As an activist for autism rights, I’ve received lots of support for what I believe in – that autistic people have the right to have their voices heard and to make their own choices if they are capable of doing so. These autism rights allies have cheered me on, told me not to give up fighting and acknowledged the bad experiences they’ve heard about autistic people going through with abuse, discrimination, etc. However, I’ve also had people accuse me of being “anti-parent”, “bitter” or “negative”, claim surveys of autistic people’s experiences of abuse are “flawed” and demand proof that abuse is happening. This is a cruel, insensitive way to dismiss the suffering of a group of people who are already marginalised and largely invisible in mainstream society, and denies their rights as human beings.
Sure, we’ve all heard the protests every time marginalised and oppressed people fight to have their voices heard – “Not all men”, “Not all white people”, “Not all non-LGBTQ+”, etc. Not to mention the howls of “That’s so hateful against white people,” “Feminists want to destroy men,” “LGBTQ+ people are anti-Christian” and “Disability rights are anti-parent and caregiver.” Then there are the constant protests of “rights to free speech” whenever vulnerable people speak about being threatened or called offensive names.
These are classic examples of privileged fragility – white fragility, male fragility, neurotypical fragility, etc. People who show these kinds of behaviours either feel threatened by the voices of minority and marginalised groups or they want to make human rights issues all about themselves. They often can’t handle having their privilege taken away from them, and will do anything in their power to silence vulnerable people, often being careful about the words they use when they do it. That is how they often manage to fly under the radar without facing any consequences for their actions, especially online, where they’re careful not to violate hateful conduct policies. Also, when a victim-blaming culture exists so strongly in our society, everyone always sympathises with perpetrators. For heaven’s sake, it shouldn’t be that hard to respect people who are different to you.
Still don’t understand what I’m on about? Let me make this straight – white people don’t get hounded with offensive questions about their race or culture, for example, “Are you from China?”, “Where are you really from?” or “Surely you’ve been to wherever your ancestors came from?”, and can easily walk into shops without staff suspecting them of being potential shoplifters. Men don’t get lectured about keeping safe from sexual predators and can express anger without people calling them “bitches” or assuming it’s “that time of the month”. Non-disabled people don’t have to put up with being infantilised, patronised or people taking away their freedom of choice under the guise of “helping” them. Heterosexual people don’t get subjected to invasive questions about how they’ll have children, or preached at for being “wrong” or “possessed by the devil”. Cisgender people never get asked what their private parts look like or have online or public hate campaigns carried out against them. If none of these things have happened to you, you have no right to invalidate or deny others’ experiences, demand these people show “proof” of their experiences or make their issues all about you.
A strong example of privileged fragility I have come across recently is a letter to our local newspaper about how the protesters against Posy Parker were being “hateful”. This is blatant cisgender fragility. The person who wrote the letter should take a look in the mirror – who is really being “hateful” here? It is extremely cold-hearted to accuse discrimination and hate crime victims of being the “real” perpetrators. This only crushes their self-worth, destroys their trust in others and can make them hate privileged people in return. Hate is an ugly cycle that manifests like a hideous dark cloud in society and can only be defeated when privileged people actually face consequences for their attitudes.
But it is possible to let go of unearned privileges and get over this kind of attitude. Take a look at Vic Tamati, founder of SafeMan SafeFamily. His male privilege often got the better of him in the past due to his upbringing and he hurt female members of his family, but he learned violence against women is not OK and is now using his story to help others in similar situations. Another example is Thomas DeWolf, co-author of the book Gather at the Table and a white US man descended directly from slave owners. As a boy, he grew up unaware of his privileges and only learned of his family history in his teenage years at a major family gathering. His co-author, Sharon Morgan, is a black woman descended directly from slaves and at one point she claimed his face morphed into every white person who’d oppressed and discriminated against her. Of course, he initially found that comment “offensive” and “unfair”, but later accepted the truth – his face, being white, male, heterosexual, cisgender, non-disabled, Christian and middle-class, does represent the wider face of oppression. He and his co-author are still strong friends to this day.
It’s pretty clear many people who are privileged because of their race, gender, etc can’t handle people they see as lower-class in society having equal rights to them, or having any power. They are clearly unable to put themselves in marginalised people’s shoes and understand how it feels to be constantly mistreated and discriminated against because of something they can’t change, or be accused of being a “burden of society”. It is time to listen to voices that keep being silenced and learn to let go of privileges you haven’t earned. If you wouldn’t like others trying to silence you and making your issues all about themselves, don’t do it to them. It’s as simple as that.