Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some of My Best Friends...

It's interesting, but sometimes claiming friends can be the cherry on top of a big credibility-loss sundae.

Consider the statement that starts "Some of my best friends are..." and ends with the naming of a minority group, generally a minority group which the speaker has just been disrespecting. It's such a cliche that I'm amazed anyone tries to defend themselves anymore with a "some of my best friends are" statement -- but it happens, and publicly too.

One example from the news lately would be John Cook of the State Republican Executive Committee of Texas. He's been leading a charge to replace the Texas state Speaker of the House, Joe Straus -- who is Jewish -- with someone with "Christian conservative" values.

But I'm not a bigot, Cook told a reporter for the Texas Observer.
"They're some of my best friends," he said of Jews, naming two friends of his. "I'm not bigoted at all; I'm not racist."

Uh-huh. No bigotry to see here, folks, let's move on.

I'm also reminded of an incident at a local business a while back, where I got into a casual conversation with the proprietor about the history of the area since the (long ago) founding of his shop. I didn't see it coming, but his reminiscences turned suddenly ugly as he began ranting against the folks he blamed for causing all the problems in our neighborhoods and school system: those gang-banging black low-lifes who'd come up from Chicago to take advantage of our fair city's generosity. As he saw me scrape my jaw off the floor and start to frame a rebuttal, he quickly interrupted himself, "But don't get me wrong, now. Some of my best friends are black!"

Uh-huh. Sure. I'm quite positive I haven't gotten you wrong.

So why am I writing about this on Elvis Sightings?

Because it occurs to me -- I don't think I've ever heard anyone say:

Now, don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are autistic...
I'm no bigot -- some of my best friends are disabled!

Try plugging those "some of my best friend" phrases into Google. Nada, unlike if you plug in Muslim, black, gay, Hispanic, Jewish, Mormon.

Why is that? It isn't as if people don't blame people with disabilities for certain societal ills -- like, for example, supposedly sponging up a disproportionate share of tax-supported resources. Or for "burdening" businesses with onerous accessibility regulations.

Is it that disability isn't a front-page, hot-button issue on the national scene right now? Unlike, say, gay marriage, or building a Muslim cultural center in New York, or electing our first president of African descent, or immigration across our southern border.

Is it that the disability rights movement isn't on people's radar, unlike civil rights or gay rights or women's rights? (I'll freely confess to being awfully ignorant on this score before Joy came along.)

Maybe people without disabilities don't even notice the discrimination? Even -- or especially -- when they're/we're complicit in it?

Does it perhaps not even occur to some folks that having best friends with disabilities... is even possible? (Another confession: my circle of close "meat-space" friends is not nearly as diverse as it might be, and disabilities are one aspect of that lack of diversity.)

Maybe it's a combination of the above, or some other aspect that hasn't occurred to me?

What do you think?

UPDATE 12/20/10: There's a bloggy conversation going on today about a blogger who disparaged comments on her (otherwise quite compassionate) autism-related post, comments from a person with autism and a parent of a child with autism, because she'd "had classes in autism" and doesn't like receiving unsolicited advice. Check out the first comment on this post about the issue for why this may be related...


And, welcome to anyone who came over here from Elvis Sightings' new Facebook page. After all, some of my best friends are on Facebook! (Hmm, something doesn't sound quite right about that...)


Anonymous said...

Hm. The phrase is supposed to lend you extra authority on the topic you've just been discoursing on. If you're not of X group, you're not allowed to talk about X issues, but with X friends you get a pass.

So maybe it's that people feel like they don't even need that kind of cover to talk about people with disabilities or people with autism.

JoyMama said...

So interesting, that it's supposed to lend you authority but depending on whom you're talking to -- can do just the opposite.

I think you may be on to something. Maybe a whole 'nother level of disrespect, that this particular X group would not be deemed worthy of even that poor bit of cover?

Lynn said...

I don't hear alot of people railing against the disabled. I think it's considered a bridge too far even for the type of lunkheads that you describe. But racism just runs way too deep in this country. I think you could break down each of those groups that you mention and the reasons might be different (homosexuality is a choice, right?). If it makes you feel any better, if there was a gay African-American Muslim in a wheelchair...now you'd be talking.

Anonymous said...

Once place where I could see that happening is in the school yard when budget cuts are forcing sports or gifted programs to be reduced but special ed program aren't cut. I know parents have complained (though I've never personally heard it) about the funding that goes to Special Ed. I could hear it now: "Don't get me wrong, some of my son's best friends have autism, but I don't get why they need an aide to help them get their classwork done..."

Or something like that.

This is an imagined scenario because, frankly, how many special needs kids have a best friend who isn't also special in some way?

JoyMama said...

Lynn -- good point about the railing (or not railing) having different "reasons" depending on what group is being discriminated against.

goodfountain -- the budget stuff is where I can most easily imagine the phrase being used, too -- but again, just imagined.

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

I think that the reason you don't hear this about disabled people is that generally, people try to ignore us as though we're not there. We live in a culture stuck on the idea that if you just buy enough stuff, you can stay young and beautiful and happy and healthy forever, and we disabled folks interrupt that myth by our very existence. I think that's much of the reason that disability carries such a huge stigma--one that people do not want to associate themselves with by saying, "Some of my best friends are disabled." Plus, a lot of disabled people are quite isolated from typically able-bodied folk; it's not unusual for people to lose all their friends when they become disabled.

At first, I thought it was just autistics who got ignored, because we put out unexpected social signals and it's just not in most people's comfort zone to get over it and include us. But after reading blog after blog by disabled people, I've realized that it's an experience common to all of us. If you ever read Dave Hingsburger's blog "Rolling Around in My Head," you'll see it come up a lot. Dave is a big guy in a wheelchair, and he's ignored all the time by people who direct all their attention to his typically able-bodied partner.

And, when we don't stay invisible, disabled people do get railed against for taking up too much room, for getting assistance, for not working, for asking for accommodations, and on and on. I know one person whose wheelchair battery died and someone actually laughed at her in the street because she couldn't move. There's a lot of stuff that I thought was beyond the pale that really isn't for an awful lot of people.

JoyMama said...

Hi Rachel -- I was hoping you'd weigh in! Since I'm relatively recently starting to really think about (and from the outside, at that) that which you've both lived and contemplated for lo these many years -- I very much appreciate hearing your perspective. The relationship of disability to our consumerist myths is something that I'd not been considering.

I will have to go visit "Rolling Around in My Head" now!

Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg said...

Thanks, JoyMama. If you ever want to get a good sense of the kinds of issues disabled people face across the board, check out FWD/Feminists with Disabilities For a Way Forward. People with different disabilities face different problems, but some problems are common to all of us. I've learned an incredible amount about what other disabled people go through by reading the posts on that site, and I've become very sensitive to things that I wasn't aware of before.

All the comments are moderated, so it's a pretty safe space. I've had a couple of guest posts there, and the women who run the site went out of their way to make sure the I had a safe and enjoyable experience. And I did! :-)

K- floortime lite mama said...

most interesting post
much to say but not very articulate