The story has changed so many times, it’s like a terrible game of telephone where the end result bears little resemblance to the original event.
In my ignorance, I didn’t even see it as an event at the time.
We were at a barbecue together—me, my spouse, and my friend. My spouse and I are white; my friend is Black. We sat on the porch at another friend’s house. There weren’t three seats together, and my friend sat beside me while my spouse sat a few seats away.
At the time, I had a cerebral spinal fluid leak. Every time I moved—every time my spinal fluid pressure increased—I had terrible, terrible pain in my sinus cavity and I became so dizzy that it often caused severe nausea. Normally, I would ask my spouse to do little things (like taking my plate) so that I wouldn’t have to feel that awful pain, but instead, I asked my friend.
I asked him because he was sitting next to me instead of my spouse. I asked him because he was our roommate and my trusted companion, and I knew I could count on him.
Looking back now, I can see so much that I was blind to at the time. In my pride, I didn’t explain how debilitating the pain was, or why I needed help. My lack of communication opened the door to misunderstanding. My Black friend felt like I was asking him to take my plate because he was Black—not because I was unable to do it myself; not because he was a trusted roommate and friend.
He laughed and made jokes about taking my plate. I laughed along with him, although internally, I felt ashamed of my physical limitations. Looking back, he was probably joking to cover his own hurt feelings. We were both hiding our isms from each other.
Audre Lorde said, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single-issue lives.” Conversations about intersectionality tend to revolve around the intersections of various marginalized identities. What I’ve learned from this experience is that the aspects of my identity—queer, nonbinary, disabled, demigirl, etc.— also intersect with my whiteness. Intersections exist between all parts of our identities, both advantageous and disadvantageous. Being white doesn’t dismiss me from intersectional racial issues.
At the barbeque, I ignored my whiteness and my friend’s Blackness, and as a result, he was put in a position of reliving racial trauma (as he explained to me after the fact).
The ‘plate story’ has a few lessons. For me, personally, the lesson is to be less prideful when it comes to talking about health issues and personal needs. In my effort to not burden other people with ‘oversharing’ information about my health problems, I had opened the door for misunderstandings like this one.
In her essay titled “White People: I Don’t Want You To Understand Me Better, I Want You To Understand Yourselves,” Ijeoma Oluo warns white people about our ignorance of white culture.
“Your survival has never depended on your knowledge of white culture,” says Oluo. “In fact, it’s required your ignorance…. And as much as I’d like you to see me—as much as I’d like systemic racism to simply be a problem of different groups not seeing each other—I need you to see yourself, really see yourself, first.”
I was colorblind to my own whiteness. My privilege and ignorance made it possible, and my naiveté made it manifest.
Maybe the lesson is that impact is more important than intent, but that intent still matters. If someone steps on your toes accidentally, it still hurts; even if it hurts less (at least emotionally) than if that person stomps on your foot intentionally.
Perhaps the overarching lesson is that racism doesn’t erase ableism, and ableism doesn’t erase racism. They are both harmful, and when they intersect, it can be very difficult to navigate.
But I can do better.
I will do better.
Sara Quinn is the Editor in Chief at Tumbleweird. She makes pixel art, writes stuff, reads A TON, and plays a lot of video games ;)
Photo by David Pisnoy on Unsplash