Likely, you've all seen the stand up routine or real life moment when someone excuses their racism with "I have a black friend." If such a friend is real, it's likely they are a mere token. A human being used as a marker to off set someone's racist ideas. A place holder to let someone off the hook from having to do a thorough examination of deep-rooted racism.
And it's not just people of color who are often used as tokens. It's people who are gay, disabled, female, etc. It's a form of "Othering" at its worst. It strips these people of their humanity. No matter what one's intentions, the end result is that a person becomes in the eyes of others not real. Not complicated. Not really quite human. I'm here to say loudly: I am not your token female. My husband is not your token Mexican friend. My daughter is not your token "Down's kid."
As I spent my morning with coffee and Facebook, I came across a couple of posts that I think really nail down the act of turning people into tokens that make us feel better, that maybe even allow us to step away from the real act of engagement with someone we view as entirely "Other." And what's important about the posts is that they show how tokenism is often shrouded in such a way as to make the "Othering" look benign, not so bad. This is important because while it's easy to get outraged over the bigoted and racist politician from North Carolina, it's a bit more difficult to suss out an "Othering" that is dressed up as kindness. My grams always said "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." Turns out she was right. No matter what your motivation "Othering" anyone for any reason is not good. It doesn't help in giving equal rights. It doesn't help in ensuring that when someone is murdered their disability isn't the reason given for their death. It doesn't help when someone with a disability wants a job. To be able to get married legally. You get the point, I'm sure.
The first was about using food banks, and being one of "those" people. You know the person who has to use a food bank, and the attitudes surrounding that venture. In the post, the author recounts an encounter with a fellow mother at her child's school. They are standing by the food bin where parents can donate food for a local food bank. There is the usual chatter about how great the parents are to donate (which they are don't get me wrong) but then one of the mother's retorts about how quinoa is such a ridiculous thing to donate because really "those people" don't know how to make quinoa." This woman was clearly into the charity of giving food was still able to dismiss those who need food assistance as a conglomerate of faceless stereotypes. Of course "those people" were not like her who clearly knows how to make something as exotic and healthy. "Poor people" live off Mac and Cheese and hot dogs right?
When the act of giving is done in the spirit of creating a distance it becomes, I think, an act of tokenism. Giving and then creating an artificial distance, is a way of not having to have an exchange, a relationship with someone. If one admits that someone who is living in poverty might be a complicated human being with a variety of experiences and emotions, then it makes dismissing them a lot harder. It means being not being able to step away from an interaction that might change who you are. When that woman in the post dismisses "those people" as not knowing how to prepare quiona she's doing more than insulting the palate. She's also creating a distance, a divide that clearly marks them as other. She creates the space for shame to grow. Do we have to swallow our pride because we need help or because people like her makes us feel that to go to a food bank makes somehow less human?
And then just when I thought the posting week couldn't get better, this post lands in my lap. I think this may have been the best thing I've ever seen on a blog. Seriously. The image she is referring to is of a woman, buff and thin, kneeling with her three young children. The caption reads "What's your excuse?"The author does a bang up of job showing how this attitude of obligation leads to between health and morality. And this in turn raises questions about who gets to be healthy. Too often in society, the idea of health has been denied those who are disabled, and this was taken even further in the imagining of art and writing where too often the villain is disabled. (See Shakespeare if you don't believe me). And now this idea that being moral means being healthy, means choosing exercise, means choosing ripped abs, is staring to rear it's head. The image bothered me precisely because I don't need an excuse for not exercising a hundred hours a week. Just like I don't need an excuse for eating Hershey kisses, nor do I need one for not doing Yoga, or for not meditating. Not doing runs the remote risk of me not living a couple of extra years but its NOT a moral failing. And even more frightening to me is how PWD become tokens in this kind of morality. They become both the symbol of unhealth and an inspiration because if they can do so can YOU.
Cause really what's more inspiring than a token PWD doing something like running a race? Winning a homecoming contest? Winning a baseketball game? And what's really clear is that these things serve as a way to make us feel bad about what we're NOT doing. They challenge us to make an excuse because hell even if a disabled person can do it why can't YOU. It doesn't occur to us to look beyond the token. To see that perhaps this person likes to run. Maybe they won the Homecoming contest because they're lovely and people like them. Maybe they are really good at basketball. But it's hard for so many of us to look beyond the token. To look beyond the inspiration. The no excuse. To see a real person there. To look beyond what this image does to me and see who is the subject of that image.
The thing is that when an article states "Girl With Down syndrome Crowned Homecoming Queen" we're using her as a token. She becomes a marker for how kind and compassionate the kids at her high school were. How kind and compassionate we are for sharing the post, for feeling good about the post. But are we also assuming that she couldn't win that crown unless she had Down syndrome? I think we are because if we weren't we wouldn't need the added "with Down syndrome." The same with allowing someone with Down syndrome to win a basketball game, or a wrestling match. We're not only denying this person the opportunity to lose, or fail, but we deny them the dignity of trying, the dignity of risk. We pretend these markers are real inclusion but they are not. Real inclusion would mean real, honest engagement. It would mean not saying things like "I JUST LOVE people with Ds" and "People with disabilities are so inspiring" because really that's just not the way things are. There are people out there with Down syndrome who are real assholes. And there are disabled people who are likely about as inspiring as I am.
This is what bugs me about the countless memes. The news articles. I understand where they come from, that people love me and they love Jude. They want me to feel encouraged perhaps. They want to inspire me. They want me to see that people with Ds are being treated okay in our world. But the problem is that these things are not often the real story. Instead of real acceptance, there is tokenism. It is not news when anyone lives on their own. It is news when someone paints a painting so amazing it hangs in the new Prince's room but it is not news that the painter has Down syndrome anymore than it is news that the painter is female, blond, and British. I've seen amazing things done by people with Ds and I've also read headlines that made me go "Huh?" because what they were reporting was NOT amazing. It was REGULAR life happening. A man going shopping is run of the mill stuff not the stuff of miracles. Patronizing someone by making this news does nothing towards equality or acceptance.
Imagine with me if you will headlines that read like "22 year old man lives on his own!" Or "19 year old girl goes to college!" How about "40 year old man has been in his own home for 20 years and does his own shopping!" "Local girl gets a job!" "Woman with red hair paints mediocre landscape in her den!" "Local boy runs race and comes in fourth!" This is the kind of thing I read nearly everyday about people with Down syndrome, and what it says to me is that we have not gotten to a place of real acceptance because real acceptance means that people with Down syndrome would only get in the news for the same reasons the rest of us do.
Sharing a meme is not meaningful engagement. Sharing posts after posts about how a bunch of high school kids made some homecoming queen and OMG they had Down syndrome is not meaningful engagement. Meaningful engagement is about recognizing the humanity of my child. It's about taking extra steps to make sure she is not a token in society (like calling your senator to ratify the Disability Treaty). It means appreciating Jude for being an awful cute baby who drools a lot. She is not an inspiration. There's no reason for her to be one as she's only been here for ten months. She doesn't even talk. Maybe someone day she'll go on to do great things. Maybe not. It's okay either way because as a real person, not a token, she gets to do that.