Braille Monitor                          March 2020

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More Interesting Thoughts about Sighted Privilege

From the Editor: Justin Salisbury’s article last month about sighted privilege has sparked some discussion, and given that this is what he wanted to come from his article and what I want in our publication, I am excited. I hope more will come.

Part of our job in publishing the Braille Monitor is to get people talking not just to one another but with one another. I thank all of you who’ve contributed. I have intentionally left the names of those who wrote out. I want the ideas they express to stand on their own merit, and later we can attribute them if we wish. All are nuanced, but some are in favor and some have significant reservations. I find them stimulating, and I hope you do as well.

Before we jump in, allow me to say this: One of the concerns sometimes expressed is that the National Federation of the Blind has a liberal bias and that the very fact we would discuss something such as sighted privilege proves this because people on the left tend to be more comfortable with the term than people on the right. I do not believe it is our intention for the National Federation of the Blind or its flagship publication to have either a conservative or a liberal bias. Unless we judge an article to be un-interesting, unrelated to blindness, or destructive, we are likely to publish it. If there are other points of view that need to be heard, send them. Remember that some things that appear in our publication are a reflection of our philosophy, and others represent discussions in which we are participating or in which we should be. Remember that if you don’t see your point of view here, it may be because you haven’t yet written it. Here are the reactions:

Respondent 1.

I don’t know exactly what we are to do about sighted privilege except to keep doing what we are doing and always improving on it. The concept nor term shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. That said, this is an overarching term that doesn’t at all capture the nuance that must be applied to everything if we are to make further inroads to equality. And, anyway, all equality means in my mind is an equal opportunity to become as unequal as possible, to use a network marketing definition.

Some blind people, including me, would bristle if told that they couldn’t ever have access to the same privileges as sighted people because of sighted privilege. Yet, the concept of sighted privilege suggests that until the sighted are prepared to relinquish their privilege, they will keep it. Since when do we wait for the sighted to run our lives the way they see fit?

There is only one game of life. I know that as a blind person I intend to live that game to the best of my capacities. If I am perceived as being more successful than most sighted or blind people at this game, by whatever criterion of success one might choose to use, then so be it. After all, it’s my life, and I am, of course, the best judge of its success or failure as it flows along. All of this becomes rather academic anyway once we are six feet under or cremated.

Respondent 2.

As you know, the current issue of the Braille Monitor has an article titled “Sighted Privilege” written by Justin Salisbury, who is a frequent contributor to our national magazine and one of my favorite writers. I have to say that this article came at a very opportune time. If it had been published earlier, I might have had a visceral reaction at the title given how the fact that, in our negative political discourse, some people carelessly throw around the phrase “white privilege.”
In the past few days, however, I have come to some of the same conclusions expressed in the article. What else would explain the fact that the state of Missouri owes Amtrak $6.5 million if not sighted privilege? What else would explain the poor attitudes of some state legislators with regard to the concept of passenger rail service if not sighted privilege? The January 26 issue of the Kansas City Star editorial page had an opinion piece written by Robbie Makinen, CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, in which he says that when he lost his sight seven years ago, he began to understand the value of public transit.

Dr. Jernigan told us that the public is not against us. Though the world is built mostly for the benefit of sighted people, sighted people mean us no harm, and some people may not realize that their attitudes are harmful to the blind.

I think that once again Justin Salisbury has hit another home run out of the park! Whether people agree or not with the views expressed in this article, I think it will generate much thinking that will help refine our philosophy of blindness.

Respondent 3.

I liked the article and hope to read similar material in the future. Privilege is not about blame. It is about what you naturally have because of the institutional power of your group and recognizing that. Because I am white, I am not as likely to get stopped by the police, followed around the store, accused of shoplifting, and sent to prison from the school to prison pipeline. As a blind white person, I am more likely to get better services and probably am thought of as a more worthwhile investment than a black blind person. It’s uncomfortable, but it is part of our society.
Trying to correct the imbalance is definitely good, but it doesn't erase the fact that such an imbalance exists, and because of the institutional power or lack thereof in your group, you are a part of it. It isn't something you steal or something you do. It is just the privilege you naturally have for being a part of a group.

The article discussed how the girls got to go on the field trips, and this made at least one boy mad. But compared to men, girls and women are destined to be rejected and marginalized in STEM fields as well as underpaid.

The sighted people around me don't steal anything from me, but even though they wish that sighted privilege didn’t exist or get talked about, they still have it. This is about groups, not individual people. That is why you can't just say that you will be an honorable person, and then you will not have privilege. You have to except that the group you are a part of could have privilege, and that fact is separate from your honorability or your individual beliefs or actions. Also when you read about white privilege, don't read about other white people talking about it because they do not talk about it correctly. Read about ethnic minority groups who talk about it instead. That is how I learned about it, and it makes sense to me.

Privilege can also vary based on different areas of your life. I can lack privilege because I am a blind woman. But then I can have privilege because I am straight and cisgender and because I am white.

Respondent 4.

Dear Gary,

Thanks for having the courage to begin a nuanced discussion with implications that extend beyond even your thoughtful and carefully worded introduction.

Following your good advice and working to understand the other person’s perspective can ultimately lead to deeper understanding. My question is whether the “privilege” concept is necessary to teach about blindness. I contend that we already have language and concepts within our literature that accomplish the same result without the necessity of working through “loaded” language.

I’m also quite concerned that we be meticulous about maintaining our political evenhandedness. We have always had strong support from liberals and conservatives. When our clarion cries for justice are not compelling, our insistence on self-reliance is. “Privilege” language is so closely associated with one side of the political and cultural divide in the United States and so reviled by the other side that the simple act of using the terms could easily cause the doors of some minds to slam closed. If we can accomplish the education we desire without paying that price, I believe we should.

Pragmatic considerations aside, applying this framework has philosophical dangers. Thinking of our difficulties based on the lack of sight itself, rather than ascribing them to structural circumstances in the built environment and/or ignorant attitudes, could lead to a sense of powerlessness or inevitability. Attitudes and structures can be changed; the presence or absence of eyesight is largely unchangeable. Helplessness or hopelessness was not said or implied in Justin’s article. Someone failing to thoroughly think through his carefully constructed arguments could feel victimized by attributing privilege to sight rather than to more nuanced concepts.
Sight is different from race and gender. There are all the emotional issues involved in attitude and coming to believe in one’s equal human worth that have parallels for other traditionally disadvantaged minority groups. But nobody needs several months of training to learn the skills of blackness. We must develop confidence in our ability to use blindness skills and a firm belief in their efficacy.

I do not in any way intend to diminish all the emotional complexities of sight and blindness, but I think of eyesight in a fundamentally different way than sighted people do. Sight is a commodity. It isn’t a commodity for those who have it, because sight is so ubiquitous. The built environment assumes eyesight. Typical patterns of behavior incorporate the use of eyesight. It follows that people with eyesight are automatically in a privileged position. We have basic tools, such as training or accessibility, for diminishing our need for the commodity of sight.

The second way of diminishing the practical sight privilege is by working with those who are willing to loan or rent us the use of their eyes. Learning how to work with others who are willing to “see” for us in specific situations is part of a good blindness skill set. I’m thinking of interactions as simple as reading a street sign and as complex as driving across town. We have always said that the “handicap” of blindness is situational. Living in an urban area with good public transit is less handicapping than living on an isolated farm with no family or friends in the area. Clearly having money diminishes the handicaps we face. It’s mighty useful to have cash to hire a driver or call a taxi when no bus goes where we want to go when we want to go there.
“Privilege” language can be misconstrued as implying malevolent intent or taking unfair advantage of others. Sighted people should not feel guilty that they’re “privileged” with eyesight. White people have no reason to feel guilty about the color of their skin or the circumstances of their birth. Human beings are born with inherent dignity and equality but not identical circumstances. Humanity requires each of us to behave in opportunity-affirming ways. Sadly, we don’t always know the ways in which we unintentionally fail to do so.

I understand Justin’s use of the word “ally” to categorize sighted Federationists. I prefer the word “colleague” because Federationism is a way of thinking, not an optical condition. I feel a sense of family with sighted Federation colleagues and no real sense of being allied with some blind people who don’t share our understanding of blindness.

The public education provided by the Federation tends to assume a high level of goodwill and a low level of knowledge. Unless someone has proven him or herself to be a bad actor, we gain nothing by encouraging guilt. It’s a bad motivator. (Our legal program is there for those times when affirmative goodwill is lacking.)

Getting an accurate read and understanding the underlying meaning of interpersonal encounters can be hard. Did that tone of voice signify condescension, or does the person use that voice with everyone? Each of us filters our experiences through our history and our point of view. Because of my previous experiences with the airlines, I walk into the airport on high emotional alert. I’m apt to hear authoritarianism and condescension from every employee. I find myself asking people who offer assistance whether they work for the airline. If they say “no,” I can feel my muscles relaxing and my manner loosening. Because I’m aware that my reactions are potentially unjust, I struggle to mute my initial prickly reaction to people I meet. Yet there is no question that I feel differently about encounters with staff in an airport than those at the shopping mall, even if shopping mall employees respond to me with ignorance every bit as awful as the ignorance of airline employees. No question that I have very good reasons, but also no doubt that my default of assuming the worst makes air travel even more unpleasant than it is for those without my history and emotional reaction.

Inasmuch as is possible, having an open and affirmative impression of those we meet until direct experience requires us to change that perception makes life better. When something jarring happens, it’s easy to overreact, underreact, or muddle through without knowing how to react. Invariably I think of precisely the right thing to say or do about thirty minutes after the event. I overthink a lot! Did my friend reword my explanation to the store clerk and get a better reaction because I’m blind, or did my friend do a better job of explaining? It’s easy to rationalize situations that are related to blindness and dismiss them as unimportant. It can also be easy to attribute to blindness things that are really due to something else. Then there are those highly confusing times where blindness plays a part but is not the entire explanation. After the fact I ask myself if blindness is the most plausible explanation.

Several years ago, my husband and I were at a church fundraiser dinner. Our member of the legislature and his wife sat across from us. The legislator is a former college teacher, his wife is a French-speaker from Quebec, and our children are about the same ages. These similarities make for convivial conversation. Unfortunately, this legislator has never been receptive to any of our suggestions for improving the government’s interaction with blind people. During the course of the meal, my blind husband ordered a bottle of spring water. It came, but he continued eating and did not open it immediately. Suddenly the wife of the legislator interrupted the conversation to say “Sir, don’t think there is something wrong with your water bottle; Norm opened it.” They finished their meal before we did and left. My husband and I turned to one another and said simultaneously, “That explains why he never takes our legislative initiatives seriously.” Neither of us could think of a reason, other than limited belief in the basic competence of blind people, for the man to open a blind man’s water bottle.

Jim Omvig wrote that one of the goals of good rehabilitation is for the student to come to understand public misconceptions and learn to deal with them effectively without becoming emotionally upset. I’ve always found that to be a worthy goal and a very tall order. Justin’s article articulates many of our traditional philosophical beliefs using different language. Reworking our ideas in different ways may make them fresh for a new generation. Whatever terms we choose, we intend to help one another to understand what blindness means and what it doesn’t mean. We strive to develop the skill and courage to deal effectively with misconceptions without becoming overwhelmed. Above all, we must remain committed to thinking of ourselves as capable of making progress, both individually and as a movement. Circumstances may be victimizing, but we can never think of ourselves as victims, because striving for opportunity, even when we lose, is more powerful than victimhood.

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