This is a very personal post on a very political topic: bigotry and hatred.
Yesterday I was on the receiving end of some horrific bigoted ignorance – a person peripheral to my life who had no idea of what autism is or indeed that I am autistic, telling me a number of things they believe about autism – ‘I am sorry people are autistic.’ ’I am OK. I am normal’ and the clincher ‘That’s like people who are criminally insane.’ I am someone who knows what they are doing all the time but at that point I honestly didn’t know what to do. The stress and horror that coursed through me in that conversation was at a very high level. I somehow managed to remain a responsible human being and told the person to go away but I think if I hadn’t done that I may have done something I regretted.
The situation was made worse by the fact that I am fairly certain the person wasn’t being intentionally hostile, those were simply their thoughts. It had a big impact on me. I am still struggling. I am a very out loud and proud autistic person. I consider myself quite hard to bully because I am so happy with who I am. I embrace my own identity. I have a strong and deep sense of autistic pride. I like myself. But when it comes down to it, it seems I am just as susceptible to hatred as anyone else.
I have had a few thoughts on this incident which I thought it might be helpful to unpack as they relate a bit more broadly than my own sense of affront, hurt and anger.
- I was upset because the person was being mean to me. However, I think I was mostly upset because there is a huge power imbalance at play. When the person made those comments it disempowered me and made me feel small and insignificant. I think the main reason the comments had such a big impact was that they confirmed a whole lifetime where similar things have been said. It was an individual confirming societal oppression of autistic people and Disabled people more broadly.
- The comments did not happen in isolation. They built on feelings I have had since I was being bullied in school and taken advantage of by creepy men in my teen and early adult years. The comments expressed the message ‘you do not matter.’
- I started to doubt myself as soon as I could process what had happened. Was I being sensitive? Am I a ‘snowflake’? It was like I was gaslighting myself. I think many of us do this when faced with similar experiences. We may have been taught to doubt ourselves from a lifetime of people questioning our experience or playing ‘devil’s advocate’ (And I’m not sure why the devil needs an advocate. I think he is probably quite capable of being an a**hole without help from humans!)
- While the person who harassed me presumably didn’t understand what they were doing, that is almost worse than deliberate hostility. That a person was so ignorant of something and having no concept that those words might be very hurtful and offensive … well it concerns me what they might say to other people! And the impact on me was the same – or at least similar – to if the comments had been deliberately hostile. If someone accidentally shoots you, you are still shot.
- When the anger had subsided and the stress clicked in I sought out support from autistic friends – that sense of ‘tribe’ is especially important when we are attacked I think.
- I had feelings and thoughts which were very concerning – impulsive, negative, self-destructive thoughts. These were all directed at myself and not the bigot. Blaming oneself when someone else wrongs us can be a sign of a lifetime of invalidation. In the heat of the moment I was angry with the bigot but when that subsided it just enhanced a self of self-hatred I was unaware I still had.
Bigotry is far from harmless. I have had trolls online in the past say ‘Jeanette is big enough and tough enough to deal with this.’ They are wrong. These kinds of hateful thoughts break us a little and the more they happen the more we can become broken. It makes us mistrust others, like ourselves less. Fighting bigotry, learning to love ourselves for who we are, others offering genuine support and respect can help address this but it is never ever OK to belittle and insult someone based on them being autistic – or belonging to any other group.