Privilege, validation, and reflection

Privilege is such a tricky thing to talk about. Often people with privilege don’t like to admit it, or feel defensive if it’s pointed out. I often see people assume that privilege means that life has been handed to you on a silver platter and you didn’t have to work for anything, so if their privilege is pointed out, they think they are being accused of not having worked for what they accomplished.

In activism spaces, this is not what privilege means. Privilege is more subtle than that. Now, I’m not going to try to explain what privilege is. That would be a blog post all to itself, and there are plenty of really good write-ups out there that have explained it all much better than I could. Instead, I want to talk about one particular type of privilege (since privilege takes many different forms). It’s a general type I see a lot of when looking at various lists of privilege (white, male, cisgendered, and straight being the ones I see most often talked about). That is – that you see people like you on a regular basis. That your reality and identity is reflected back at you by popular media and the people around you.

When you enjoy that sort of privilege, it’s easy to take it for granted. In my post ‘autism and race,’ I wrote:

I need to confess something. Until that post by TheAutcast, it had never occurred to me to think much about autism and race. I am white and I sat comfortably in my white privilege, seeing white faces reflected back at me, and it did not occur to me to question this.

And it’s not like I’m blind to this sort of privilege. I’m aware of it with things like gender and disability. But when something about you is privileged, it’s really easy to just not notice.

I have also found that it’s easy to dismiss. I grew up with the message that external validation was going to end when I turned into an adult, and that people are not supposed to need that sort of thing. This, I think, had two basic results. In the areas where I do experience that kind of validation – seeing people who are like me – it’s easy to take little notice of it, or dismiss it as not “really” doing anything for me. In areas where I do not experience that kind of validation, I find that I wish I did, but I have vague feelings of guilt and shame associated with those desires.

I am slowly realizing, however, that this is actually a really big deal. Like that cheerios commercial, and some of the reactions I saw about how it’s SO AWESOME for biracial people and/or mixed families to actually see other people who look like them on TV. And, importantly, being portrayed in a totally casual, ‘this is no big deal,’ some families look like this kind of way.

Or this post talking about race and adoption, and the impact it can have on children to not regularly see people like themselves in their daily life.

And there’s the fact that I love seeing strong, confident characters on TV who also happen to be introverts. Or the times when people have reflected my gender identity back to me, validating and supporting me in it, and just how utterly good that felt.

This kind of thing matters. It’s a privilege that everyone should enjoy. I don’t really know of many neurodiverse characters being represented in popular media, and when it is implicitly referenced it is often in a not terribly positive way. I find myself wondering what it would be like if I saw a strong, confident TV character who just happened to flap their hands when excited, or spun in a chair when stressed, or was sometimes confused in social situations, or just needed to fixate on a few specks of dust sometimes. And if all those things were presented simply as part of who this person is, rather than with a “what’s wrong with you?” tone. No manic pixie dream girl, no person who’s funny because they are broken, just a strong, interesting character who happens to be on the autism spectrum.

Wouldn’t that be cool? I think seeing that, in a likable, positive character, would feel really good. I think it would be awesome.

This kind of thing matters. The validation of seeing people like you, of having your identity and your reality reflected back at you, it matters.



Filed under opinion

3 responses to “Privilege, validation, and reflection

  1. Would you have any advice for someone interested in making such a character but not sure how to go about it or afraid of “getting it wrong” and being unintentionally offensive?

    • Well my first bit of advice you’re already doing – talk to autistic adults. The broader a variety of perspectives you get, the better.

      More specifically than that – don’t make the mistake of treating autism as being purely a collection of deficits. Right now that still seems to be the dominant paradigm in many circles. Autism is pervasive, it’s often part of a person’s identity, and it impacts all sorts of things. Many times traits of autism can be portrayed as either good or bad; try to avoid portraying things as a negative if you don’t have to. For instance, “having obsessions” vs “passionate about their interests,” “splinter skills” vs “talents.” That sort of thing.

      Also, this post by ada hoffmann. Basically, while autism impacts everything, autism *itself* is not everything. Don’t make the mistake of treating an autistic character as nothing more than a characterization of autism.

      You know, I might be able to write a whole blog post trying to answer your question, but I’d have to let it simmer in my brain for a while first. Still, this is a start.

  2. Pingback: More on intersections | Aspergers and Me