Note this maybe a part one of more.
Occasionally I am reminded that people don’t understand me…reminded that I don’t fit the neat categorical boxes…and occasionally I am reminded how uncomfortable that can be for me and other people.
I had the unfortunate experience of this happening to me at the recent UCC Synod in Long Beach, California. I was there as a delegate for the Justice and Witness Ministry of the denomination, the board that I served as the disability ministry liaison to until the denominational structure changed at the end of Synod. As a delegate I was on the floor for discussions, and there were a lot of us, so I tried to minimize my speaking so all who needed to speak may be heard. If you know me, or have read a few of these blogs, you may know that means I found myself at the microphone at least two or three times (in five days to be fair to myself). Once upon returning to my seat I had the following conversation with a man who was also in the Justice and Witness delegation with me, thus he knew me from previous board meetings and who I represented. My inner thoughts, no matter how badly I wanted to say them, will be in italics:
Man: You don’t (snidely) really have a disability, but I think its nice you speak up for people who do.
Me: Excuse me, wh-at? What did you just say? I’m not disabled, or not disabled-enough? Act-u-ally I do have a disability. (I spoke slowly and clearly so he could hear me in the convention hall with 2000 other people, and at the table full of our delegation, and clearly he lacked understanding the type for which I lack diagnostic powers.)
Man: (He leaned in close to me, and if he had been any closer I would have felt his beard hairs brush my face.) No you don’t. (Nodding his head closer to me. This man was in my face!) Well, then what is your disability?
Me: Are you kidding me? I can’t believe I am going to answer that question. But I have to because if I don’t he either thinks I am a fake or a liar, my only choice is to revel my personal medical history. So I gave him the bullet points of my history. I felt like I was unveiling a secret window into my personal and family history–not because I was ashamed but because it was personal and vulnerable and I was surrounded by people in a loud place and practically commanded, not asked, to reveal myself, or else be deemed a fraud. Only in retrospect as I consider the gender, age, and racial power dynamics of this interaction do the connotations of white, male, aged, and able bodied privilege reveal themselves. In retrospect this man becomes more and more a creepy old man.
I quickly looked away and avoided eye contact with him. The business of the evening moved on. I glared. He moved back to his seat at the other end of the table. I watched him and his presence made me uncomfortable the whole rest of the evening. I knew I was upset, I did not want this unjust and unequal type of exchange to color my experience of Synod. I knew he was only one person. But, still, this was church, ALL SHOULD BE WELCOME, INCLUDED, and AFFIRMED. But I felt uncomfortable and unsafe. I seethed. I had trouble focusing on the worship but somehow pulled myself together. I knew if given the chance I needed to ‘lean-into’ this conflict.
At the end of worship and the evening I felt heavy and weighted, and only partly because I was exhausted from the day. Most people left the convention hall quickly. I soon found that myself and this man were among the last at our table. I glared at him. He stepped forward to give me a hug, having been all pumped up by the preacher.
Me: No. I am sorry. I want to be in fellowship and Communion with you, but I am still thinking about our earlier conversation and I am just really hurt.
Man: I understand. (He dropped his arms and started to drop his head.)
Me: I don’t fall for the dejected liberal do-gooder act very well. UMM. No I don’t think you do. To insinuate that I don’t have a disability, or am not disabled enough, when you know that is obviously how I self-identify is not ok. It is a form of bullying. I have to put up with that type of bullying in the world and in the workplace but I’ll be dammed if I am going to put up with it in church! And you did that while wearing your anti-bully scarf so no I don’t think you understand at all!
He but his hands to together as if in respect and walked away out of the hall, as he left I saw him take the anti-bullying scarf off and place it in his bag, that made me feel slightly better. I was very upset and had to find one of my disability peeps to talk to about this.
The next day, Synod debated the anti-bullying resolution that was before us. I spoke from experience about being bullied as a person with disability, and reminded the church, the Synod, that it happens even “here” within the “bar” that separates delegates from the rest of the church; and I asked they vote not to feel good but to change themselves.(The UCC News quoted me.)
One of the staff members saw me the following day and asked about my comment related to being bullied at Synod. Upon my arrival to Synod I had been talking with this staff member, who happens to be African-American, when another (white) delegate came up and asked her if she had “gotten a tan” on vacation; by the time I was mid-way through my double take processing the comment about a “tan” the staff member was so elegantly agreeing that she had gotten a “tan” that I almost believed it was casual conversation. It wasn’t and the staff member brought it up when she asked about my bullying comment. We alluded to having some of the same feelings related to our separate experiences.
So church, think before you speak or ask… Think about the privilege you carry that others may not have. Consider the other, the Thou, the beloved child of God before you speak. Just think before you open your mouth. Could what you are about to say be offensive? Can your curiosity be framed another way? Because, yes, I do have a disability; and yes, maybe she did get a tan. But then maybe, just maybe. ITS NONE OF YOUR DAMMED BUSINESS!