My first week back in town, I went to pick up my little sister at Target, where she works one shift per week (reminder: my sister has Down Syndrome). She met me in the little cafe area, and she had to do something with her purse (take her wallet out/put it back in), and actions like that always take her a few minutes, because her fine motor skills aren’t the best. And because she’s just a slowpoke.
So I’m watching her, but also looking around, and I see a boy (between 8-10 yrs old) staring at my sister. I’d say this happens fairly often. He didn’t have a look of distaste or curiousity or amusement on his face. He wasn’t obviously saying “What’s wrong with that girl” in his head. He was watching her because she was different. Trying to figure it out, maybe. I have no idea if he knows what Down Syndrome is or not. Sometimes, even people who know what a person has will stare, just because they’re different, and I think that (on some level) it is in our nature to want to figure those things out, whether or not it’s our business (a trans person’s personal history is no business of mine if they don’t want to share it, as long as I know their current preference for pronouns and their name, but that doesn’t stop me from wondering).
I’d say that this is most often what people do with Meg who don’t know her: they stare. Without even realizing they’re doing it. It’s not just kids. And I never know what to do. Do I ignore them? Do I address them? I mean, in a way, it’s such a teachable moment. All they really want is a label. There’s always part of me that wants to say “She has Down Syndrome. She has an extra chromosome. That’s what’s ‘wrong’ with her.” Sometimes, there’s part of me that wants to say, “Can I help you?” and make it clear that I’ve noticed them staring and that I don’t find it polite. But I don’t think I’ve ever said anything. Usually I act like I don’t notice. With this kid, I stared at him staring at my sister until he noticed me, at which point he hurriedly looked away, knowing he’d been caught, and knowing that he shouldn’t have been staring in the first place. It was so on the tip of my tongue to answer his unspoken question, but I didn’t. So it got me thinking…as much as I rant and rave about non-disabled people–especially those who don’t know any disabled people–need to get on the bandwagon and figure out how to be inclusive and how to be allies, I certainly don’t always behave in a way that invites dialogue or questions or curiousity. I sure didn’t make that kid feel like it was okay to ask questions. And he’s a kid. If he’s going to ask questions, I want it to be now, I want him to figure out as early as possible that retarded people exist, they deserve to be treated respectfully and compassionately, and most of all, they’re not lepers. But it’s hard to balance that impulse with the protective impulse that is my default. The one that says that my sister is not your curiousity. That she is not a visual aid or an educational tool, and that there’s a lot of times (particularly when I’m out shopping) that I don’t particularly feel like being an advocate.
One of the things I try to do most often as a queer ally is to explain to people, as quickly and kindly as possible, the basic definitions and when they’ve said something inadvertantly offensive. This is what a trans person is. This is what a drag queen is. This is what a transvestite is. This is what teabagging is. This is why I don’t like it when you call somebody a faggot, and this is why your use of the word is different than Dan Savage’s use of the word. You’ve just called Chaz Bono “she” three times in two minutes, please stop it. Etc. I do that deliberately because I know my queer friends get tired of always being the educator, and would like to simply exist in the world without constantly having to explain their existence. Doing some of the explaining for them (especially since I, as a straight person, often hear things that the speaker would never say to a queer person’s face) relieves a little bit of that burden. And because it doesn’t affect me personally, I don’t find it onerous.
I know a few people who will advocate and educate about not calling people retarded. If I gave a damn about whether or not my sister gets called retarded, I know I would appreciate that particular form of allyship. But I don’t think this kid had any inclination to be verbally abusive or mocking of my sister, so the “retard” question wouldn’t even have been a concern. And probably a lot of this rant just has to do with me not seeing the allyship, rather than it not being there. But sometimes…I get tired of being the educator/protector/ally all the time. I shouldn’t have to talk about chromosomes in Target. That’s all.