Sunday, November 16, 2014

How Starting Interactions Based on Difference is Problematic: A Reflection

You all probably know that I think a lot about privilege and oppression. You probably also know that I think a lot about harassment and intrusions on space. Lately, due to personal experiences, I've been thinking a lot about the sub-conscious nature of these intrusions and their relation to systems of privilege and oppression. So this post will be mostly story time and reflections and we think about how we interact with strangers and why we make the choices we make.

Recently I injured my back and then my foot in rapid succession. The result was that I was walking with a walking boot and crutches and often awkwardly. As a point of reference I tend to dress in a way to be as un-noticeable and/or standoff-ish as possible because I find comments from strangers to be highly unpleasant. This new and obvious difference changed everything though. Because I was now different I was stared at all the time. Additionally strangers felt the need to come up and talk to me about my health and my injury and how I got it. One man walked all the way across an empty field to talk to me about it, while I was sitting by a lake listening to a podcast with earbuds in. All of this seemed very strange to me.

Around this same time, I went home for my nephew's birthday. As a point of reference he is an 11-year-old white male in a relatively conservative small town with a relatively homogeneous population. He and I have a relationship of going for walks and I didn't want to let him down due to my foot so we walked to the extent I was able. What I found interesting was the comfort he felt in taking up auditory space while out on the walk. As an example, he yelled across a busy street at a man complimenting him on his dog. None of his outbursts were intended to be disrespectful, but they made me very uncomfortable and I didn't really know what to do.

It was very eye-opening to see this experience and try to understand it from the perspective of my nephew. He is lonely and wants to connect with his community. I know this because when we go out to eat he tends to know the waitress' name and talk with her as though she is a family friend. He likes to make connections with people but he doesn't necessarily know how or when and he doesn't know that sometimes people don't have that same reciprocal interest.

I realized that in many of the cases of people breaking through and engaging with me about my injury, it was coming from this same core value. A sense of connection. A sense of warding away loneliness. It is a part of humanity that I don't really value or understand but it is widespread enough that it should be considered as a thing that exists. Unfortunately it also has a very dark side to it.

The first thing to note is that when people approached me, I might have been the only person they approached so they didn't see it as a big deal. It was just a single interaction. It isn't like they go up to everyone they meet and pester everyone with questions or whatever. It was just a single time of trying to interact. The problem with that though is they singled me out based on a difference that they felt they could comment on. This results in a disproportionate amount of attention going to me while injured than me while uninjured. The average person will significantly fewer of these interactions. Perhaps if they were evenly distributed it wouldn't be so bad... but they aren't.

In reality people don't roll a die to determine who they will talk to. They talk to someone that they can think of something to say to. This means that there will be some display of a similarity or difference or something that they can comment on. This will result in certain populations getting a disproportionate amount of attention.

At the moment we are still only focused on the folk who are doing this with the best of intentions. The result however is that people with disabilities, people with children, people who are especially attractive or unattractive, and minorities are likely to have way more interactions of this sort than the average person. This constitutes way more of a person's social energy and time than the average person would think that it would when they embark on this intrusion.

The real dark side comes though when you combine that with the systems of privilege and oppression. The sense that women are public property. The sense that parents need advice. The sense that people in religious dress are oppressed. The sense that people of size need advice. All of the senses of racism that run rampant through our culture that I can't even begin to elaborate on and not completely change the topic of this post. And on and on through all of the other societal issues that exist. These issues mean that what would otherwise be just a statistically greater annoyance than average now gains the random possibility that someone is being ignorantly offensive or actively hostile to the mix of other intrusions.

It is these many layers put together that make me so passionate about the topics of street harassment and the concept of space. I still have a lot to work on myself with the space aspect. A big part of that is that due to my autism, I spent way too much time growing up not taking up enough space. Understanding myself and the gifts I can bring to situations really gave me the confidence to start being more truly present. The problem was then that I took up too much space. Space management is something that we all can work on. Making sure that quiet voices are heard. Making sure that we are authentically present but also only taking up our share of the current space.

What do you think?

Are you someone who talks to random strangers? What sorts of interactions do you have? Who do you tend to start these interactions with? Do you notice a pattern?

Do people interact with you or leave you alone? Do you like it that way or wish it was different?

I'm kinda working on a theory that if the well-meaning portion of this has to do with people being lonely, if there is some sort of way we can make these potentially positive interactions more evenly distributed. I'd be interested in hearing any thoughts you have on this front as well.

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