Zero, Eighteen, and Other Horrible Numbers

Quick, what does 18 mean to you?

Maybe it means the age you get to vote (if you live in the US).  If you drive trucks for a living, it’s the classic number of wheels on your rig.  It’s the atomic number of argon, a very noble gas indeed.  It signifies prosperity in some Chinese culture.  Maybe it’s just a number that comes between 17 and 19.

What does zero mean to you?  I’m not sure, but to the Weld County (Colorado) School District, it means zero common sense.

You see, in addition to a list of bad words, they have a list of bad numbers.  I couldn’t make that up.  13, 14, 18, 31, 41 and 81 are all bad numbers.  Gangs have used each of these numbers as “branding” for their gang or their ideas, apparently.  So, using zero common sense, Weld County Schools ban any use of the number.  Even when that number is worn by a third grader in the form of a Payton Manning jersey.

For people who don’t keep up with American Football, Payton Manning is the Colorado Bronco’s new star quarterback.  So it is sort of expected that a school kid from a nearby town might own a few things with his number on it.  Like a jersey.

While I absolutely believe in keeping students safe from violence, I’m not sure anyone with sense would think an 8 or 9 year old wearing a sports jersey of the local star football player is a gang member (and, no, people aren’t getting shot in Greeley for wearing the number 18!).  And never mind you can wear 88 (a pro-Hitler reference) at school!

That’s the problem when people develop “simple” and “clear” policies.  They both fail to achieve the desired goal (banning symbols of violence or symbols that might incite others to become violent) by not being far-reaching enough (such as not including 88 or almost any other number that can be used by someone for hateful purposes), while simultaneously going too far (and applying to people who are conveying a different meaning than gang membership).

Sure, it’s good to have simple and clear policies.  But blind application of rigid principles ends up hurting people.  There are times and places for exceptions to rules (and common sense).

For instance, we don’t want students to make threats to other students.  But what do you do when you report the severe bullying of a disabled, younger student, and the school does nothing?  Well if you let the kids know you’ll do something about it, you’ll get suspended.  For bullying.

Or, a pool might ban life jackets, water wings, and other flotation devices.  Should they ban them from a disabled child swimming with his mother?

The problem with cut-and-dry rules and policies is that they don’t take exceptional circumstances into account.  People aren’t cut-and-dry.  We’re messy, hard to classify, unique, and have all sorts of oddities that nobody but ourselves may realize.  It’s pretty hard…no, it’s impossible to write comprehensive policies that give a nice flowchart of questions and answers.  Because you won’t always ask the right question.  You need to ask questions like,

  • “Was the number 18 being used as a gang symbol by this third grader wearing the local football quarterback’s jersey?”
  • “Was the threat by this older student disproportionate to the situation and actually bullying behavior?”
  • “Are these water wings helping this disabled student take part and enjoy the pool, in a way that would be impossible otherwise?”

Sure, you could add these types of questions to the offensive policies, and that certainly would improve them.  But it wouldn’t approve them enough.  Rigid enforcement of rules doesn’t do anyone any favors – it will ignore real harms while simultaneously causing harms of its’ own.

Responding to Your Own Prejudice

Someone I know voiced their upset at an advocacy organization that discriminated against them.  The whole situation reminded me of experiences I’ve had in the past (albeit different scenarios that didn’t affect me as significantly as it affected this person).

You are prejudiced.  Really.

You act like a bigot.  Really.

You discriminate.  Really.

Sure, you don’t do this all the time, in all ways.  And it need not be a big deal.  None of us fully understand the experiences of others, so it’s really easy to discriminate out of ignorance (and, no, ignorance is not a dirty word).

If you are a member of a minority community, you’ll experience prejudice, bigotry, and discrimination from others – even from people that are “good people.”

In fact, for some reason, I’ve found some of the worst discrimination comes from advocates for other minority groups.  I’ve also found some of the best, most accepting, most decent people are among advocates for other minority groups.  How can advocates be so much more polarizing than the general population?  I’m not sure.  I expect them to be a bit abrasive when challenging power structures that have discriminated against them.  but I’m always surprised when they turn around and discriminate against others.

Quick: Think of the last time someone said you were not being accepting, open, accommodating, etc.  Think of this last time when someone said that something you were doing was hurting a member of a minority.  How did you respond?

If your response was denial, explaining how you weren’t discriminating, being offended, or similar, please think about your actions carefully.  Nobody likes being told they’ve done bad.  And nobody likes to be seen as discriminating.  I suspect part of the reason I’ve had so much trouble with people who should know better (advocates for other minority groups) compared to people who shouldn’t know better (such as employers who don’t know about the minority issues important to me) is that the advocates for other groups have their identity tied up in not being discriminatory.  So when they are told something they do is discriminatory, this is a challenge to their very self-image.

I’ve seen amazing denial by organizations when confronted with this type of discrimination.  I’ve asked organizations to simply call a room something other than a “quiet room” when they create an accommodation for people who are having overload (quiet room also can mean the room where a person might be secured to a bed against their will, which obviously can be very triggering for people who have lived through that experience) – and seen that organization respond by digging in their heals and explaining why that term is not discriminatory.  Well, who really cares?  How hard is it to call a room something different?  But I apparently challenged some egos that were tied up in being seen as progressive, understanding, and accommodating people.  So when I said, “Hey, you are normally great people, but this is a problem,” I was telling them that they weren’t quite as great of advocates as they wanted to be.

At that point, they could have responded two ways.  They could have said, “Oh, I didn’t know.  It’s easy to change the name of the room.”  Or they could have fought for their honor.  They chose the fight, not realizing that this doesn’t give you honor, it takes it away.

You want to show me you’re an ally?  It’s simple.  LISTEN.  Seriously, listen.  If people in a minority group tell you about something that’s hurting them, take it seriously.  Even if it means a little work or public acknowledgement of your change.

You want to show me you want a fight?  That’s simple too.  Ignore my pain and the discrimination you are showing.  Tell me it’s not as important as something else.  Tell me that you are really a good person.  Tell me that people I care about don’t need whatever it was I was asking for.  And then get mad at me for sticking to my own community and needs above that of a community discriminating against me.  For extra points make sure to tell me how I’m aggressive, over-reacting, trying to start a fight, or am otherwise acting against my cause – while you do nothing for my cause.

Your acts don’t tell me if your discriminatory.  They might tell me you might be discriminatory, but you also might just be ignorant – like the rest of us.  None of us can know everything about everyone’s experiences!  It’s your response to people who call out your ignorance that tells me if your a bigot.

You’re either a great person or a bigot.  It has nothing to do with whether you did something wrong.  It has everything to do with how you respond.  It’s your move (and my move).

On Oldie: A Story about Inappropriate Behavior

This is from my old website (well, with slight edits for grammar), a fictional (well, only slightly fictional) story about “inappropriate” behavior.  Too often, people dismiss behavior as “inappropriate” without truly understanding the reasons behind the behavior.

A Kitchen Tantrum

She’s in the kitchen, screaming at the top of her lungs.

You would think that a murder has occurred. It’s disturbing the entire family, interrupting everyone else. It’s demanding immediate attention from everyone in the house – everyone’s expected to just drop what they are doing, and come deal with this new crisis. There is no consideration for the other family members.

Once everyone rushes into the kitchen, you see the scene. She’s on top of a chair, holding a 8 inch long kitchen knife. She’s hysterical, and can’t be talked down from the chair. Yet, this has happened before, and people, after a little snicker, realize that this isn’t a major crisis after all. This is something we, as a family, can handle. Soon, we’ll be back to our own individual routines, but right now we have to handle the crisis.

A small mouse on a blue backgroundOf course mom is still screaming, “Get it out! Get it out!” Dad runs behind the chair, and tries to corner the small, and otherwise cute, fuzzy critter against the cabinet. Of course this critter is smarter than that, but with the help of one of the kids, we are able to scoop him up into a small cardboard box, take him outside, and release him – away from the sight of Mom.

While Mom is still out of breath, and obviously worked up, now that the problem has been dealt with, she’ll be back to slicing up vegetables for the evening dinner within 10 minutes. The crisis is over.

An Analysis

First, everyone (except maybe Mom) knows that Mom and the family were never in any real danger. The small mouse, weighing only a couple of ounces, never posed a threat. This is simply one of Mom’s phobias, one of the things we’ve grown use to living with her. She is terrified of mice, rats, large bugs, and a bunch of other things that scurry or crawl. We know that, and we’re willing to come to the rescue and help her out occasionally – heck, it gives us a chance to prove our masculinity by rescuing her from the horrible spider or mouse! We get to be the hero of the day when we remove such a creature from her presence.

Now picture the same story, but this time without a mouse. You might not know why the lady is standing on the chair with the knife. Obviously this is scary, but probably even more so for the lady, who is unable to tell you (at that point in time especially) what exactly is bothering her. She’s not rational, she’s waving a knife around, she’s screaming and hollering. Most people would be terrified – not of what she is scared of (since no one knows what it is), but rather of her. Is she going to jump down off that chair and stab the entire family? Is she going to hurt herself? Should we call the police? The ambulance? Is she off her medication?

Of course no one asked this about Mom. We saw the mouse, we understood what was frightening her, even if she wasn’t really ever in any danger.

A Real Danger

Too often, however, in such a situation, when it involves an autistic person, people assume that the autistic doesn’t have a reason for their actions – that they are simply irrationally violent and about to hurt someone. Often, rather than waiting for the person to naturally calm down (assuming they have a reliable communication system while calm), or examining the situation for possible stress, people assume irrationality in people who are different than them.

Yes, maybe the autistic person is terrified about something that truly isn’t dangerous – like our mouse. We do sometimes have fears that don’t make sense to everyone else. But so does Mom.

But, maybe, the reason we started screaming when we were told about how there would be no staff person to come by tomorrow, or that we would have to prove we still qualify for staff, is because we’re terrified of not having food to eat – of starving. I ask you: Which is more scary – a cute mouse or the prospect of starvation? Yet, Mom’s behavior is, well, expected, while the autistic who screams during a plan review session is acting inappropriately, even “violently”.

Sometimes I have a hard time understanding neurotypical behavior.