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.
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.
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!