Us vs. Them

In my last post, I talked about “otheringautism.  What exactly is othering?   Some who responded to the post seemed to feel that othering and ill will are synonymous.  That if the latter doesn’t exist, then neither can the former. I disagree.  In my experience, it can often be done by those with the best intentions.

My sister-in-law, whom I’ll call V, has a developmental disability. Although our disabilities are different, there are many times I feel a commonality with her that I rarely feel with others. But sometimes when we are together, strange dynamics occur.

One that most troubles me is one which I’ve come to call the “We/She” dynamic. It’s a dynamic many fall into almost without even realizing it. Especially when those we are with know about her disability, but not about mine.

Talking in a group, I’ll begin to notice a “drift” to the conversation.  This is where the We/She dynamic begins.  WE have “real” jobs.  SHE works in a sheltered workshop.  WE have our own homes, SHE lives at home with her parents.  SHE has sensory issues.  WE don’t.

Little do they know how often I feel that I have far more in common with her than I ever will with the WEs of this world.

Although it’s often done with the best of intentions—to educate, or to help others understand why she sometimes acts differently—I can’t help but be sensitive to the message such conversation sends to her.  It’s isolating, and it’s one I know well.

The implicit message in such dualistic communication is simple: You are different.  YOU are not like US.  That’s othering—it’s a way of thinking that emphasizes the differences more than the similarities.  And it can be caustic.

Which is why, when V and I are together, I try to focus on what we share—just as I would with anyone else.  I talk to her about her latest boyfriend.  Her job.  Music.  Movies we both like. The frailties of those we both love. There are far more similarities than differences. 

All too often, people forget the subtle impacts of their words, even if they’re well meant.  It’s something I’ve learned from personal experience, to my chagrin.

One afternoon, after my in-laws came for a visit, my husband and I accompanied them to the airport.  As the rest of the group dealt with the logistics of luggage, I stood off to the side with V.  Knowing how stressful such a chaotic environment can be for me, and how acute her own sensory issues are, I was concerned.  

I watched for subtle signs of stress, and saw them almost immediately.  I looked down at her hands.  They were shaking.  I put my hand out to rub her back, and felt the tension in the muscles there.  I looked at her eyes, and they were moist.

“You don’t like this much, do you?” I asked.

“No.” Her voice broke as the tears threatened to break free. 

I reached out, rubbed her back again. “I know.” I said, squeezing her hand. “I don’t like it much either.”  And I stuck by her side until it finally came time for them to leave.

Airport Security

As my husband and I stood watching them go, I let go a heavy sigh.  “Poor V.” I said, “ This is so hard for her.”  In that exact moment, her head jerked up, and she stared directly at me, as if she’d heard me.

Then, I realized that given her hyperacusis (hyper-sensitive hearing), it was entirely likely that she had.  And I realized with a sinking feeling what my statement, meant in sisterly solidarity, must have sounded like to her:  Pity. 

As I watched her go, the knowledge sat like a rock in my stomach. And I wished I could tell her what I hoped she already knew.  I fiercely wanted to chase after her, hold her and say:

“Don’t you ever think I pity you.  I know what it’s like. I know what it’s like to have your feelings dismissed, because you’re ‘too different’ and ‘you’ll never understand.’  I know what it’s like, to be treated like a child. To have people ruffle your hair, and call you ‘cute’ even though you’re a grown woman.

I see all these things happen to you and I see how you handle them, better than I ever have.  I see the grace that you embody every day. The patience with which you treat the ignorance of the world.

So, don’t you ever think I pity you,” I wanted to say, “Because I respect you too much.”

But I couldn’t say it.  Because I didn’t know if she’d heard me, or what she might be thinking.  To this day, I still don't know, and I don’t know if I ever will. How in the world could I ever bring it up, without potentially reinforcing the very thing I was so afraid I had unintentionally conveyed?  The memory of that day still haunts me. 

It serves as a constant reminder to me to weigh every word, because it’s all too easy to send a damaging message without intending it; and it’s way more difficult to contain the damage, once done.

I don’t want her to ever again have cause to feel that I feel about her any differently than I do.  I don’t want her to feel distanced, “othered.”  I want her to feel loved and included. Which is why I speak up to so many about how they speak about others. 

Do you count the cost of your words? Do they distance, or do they include?

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