I was in a conversation today discussing unconscious bias. It was made particularly interesting – and somewhat disappointing – when someone said ‘I mean I get jealous of the things Indigenous people get…’ I did call her on it, albeit gently. I told her that as an Autistic person with a mental illness there were some things I ‘got’ as well but it was to redress imbalance in society and barriers to participation and inclusion which people face. I pointed out that a lot of that is perception and misunderstanding of how services work and even so, she probably wouldn’t want to have the reasons to be eligible to ‘get’ things which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples do – intergenerational trauma, dispossession, the discrepancies in life expectancy and domains like employment, physical and mental health, as well as bigotry and discrimination. She was saying what she thought at least but it got me thinking about these kinds of things.
I think I’m just going to go with a paragraph or two on each of the topics in the title and unpack them a bit, at least to my own understanding.
I will describe this in two ways. The first is in relation to a conversation I had online a while back with an Autistic man in the US. He was complaining because apparently some ‘feminist’ had challenged him on the fact that he had twelve white male admins on his Autism advocacy group. The man wrote on social media for all to see ‘Autism has no gender…’ I was appalled and raced home to dash off a speedy blog post which I think was titled ‘Autism has a race and a gender and a sexuality and a class….’ Ad what I was writing about was intersectionality.
What intersectionality is all about is the idea that people experience different kinds of disadvantage and discrimination. As an Autistic woman with schizophrenia who has a history of institutionalisation and socio-economic disadvantage who identifies as somewhere along the non-binary gender spectrum, I have a number of lenses of difference and potential for disadvantage.
Essentially discrimination and disadvantage can be compounded and exacerbated by belonging to different intersectional ‘groups’, as can our experience of the world and how we present to others. This is a very impotent concept, particularly for people who belong to intersectional groups. However it is a vitally important concept for everyone to understand – our families, friends and colleagues, organisations providing services to us, educators, employers, clinicians and so forth. If people in our lives don’t understand intersectionality it can result in the kinds of disadvantage we try to avoid. This is not just a concept which people facing disadvantage need to know about it. Everyone needs to know about it or those disadvantages, prejudices, micro aggressions, exclusions and service failures will just continue and so many people will struggle to lead fulfilled lives where they are respected, understood and included.
I think everyone has an idea of what constitutes inclusion. Inclusion is tied up with the concept of diversity. Many people think it is a sort of nebulous thing where everyone is nice to each other…. Not quite. Inclusion can be seen as a radical concept. The opposite to inclusion is exclusion. I see this everywhere as an Autism advocate – issues in services and programs, assumptions and prejudice in all sorts of places where it shouldn’t be. Advocacy and activism challenge this sort of thing by promoting inclusion. Inclusion is on one level about ‘doing alongside’, in consultation and collaboration with, and not ‘doing for’. I think that inclusion is best driven by the people who are excluded. Inclusion can be challenging and uncomfortable but through that, understanding and acceptance can emerge.
One thing to be aware of is that people who face disadvantage are not necessarily inclusive on all issues. I sometimes meet people who seem to think diversity stops at whatever disadvantage they themselves have. I have seem disabled people with apparently great disability politics show a lack of respect for other groups. Tying in with intersectionality, I think it is vital that those of us who are in one or other potentially disadvantaged group to understand and respect the needs of other groups, otherwise I tend to think ‘what’s the point?’ I decided many years ago that I was singled out and abused because I was ‘different’ so I have a responsibility to support others with ‘differences’ – whatever those may be.
This is a tricky one which is quite often misunderstood. There a number of different sorts of privilege – a typical one is wealth. Many people identify White privilege and sis gender, male heterosexual privilege. However the tricky part is that people can belong to a disadvantaged group at the same time as being privileged in another area. That US Autism group admin who thought Autism had no gender would in my mind at least, fall quite neatly into male privilege despite being Autistic. But it gets more complex. Privilege is not in and of itself a bad thing. The issue tends to occur where there is no awareness of privilege by the person who has it. In my case, despite living in poverty for most of my adult life, I am now a well-paid professional who owns property. I consider myself very privileged in terms of socio-economic advantage. However I am always aware that I have this privilege and keep it in mind when talking to and working with people who are socio-economically disadvantaged. Hopefully there will be no ‘Let them eat cake!’ from Jeanette.
So in essence, privilege is inevitable for some people but if they are aware of it and make allowances and learn the perspectives of others who are not privileged it is much less of a problem.
This one is a tricky thing indeed. It refers to people being biased or bigoted but being unaware that is the case. A statement like ‘Even autistic people can be taught social skills so they can communicate properly’ demonstrates some pretty significant unconscious bias, but I bet if you challenged the (in this case imaginary) person who said it, they may struggle to identify what the issue was.
Addressing unconscious bias is often difficult as calling the person on it can backfire if they genuinely can’t see what the issue is. More wholistic interventions to change thinking and understanding around autism (or whichever attribute the bias relates to) can be helpful. We are actually seeing this a little in messaging around autism.
When I started doing advocacy in 2005 there was a huge amount of unconscious and some deliberate bias, particularly paternalism – in every forum I attended. The idea of Autistic people being involved in the design and delivery of autism services and events was a long way off. So while things are for from perfect nowadays, I see less unconscious bias form non-autistic people than I did in the past. And the thing which is working to challenge that unconscious bias is advocacy and activism being driven by Autistic people ourselves. I think that holds true for other groups: addressing overt and unconscious bias is best driven by the people directly impacted who have first hand knowledge and investment in the issues. I recognise as well that there are some wonderful neurotypical allies who also have a strong investment in empowerment – usually as partners, parents or children of Autistic people. It is nice to view through twelve years of hindsight that things have improved. We still have a huge journey to travel but I do hope one day to realise my dream of being completely redundant as an advocate because I”m not longer needed (at which point I will switch to mental health advocacy which needs a lot of attention!)