Confession: The label of “nice” has benefited me as a woman and a disabled person. A smiling face has literally opened doors for me. I’ve pretended to be fine to get things I’ve needed or just to avoid confrontation.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that, perhaps we should reward “niceness” is society, but what happens to people who get labelled “not nice” or “difficult”?
Where do these labels come from? What are their consequences? Do we lose something by silencing people who don’t follow the status quo?
I’m not talking about someone who oppresses others. There are many forms of “not niceness” with power. I’m talking about marginalized oppressed people who carry these labels around before they even speak. Who’ve been judged against Robert’s Rules of Order, or any system used to separate Others from professionals and decides who has a greater right to speak.
There are consequences on an individual level, with many examples. In advocacy groups made up of people labeled “professionals” and “community members”, those community members are more likely to be heard if they back up the professionals and keep their emotions in check, and speak when it’s their turn. A disabled person looking for services is more likely to get what they want when they’re articulate, and faces greater marginalization when they are not.
At a systemic level, it’s showing up in policy, through people who think social change can be brought about with legislation. Those fighting for accessibility legislation say it is the answer to our problems. Others want to introduce anti-poverty legislation, claiming income is an equalizer of fairness and respect. Sometimes activists are encouraged to play along, and keep quiet any talk about ableism or other forms of oppression…lest it disrupt sunny ways.
Don’t get me wrong, these groups are doing great work, but there’s a big piece missing. Accessibility and income cannot make up for those situations that leave us disadvantaged and devalues our humanity. Ableism and sanism are ugly truths, but we do ourselves a disservice by painting over those truths. It’s like trying to solve the wage gap between men and women without acknowledging sexism, or calling for an end to carding without acknowledging racism.
If we want change, it’s time to stop working within the same old rules and hierarchies.
It’s time to end the silencing of the uncomfortable.