gang related charges, but I don’t think he was in a gang, he just looked like the shooter. I taught with a gang member who got permission from his gang to help the community via teaching.
These students reverberate in my soul to this day. They shaped who I am and my commitment to serving marginalized and historically disadvantaged populations. I love these students.
To be accused of making their status up or assuming they were in gangs because they were Brown horrified me. I am not a victim, just horrified and sad. I can only imagine what assumptions about race that teacher was subjected to. How many microaggressions about her performance in school. How many expressions of shocked delight that she was going to college. How many comments about her being an exception instead of a typical Black student.
Assuming that all people of color are like her is also damaging (I mean really, we shouldn’t be assuming anything). Assuming success doesn’t allow student who need help to get help because then they’re validating stereotypes. Assuming competence doesn’t give students who aren’t feeling it a window to ask for help.
My solution to this was to always be vulnerable. Show students the ways that I struggled and leave that window open. If they are presented with only the successes of the adults in their lives, then they are left to assume that they’re the only ones who live the way they do. That their parent is the only one to struggle, and it’s shameful, and they shouldn’t talk about it. They assume childhood abuse is rare and it must have happened to them because they did something to deserve it.
I never saw anybody like me until 10th grade when I had a weirdo English teacher. That was the first moment I started to believe that I might survive into adulthood. Before that, I just assumed I was a goner because there were no adults like me. This teacher gave me the hope I needed to picture myself as a weirdo adult out there somewhere, like she was.
Representation is so needed and so much harder for students of color with intersecting identities. It’s so much easier for me to find representation for myself as a weird white person that a weird person of color. You might see a weirdo or a person of color, but it’s that much harder to find someone LIKE YOU to see as a role model when you’ve got multiple things going on.
I was close to suicide from age 13 through 28. Really the only thing that stopped me was that my mom had enough challenges in her life and I didn’t want to give her one more thing to be sad about.
I’m 39. I’m just now developing self-esteem. At 36, I decided that I could do more with my life than serve others, that I might be able to do what I want AND help others. Getting diagnosed autistic and finding autistic community has been an important part of that. Now I know that my differences aren’t just me being BAD, they’re just different and there are other people like me and strategies I can use to help with the challenges I have due to being autistic. There are coping mechanisms to be learned, woo-hoo!
I have so much work to do. Both autism and LGBTQIA+ groups are underrepresented by people of color. Does this mean that people of color magically dodge these identities? Probably not. It means that instead of diagnosing kids of color as autistic, teachers and staff assume they are bad kids and engage the school-to-prison pipeline. Are people of color less queer than white folks? Probably not, but it likely means that navigating these two historically discriminated groups at the same time is too much of a cluster and many folks of color navigate as a person of color in the world and stuff their queerness down for safer climates.
Being a person is so hard. Being a person with intersecting marginalized identities is challenging beyond what my brain can comprehend. I want better for us all.
To my once friend, I’m sorry that my comments hurt you. I hope our hearts are big enough for more than one identity. I hope we can, as educational systems, accept and support people of color who have struggles (like poverty, gangs, autism, and LGBTQIA+) without being afraid of stereotype validation.
I will keep trying. I will keep failing. And that’s okay as long as I try harder the next time.
Hello friends! I would like to publish writings from myself and other people with autism as snapshots of how autism has affected them, since there are so many misconceptions and confusions about adults with autism.
Some background: I completed a 12 unit certificate program to be able to serve autistic students and am angry at how the program focused only on little boys as autistic and completely left out adults, the trans autistic population, and girls/ femmes/ women autistics. I am currently pursuing a PsyD to do more research on autism and gender.
Please contact me if you would like to add a story! If so, please send me your piece, publish name, title, and an image (can be a picture related to your content, your picture, an autism meme, etc).
I am interested in publishing this collection, because people don't know enough about us (but sure do assume a lot). Also on Facebook!
Lisa Macafee, autistic counselor with a hankering for social justice.