The Bluest Balloon: When Social Justice Fails Our Most Vulnerable
In the eyes of society, not everyone is human. And when people become human, it brings out the worst in some of us.
Back up, back up. Nonhuman people? Turning human? Is this a monster movie or something? I’d better explain.
What’s this human/other stuff?
Let’s go back to my first semester at a ridiculously expensive, insular women’s college. There, we read very thick books until we fell asleep, talked about ideas until our heads spun, and analyzed the inner workings of society.
In a given dynamic of oppression, there are the people who are oppressed, and people who are privileged and viewed as human. Let’s call these groups Human and Other.
- Non-disabled people are Human. Disabled people are Other.
- Straight people are Human. Queer people are Other.
- Men are Human. Women are Other.
- And so on.
People who are Human are seen as real, relatable, with thoughts and feelings worth understanding. They’re well-represented among movie protagonists, CEOs, and people considered important. If they’re a movie villain, they usually have some intriguing backstory, so you can’t hate them that much.
People who are Other might be seen as scary, mysterious, and sometimes deviant. People who are Human have a hard time understanding them. Their issues (like racism or sexism), and sometimes even their mere presence (like trans people who need to pee), are not suitable for innocent Human children. And it’s easy for Humans to forget that Others have feelings. (Ever felt something other than pity or patronizing fake pride for a wheelchair user?)
Yeah, this isn’t a great system.
Can the Other become Human?
Absolutely. Let’s take a look at the 17th and 18th centuries. Do you remember reading about the days of job opening signs with “No Irish Need Apply?”
In the heat of anti-European immigration sentiment in the United States, Irish people used to be Other. Being Irish meant that you lost job opportunities, simply because people didn’t like your origins. Google “Anti-Irish sentiment” and you’ll see old-timey cartoons of Irish people looking like gorillas.
In the 1930s, there came the comic Little Orphan Annie. It was controversial to tell the story of a red-headed, freckled Irish girl who just wanted a family. Irish children weren’t exactly considered valuable back then.
Luckily, we know better now. Ethnic Irish people are considered white, aka Human. When the entire USA celebrates Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone wants to be part Irish. Aside from cruel children’s games like “Kick a Ginger Day” or the mixed opinions on freckles (Hot or Not?), it doesn’t matter much where you come from, as long as you have pale skin.
And in 2014, Annie was re-envisioned as a cute natural-haired Black girl, and the racists whined “Whatever happened to the nice orange-haired Annie?”
So why can becoming Human bring out our worst?
Becoming Human is a long, painful process. And pain can bring out the worst in us.
Human rights aren’t magically bestowed from above, as the perfectly rational and reasonable Humans say “Hmm, yes, it would be ethically good to allow everyone into our exclusive club.”
It’s more of a social war. It takes shouting, protests, marches, sit-ins, hashtags, milk donations to soothe eyes burned with clouds of tear gas. It’s everything from Rosa Parks sitting immobile, to wheelchair users crawling up the steps of legislative buildings, to trans people tweeting #WeJustNeedToPee.
And it hurts. It hurts when Autism Speaks says autistics are burdens to our families. It hurts when people say that black lives don’t matter. It hurts when people say that queer people are better off committing suicide. It hurts when the Humans push the Other back into our/their place.
There’s a lot of pain, when you’re the Other.
And hurting people can turn around and hurt others.
“I’m a high-functioning aspie. My autism enhances my focus, observation skills, and memory. I’m so useful to society, I’m practically superhuman, like Temple Grandin. I’m not like those low-functioning autistics. They need a cure, to save society from the burden of dealing with them.”
“Asexuals aren’t actually LGBT. We don’t need all these weird MOGAI sexualities mucking up our fight for human rights. Stay out of Pride, and go back to your whiny Tumblr blog.”
“I’m not like other girls.”
All of these people are really saying the same thing:
“Look at me; I’m practically Human like all of you. Not like those Others we Humans hate, amirite? Others are losers! I’m cool like you. Notice me. Include me.”
The result? People who are Other feel may unwelcome even in communities for the Other.
I am part of several Other communities:
- Queer (aka MOGAI or LGBTQIAP+)
- Various other disabilities I won’t discuss here
As an aromantic asexual, I’m usually on the short end of the stick when it comes to LGBT+ rights. I’m not in the shortened acronym. I see posts from gay people and lesbians about how I couldn’t possibly be a part of their civil right struggle.
I used to smile whenever I saw queer resources, feeling like people around me had my back. But now I hesitate. I might not be welcome there. Both straight and queer people don’t want me.
Or to compare it to the above picture, I’m the blue balloon, and I’m not sure if the blue-purple balloons will let me join their journey to inclusion in the sunny purple side.
As an autistic person, I’m less severely disabled than a lot of my neurological cousins, since I’ll be able to hold a salaried job and live away from my parents someday. I’m not the bluest balloon in the sky.
You might notice that I never call myself an Aspie.
An Aspergers diagnosis is what most people call “high-functioning,” a term most autistic people abhor, but the world still uses to say “less Other.” My non-use of this word is a very conscious choice.
I don’t want to leave behind the autistics who get called “low-functioning,” the ones who are even more Other. I want to welcome those who can’t speak, those who wear diapers, those with anger issues, those who can’t work, those with low IQs, those whose biggest contribution to the world is the love in their hearts.
My choice to call myself autistic is a mark of solidarity. It is a choice not to separate myself from those who struggle more.
I want to say “I am like you, and I will never forget that.” I want to say “I am not ashamed to have things in common with you, and I value your contributions to my community.” I want to say “Wherever I go, I want you to feel welcome too.”
Obviously, this is a personal choice, and people can say “Aspergers” or “Aspie” while having nothing but love and inclusion in their hearts. My language is my choice for myself. It reminds me not to leave anyone behind.
We need to work together, not tear each other down.
I imagine a world in which everyone is Human. In which we all have equal rights, in which everyone gets a fair chance at everything, and in which needing help is not a disgrace. In which differences are valued and welcomed.
I harbor no illusions about seeing this happen, but I want to work to make our world to be more like the happy one that I imagine. I’m guessing you do too.
Of course, this is all pretty abstract thinking. What are some things we can actually do, today, to work on this?
As an Other:
- Actively include people who look or act “more Other” than you. Welcome people who are more dark-skinned, more disabled, more heavy, et cetera.
- Take good care of yourself. Your body and mind are viewed as lesser. Be subversive by cherishing them. Take a long bath, eat well, and cuddle with a loved one. You deserve to feel good.
- Speak up if you see people excluding those who are “more Other.” Say that’s not cool. Smile at the victim and show that you value what they have to say.
- Don’t over-extend yourself. You won’t be effective if you’re exhausted. Take a break.
As a Human:
- Actively include people who are Other, from slightly Other to completely Other. Smile, reach out, say hi, and show them their opinions are valued and wanted.
- Read and watch media by and about Other people. If you’re a man, pick up a few books written by women, especially those with female protagonists. If you’re white, watch some well-rated Black Interest movies. If you’re non-disabled, read some of the Disability 101 essays we write online.
- Lift up the voices of people who are Other. Hand over the microphone, listen closely, and clap if you like it. Retweet, reblog, and share insightful posts.
- Fight discrimination with disapproval. Your Human voice is valued, so even a “knock it off” or “dude, that’s not cool” holds a lot of power.
- Act like there’s an Other in the room, even if you don’t see any. You’d want them to feel welcome, right? Speak and act in a way that shows it.
See how a lot of these things are pretty casual? You can do this every day. Inclusion doesn’t just mean some pie-in-the-sky, hand-holding-and-singing vision of a world one hundred years from now. It’s in tiny actions we make today.
One act of kindness can brighten someone’s day. Ten acts of kindness is pretty cool. So is a hundred, a thousand, a million.
The more we make, the closer we inch towards a happier world in which everyone is Human.
And to do this, we can’t leave anyone behind.
Want to share this message? Please click the heart to recommend it to others.