Wednesday, August 19, 2009

"Blinded by privileged": ableist language in critical discourse

One phrase that I and other bloggers use frequently to describe missteps caused by privilege is "blinded by privilege." Many bloggers that I intensely respect and admire have used this phrasing, and I have myself:

From my post on the thin-fat binary:
"And while I've embraced wearing clothes that fit and being an occasional 16, I still benefit from thin privilege, and I'm still blinded by it."
From my post on Jessica Simpson:
Her privilege blinded her, and she made that remark borne of ignorance of how racially loaded that term is.
Why is it necessary to describe racist, sizist, sexist mishaps of language with a term used to describe a disability?

I understand that it's an evocative word that brings to mind exactly what one tries to evoke when talking about the spots that our privilege has prevented us from perceiving. But using "blindness" to describe the oppression that we unknowingly inflict on people is othering and stigmatizing and ultimately able-ist.

Using the term "blindness" to reflect mishaps of privilege is a way to further ingrain the oppression of those with little or no sight. By constructing the disablity of blindness as something that an ignorant person needs to educate themselves about, that someone needs to overcome, it minimizes the permanence of lack of sight and turns it into a fault, a flaw. It's also constructing blindness as something that needs to be fixed, as something that leads to misery and inflicted hurt, rather than part of a full and happy life. It's even more problematic when the "privilege-blindness" is constructed as willful - putting one's blinders on to avoid looking at uncomfortable truths. This supposes that the disability of blindness is somehow false or temporary.

This may seem as if I'm somehow overly concerned with minutiae, but it's necessary to be careful about my language when I'm discussing how to end or mitigate oppression. "Lame" and "retard" have become thoroughly unacceptable in progressive discourse, but we are turning another word into a slur by saying that being "blind" is a status to be avoided, something that will hurt others. Blind has been turned from a word describing disabilities into a pejorative attacking ignorance. It's made being blind synonymous with stupidity and having sight synonymous with truth.

When I say that I must open my eyes to oppression, I must see my own racism, I must stop being blinded by my cis privilege, what am I saying about the people who are literally blind? Are they included in the discussion of working towards a better world, or does their blindness prevent them from truly seeing oppression? Why are my views on oppression and racism and sexism insights?

The stigmatization of blindness has very real consequences that significantly impair and impact the blind community. As Alena recently wrote:
Have you ever noticed that calling someone blind is like calling them a four letter word? It's like being blind is so bad that we have to cover it up by calling people visually impaired or low vision because that is some how better than being called blind....I bring this up, because as I mentioned in an earlier post, braille literacy amongst blind children in the U.S. is only 10%. I feel, and many people probably agree that one of the reasons why literacy is so low is because parents, teachers, and school administrators don't want to label a child as "blind" if they have any vision. Everyone knows that only totally blind children need to learn how to read braille, right? Wrong.
I try to be very, very careful with language. I would guess that at least a quarter of my substantive analytical posts have to do with using language carefully and trying not to hurt people with it and my unearned privilege - of size, race, or cis-ness. Ableism is an especially obscuring privilege that I need to work hard to overcome, and the more careful I can be, the better. And there are other ways to say that you've messed up, that you missed something that you didn't notice before: obscure, block, hide, suppress.

Is this hard? Yes. The language of sight is everywhere in discussing our understanding - insights, being able to see someone's point, etc. And I'm not totally sure that "to see" meaning "to understand" is necessarily privileging sight to the degree that "blinded by privilege" is - it seems that "see" is something that blind people are understood to be able to do, in the sense of understanding.

"See" may very well be problematic, but it's an ingrained and widely used word that needs a larger discussion than just this. But "blinded by privilege" is a construction used frequently in an anti-oppression, critical context, and it wields problematized disabilities to describe other issues. It's oppressive language deployed specifically in the context of a fight against that very scheme of oppression. "Blinded by privilege" turns a description of a disability and actively turns it into a slur.

In discussion of "blind" as ableist language in another context, Shelley said in a well-received comment at Feminist Philosophers:
What is actually going on is that blindness is being metaphorically equated with not knowing, with not having knowledge, or not having knowledge of something: blindness is not knowing, blindness is ignorance, blind people cannot be knowers.
In response, Roy over at "No Cookies for Me" drew a comparison to left-handedness:
It got me thinking about the use of the term "right" to mean "opposite of left" as well as "correct." Couldn't someone who is left-handed reason that "left" equals "wrong"?
But it's not the same thing. Being left-handed no longer carries a significant stigma (I could be wrong about this, being right-handed myself). Even if there is a stigma, it's nowhere near the very clear and present stigma attached to blindness.

By using language referring to a disability to denigrate the oppression of others, I am enacting linguistic oppression and hatred. As a person with sight, I am going to completely discontinue the use of a phrase that alienates and others an entire group of people.

Thanks to Allison McCarthy for her help in editing!


  1. I think that it really does come back to the sighted-centric (and ultimately ableist) cultural elements in our language.

    The fact that insight and "seeing one's point" relate to concepts and not actual physical sight don't really change the fact that the words are built linguistically around the concept of sight as a means of knowing. So many people (myself included) subconsciously create a direct association between the capacity to comprehend and know to the capacity to see. So much so that many of us can't imagine functioning while blind. Yet blind people do function and function well.

    Ultimately the capacity to comprehend, to know and to understand isn't tied to sight and it would likely help solve problems like to this to work to directly address the root problem.

    Some ways to avoid problematic usage like that is to use non sight based comprehension terms.

    Privilege hides. Privilege obfuscates. Privilege robs us of awareness. Things like that aren't tied to sight and achieve the same aim. "Do you get my point" instead of "do you see my point."

    It's something I have to work on too. XD

  2. To be fair, the original usage of the word blind was to describe a state of uncertainty.

    The problem should be to whomever decided to use that term to describe the visually impaired, not the people (like yourself) who use use the word for it's intended meaning.

    I do agree, though, that much of our language surrounding knowledge and insight is connected linguistically to the physical ability to see with ones eyes.

    Very interesting post.

  3. Sarah, an excellent point, and that may undercut my whole argument. However, as it operates w/r/t my argument: as meanings evolve to mean certain things, they are eventually understood to mean one thing above others, and blindness is understood as primarily describing a disability.

  4. @Sarah, and "auspicious" used to mean "looking at birds," but if I tried to call that it's "intended meaning" in modern language & culture, I'd be rightly laughed at.

    Shift happens. And we, users-of-language, are both the agents and the recipients of linguistic shift. Given that, I think it's very useful & important for us to actively disambiguate, here, because the entanglement of the two meanings of the term "blind" hurts an already-underprivileged group in exactly the ways this post describes.

  5. I think this is hugely interesting point. I might suggest that, rather than using 'blinded by privilege' the phrase might grow into 'blinkered by privilege'. To be blinkered is to have a limited and subjective viewpoint or perception. It doesn't altogether do away with the linking of vision and recognition, but it might help avoid any stigmatization of blindness.

  6. Hellfire, that's a terrific phrase! Thanks for sharing!

  7. I see your point about left-handed-ness not still bearing that stigma (although as a lefty, I will point out that the world is largely designed for right handed people: lefthanded desks, scissors and -- particularly irritating to me -- pens attached to credit card swipers or counters at banks are hard if not impossible to find), but I do agree with the analogy for this reason:

    Saying "I was blinded by my privilege" is drawing a comparison between the inability to see and the inability to see, that is, understand, one's point. It isn't implying actual blindness, nor saying that a blind person would suffer from the same problem.

    Similarly, the commenter was saying, the linguistic term "right" probably is derived from the opposite of the associations of "left". Since at one point, left (see also sinister) DID connotate evil, untrustworthy, and evil demonic forces, left-handed children were abused out of their abilities (my great-grandfather was hit with a metal ruler in school until he learned to write with his right hand) and things like "right-hand man" not only were literal descriptors but implications about the nature of the friend, the word "right" DOES refer to a group of othered people.

    Although saying something is "right" now doesn't imply that it is not left, saying you are blinded by something doesn't directly imply (unlike the word retarded, which is a direct correlation between intelligence, neurotypicality and a lack thereof: "that's retarded") that a blind person would be "blinded" as well.

    While I agree with you that one must be careful about othering language - and I could certainly understand if someone with vision impairment was offended -- I do think the analogy stands.

    The one problem I find in all of this is that the word "see", (which by virtue of being the opposite of the word "blind", is probably also discriminatory) has been recorded as meaning variants of "to understand" as early as 1200 and basically as early as it meant anything else in the language.

    Should we not be saying "I see" because that might exclude the vision impaired? It's a really difficult argument to make.

    (Note, while I'm at the OED, blind may actually out-date "see" in recorded history - its date is 1000, both metaphorically and literally for a lack of perception.)

    Unlike "retarded", which is an outdated and fairly recent (linguistically) term, or "lame" which is relatively recent, and slang, in its "that's lame" use, to say "I see" or "blind" is EXTREMELY old and I think it makes the case a little more difficult.

    I don't know. And this comment is terrifically long. But I think it is a little harder to change the language when it's something that's been around for hundreds of years.

  8. It's really not that I don't understand...yes, I know language shifts and that 'blind' has taken on other meanings. I get that. My point is that I don't think we should define the visually impairied as blind because it is derrogatory in and of itself.

    We should be changing the word not the meaning, KWIM?

    It's kind of the same as the word "queer" for me. I have a hard time calling people who identify as such, 'queer' because I feel the association between the word and it's new meaning to be derogatory.

    What it all comes down to is the complexity of language and where you want to put your focus. On one side there are the people who would rather reclaim 'blind' as a word to describe the disabled and on the other side are those of us who think it's wrong to call disabled people such a word.

  9. Sarah, this question does not hinge on whether people with vision-related disability wish to claim the word "blind." Whether "blind" is more-generally used as an ableist slur (like "lame") or whether it's being claimed by people as a self-descriptive term (like "gay"), it's potentially problematic to use it as a metaphor to indicate something the speaker believes to be bad. For words that are associated with oppressed groups, it is inappropriate to use them pejoratively.

    Hellfire, I *love* "blinkered."

  10. Cheryl...I think where we are crossing wires here is that I do not believe that using the word "blind" in the context mentioned in the blog post is metaphorical but rather the actual literal meaning of the word.

    If anything, the use of the word 'blind' to describe visually impaired people, I would think, is the more metaphorical use of the word.

    I do agree that the word is problematic, I just disagree on when it is problematic...when it is used to describe a person with a sight-related disability.

    I have actually had this conversation a few times. I used to volunteer at one of the best 'Blind' schools around. It was one of the studentsthere who told me never to call her blind, cause she was quite certain. Was she ever! All of them were really. Anywho, she would always make jokes about how the school referred to them as 'blind' and 'deafblind' and she would always correct them. I saw the sign change not long after that to "Centre for the Visually Impaired and Deafblind". I guess she got half her point across!!!

  11. Weirdly enough, RMJ, I've just been working on a post on this. Good stuff! And I wish that "lame" and "retard" had become thoroughly unacceptable in progressive discourse, because I'm calling people out on it all the time!

    I think what y'all are forgetting to do is, you know, centre the perspectives of blind people in this discussion. So, RMJ, I wouldn't worry too much about using 'see' to be 'understand'. I used to worry about that, too. But I did some research and found that it's in regular usage among blind people and I've yet to encounted a disability language guide that says it's not okay. It's specifically the usage of 'blind' as derogatory that's hurtful; 'see' is pretty benign.

    Sarah, you should call the people who identify as blind by their preferred language, same as queer. I really hope you haven't been telling people to use words you prefer to refer to themselves, or yourself describing them with language with which they're uncomfortable.

    As to whether it's appropriate to use 'blind' in this fashion - as in with a negative meaning - as in 'blind to privilege' - my understanding is that many blind people themselves feel it inappropriate. Let's just go with that.

    Also, speaking as a person with a disability, could you not use language like 'the disabled,' Sarah? Under the social model of disability eg as in the UK, the appropriate term is 'disabled people'. Under the medical model eg as in the US, the appropriate term is 'people with disabilities'. I myself switch between the two depending on the situation: while I live in a country in which the medical model is the norm, I myself am more aligned with the social model. 'The disabled' is pretty dehumanising.

    As a PWD, I always find it demeaning when people try to place their own understanding above my lived experience and preferences. I'd give y'all some links but my harddrive just got replaced and my bookmarks were wiped. And it's probably best that some folk do their own research.

  12. Oh, Chally, I love you so much. You said a lot of things that I wanted to say in response to Sarah, because there are a couple of issues with her line of thinking which I want to engage with, and I'm really glad to see someone in a position of knowledge as a person with disabilities approaching them first.

    The first is the idea that people with total vision impairment do not want to be referred to as “blind,” based on Sarah's anecdotal experiences with one person with total vision impairment. I note that she also feels that people who identify as queer (like me) should not be allowed to claim “queer” as our own because she feels uncomfortable with that word, and I'm wondering if that's playing into her perception of “blind.” Furthermore, I would like to gently point out that “visually impaired” is not synonymous with “blind.” Many people have partial vision impairments.

    The second has to do with the fact that while language shifts, associations linger. Even if society collectively stopped using “blind” to refer to people with total vision impairment today, “blind” to refer to “lack of comprehension or understanding” would still have ableist connotations. Perhaps after several generations of language users, this would not be the case, but it's not possible to change use of language that quickly.

  13. I apologize for my usage of 'the disabled' and please know it was not intentional. It was an oversight in my constant editing and rewording.

    I never tell people how to refer to themselves or correct their self identity. I didn't think I implied that by my statement. I have a certain comfort level in my own language and that has always been respected by my friends, family and acquaintances. For example, my 'inlaws' are Native peoples. They call themselves 'Indians' however, I am not comfortable using that word and don't refer to them as such.

    I don't believe that I have held my own experiences over anyone else's...just offered my own perspective on the usage of the word 'blind' which was actually shaped by the VI people I have encountered throughout my life.

    Again, I think the bigger problem is the acceptance of a derogatory/negative word to describe a person with a disability. I feel the same way about the word 'invalid'.

  14. Sarah, even if you've never said it to someone directly, saying that people shouldn't use words which sometimes have negative implications to describe themselves is privileging your perspective over theirs.

  15. FTR, I never said people who identify as 'queer' should not be able to identify as such. What I said was that *I* am not comfortable using that word as a person with privilege. Also, I am not sure that people who identify as 'queer' would be insulted by proper usage of the word in a sentence. Hey, I could be wrong though.

    Really, I am just regretting that I even offered my perspective. I was really excited about this topic because of my work with visually impaired people (and yes I am quite aware that there are different severities of visual impairments, just as there are with 'blindness') but now am left feeling attacked and invalidated. With that I will bow out...thanks for the discussion.

  16. Hi all-

    Sorry I haven't engaged more in this thread. I think there's a really interesting conversation going on!

    I want to point out one really valid thing that Sarah says:

    My point is that I don't think we should define the visually impairied as blind because it is derrogatory in and of itself.

    I am not saying that I completely co-sign this, but I definitely see where this is valid. Considering that the original meaning was "to obscure or not understand", I think that it may indeed be problematic for persons who are not visually impaired to use it in reference to people who are visually impaired.

    I want to be clear that whatever people want to call themselves is what they should call themselves. If visually impaired people want to call themselves thus, I'm not going to question the validity of that identification. However, I, like Sarah, am not in the habit of using queer as a neutral umbrella term for the ITQLBGA community as a het person; as a non-visually-impaired person, perhaps I should apply the same standards to those with visual impairments.

    I hope this makes sense. I'm looking forward to what you have to say about it.

  17. And while I'm at it, I want to point out a couple of other thought-provoking comments:

    Furthermore, I would like to gently point out that “visually impaired” is not synonymous with “blind.” Many people have partial vision impairments.

    The second has to do with the fact that while language shifts, associations linger. Even if society collectively stopped using “blind” to refer to people with total vision impairment today, “blind” to refer to “lack of comprehension or understanding” would still have ableist connotations. Perhaps after several generations of language users, this would not be the case, but it's not possible to change use of language that quickly.

    I want to apologize for having inadaquete language to describe disabilities related to "sight". Clearly I need to do more research!

    Though I can see where Sarah is coming from with the outside application of blindness by privileged bodies, I stand by my argument about the use of it in other contexts, and meloukhia's second paragraph above is a great furtherance of that argument.

    I think what y'all are forgetting to do is, you know, centre the perspectives of blind people in this discussion.


    I also want to clarify my comment above - I do not use queer as an umbrella term only. If someone specifically identifies as queer and asks that I refer to them as such, I will of course comply - same as any thing w/r/t/ language, labels, and identification.

  18. Two critical contrasts:

    For example, my 'inlaws' are Native peoples. They call themselves 'Indians' however, I am not comfortable using that word and don't refer to them as such.

    If someone specifically identifies as queer and asks that I refer to them as such, I will of course comply - same as any thing w/r/t/ language, labels, and identification.

    See the difference here? I think this is critical. I avoid using terms I personally view as offensive with reference to other people, unless they specifically ask me to use them. Failing to use a term which someone self identifies with is a form of privilege and erasure.

    This is kind of a side issue in this conversation and I don't want to threadjack, but I think it's really important, because Sarah brought it up, and I think that maybe we haven't been articulating the importance of the difference between these two approaches to labels which some people perceive as offensive.

  19. Cosigning with meloukhia. Including the threadjack part; I'd be happy so stop derailing any time if it's a problem, RMJ.

  20. I often find myself using phrases like "that is insane" or "are you crazy?" or "it was hysterical" and even "this is getting old". I find all of those phrases problematic in one way or another. I try to use 'ridiculous' in place of 'insane' but need to find some more words because elventy hundred uses of 'ridiculous' in one blog post just sounds...well...ridiculous!

    I also agree with the comment regarding using a term that I might think is derogatory, if a member of that group requests the term to be used. Case in point, I am married to an Australian Aboriginal man. In certain company, I as a white woman, can use the term 'black fella' knowing there is no offence taken and that this is acceptable to the Aboriginal people I am talking to. However if I do not know those Aboriginal people and they do not know I have an Aboriginal daughter and husband, it would be pretty silly of me to use that term and bound to cause trouble. Similarly I use the word fat to describe myself and I am active in the Fat Acceptance movement. I can tell the difference when someone is using fat as a descriptor and when someone is using it as a slur.

  21. I first want to say Sarah (if you're still reading the thread), nobody was attacking you. I understand you feeling frustrated that people are calling you out on things you have said, but they're not attacking you. I used to have a similar reaction and sometimes still do, but now I try to take each incident as an opportunity to learn. Not everyone has the same experiences or viewpoints, so engaging rather than disengaging usually lets us all come to a common ground.

    Anyway, in regards to the post, I guess it never occurred to me that using "blind" in that way was so common. Looking back now, I see that of course I've heard/read it used that way before, but I guess it never really sunk in, if that makes any sense. I use it more in the "blinded by light, beauty, etc." way, which is also a problem, but isn't inferring a lack of knowledge in any way. So yeah, lots of thinking from this post...

  22. I do think this ought to be raised: If someone is using a word for themselves as an identity term and the word in and of itself is specifically painful for another person to say, demanding the other person say the term starts to slide into some problematic zones itself.

    As an example, I do not have a good relationship with the word "shemale" as a trans person. It has been used to attack me, harm me and dehumanize me.

    With those experiences, even seeing the word makes me twitchy. I would think that someone who demands I use the word for them without taking into account my associated trauma is being pretty disgustingly insensitive to my own experiences.

    That isn't to say that I should use other words for them, but I think avoiding the use of labeling altogether due to a word that triggers memories of really awful things done to me for being trans is entirely fair to allow me to do.

    I think there are thresholds too. Simply finding the word mildly offensive from the standpoint of privilege isn't really good enough. Because ultimately you're finding it offensive because it hurts other people, not you. So in the presence of someone who isn't hurt, your offense is no longer relevant to the situation.

  23. I've always viewed the phrase "blinded by privilege" as like someone looking into a bomb. Dazzle-blindness, not a form of darkness, but of too much light.

    I try to kick out as much ableist language as a I can, but I think I will choose to keep most of my metaphors and analogies involving sensory events. I certainly will try to review them before I say them, especially when they have that element of OH MAN IT SUCKS TO BE DISABLED DON'T IT?!?!

    On another note, I'm not going to dare compare being a lefty to being disabled, but there are a lot of barriers out there. One teacher of mine forced me to use a computer mouse with my right hand, because it was "bothering" the other children if I used my left. Unsurprisingly, I then promptly failed any computer test we that involved a mouse--like matching cards or whatever.

    I've been in epic battles with school administrators about the lack of left-handed desks in classrooms. One administrator told me, "Look, it really doesn't matter!"

    "If it doesn't matter," I said, "then fill the entire room with left-handed desks. The righties won't notice and you won't have to listen to me bitch about it anymore."

    I got my desk. Just the one, though.

  24. As someone who struggles with a disability related to motor coordination and one related to chronic pain, all of the "clumsy" slurs and walking metaphors always resonate a bit strangely with me. These are cases where I would say that my disability /is/ bad, but I'm always left wondering... if I'm supposed to walk a mile in someone's shoes (often depicted on posts/posters/flyers with actual shoes) what does it mean if I can't walk a mile to start with? Does that mean my handicap prevents me from understanding them?


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