Michael Warner notes that here in the U.S. “[being] normal probably outranks all other social aspirations” in the Disability Studies Reader. I know I often want to fit in with my communities and participate.
But does this desire to participate also force conformity and exclusion? Through seeking “normalcy” does U.S. culture also diminish and stigmatize those who do not fit the traditional ideas of “being normal?”
It probably doesn’t take you too long to think of how true this sentiment is, that our “culture of normalcy” demands people to meet many unrealistic expectations. In addition, those who have this view also believe everyone wants to meet the norm and if they don’t meet it, must be “suffering” or have a “difficult life.”
This directly connects to ableism, which is the idea that what a person can achieve or their ability to live a fulfilling life is determined by their disability. Thus anyone who is disabled lives “less of a life” than those who are nondisabled.
In particular this “culture of normalcy” perpetuates the oppression of disabled communities by “othering” people and viewing them as individuals outside the norm.
Changing our language (e.g. saying “people with disabilities” instead of “disabled”) means little if we resist changing our actions, institutions, and broader culture.
I’m going to look at what some incredible activists point out as the core attributes of this “culture of normalcy” and what we can do to promote a new narrative of disability that seeks justice and inclusion of difference instead of trying to force assimilation/conformity.
Ok, so I still don’t quite get what “Normalcy” is…
Well below I’ve got a list of the core attributes of our “culture of normalcy” and how it contributes to negative actions and injustice. So let’s go ahead and get started!
The “Culture of Normalcy…”
Creates the illusion that a “normal” way of living/acting/being actually exists
What’s considered “normal” today is completely different from the norm 100 years ago and even just 10-20 years ago. It will also continue to change.
Lennard Davis notes that “[normal] is a configuration that arises in a particular historical moment. It is part of a notion of progress, of industrialization, and of ideological consolidation [of power].” This means, our definitions of normal support those in power and the dominant worldview, rather than being based in any intrinsic attributes.
Human difference is so vast that it’s impossible to say there’s only one way to live/act/be in this complicated world. This is one reason we have so many attitudes of ableism (i.e. oppression towards those with disabilities), heteronormativism, and sizeism (i.e. oppression towards those of certain body sizes).
For example, many in the Deaf community view themselves as part of a linguistic minority rather than having a “disability.” These communities note that they don’t feel “cut off” from the rest of the world, but rather just speak a different language.
We must NOT deem any life “abnormal” just because they have a different way of learning, communicating, or moving.
Forces compulsion to be “like everyone else”
If an individual or group is different in some way, then I see so many examples of people wanting to “help” them “fit in.” Why can’t they just fit in by being who they are?
One common sign of this is for school photos that involve students in wheelchairs. Parents or staff will often setup photos so that they hide the wheelchair and, thus, makes the kid seem “normal.”
It seems to me that this is clearly about making everyone else more comfortable, not to make the student feel more included.
If our society didn’t have such a fear of difference, then it wouldn’t matter whether someone used a wheelchair, communicated differently, etc. or not.
To continue the example in the last section about Deaf communities, U.S. society has often forced the Deaf to not learn sign language and communicate “normally” (e.g. which has some similarities to how the U.S. forced Native Americans to speak English and not speak their tribe’s language).
So whether it’s with the “helpful” mindset or through force, the “culture of normalcy” makes some think they have a duty/responsibility to make every “fit in” even if they just included them as they are, then they wouldn’t need to do anything else.
Puts emphasis on people to “overcome a disability” rather than seeking societal changes
How many stories do you hear about people with disabilities who “overcome their disability” and are considered heroes? What does that mean?
Does it mean they are a “hero” because they are now “like everyone else?”
The phrase “overcoming a disability,” Simi Linton notes in Reassigning Meaning, puts a huge emphasis on the disabled to work harder rather than focusing on what our society needs to do to change.
This also steers those with disabilities to internalize oppression by thinking they must “do more” to “overcome their disability,” even if that shouldn’t be the message we send.
I’ll look more in-depth at some of the societal changes we need to push for, but for now just remember how the phrase “overcoming a disability” makes people feel OK about accepting the status quo. Instead, we still have a long way to go before reaching a truly inclusive society.
Makes people believe that everyone wants to be “Normal,” because their life must be full of suffering
Marsha Saxton in The Disability Studies Reader writes “the stereotyped notions of the ‘tragedy’ and ‘suffering’ of ‘the disabled’ result from the isolation of disabled people in society.”
Marsha Saxton goes on to write that impairments (e.g. mental or physical) are an inconvenience, however “It is discriminatory attitudes and thoughtless behaviors, and the ensuing ostracism and lack of accommodation, that makes life difficult.”
These statements highlight that most people with disabilities suffer most because of oppression, discrimination, and lack of opportunities. Even those with […]
“Patriarchy has no gender.”
― bell hooks in Teaching Critical Thinking: Practical Wisdom
bell hooks’ quote is a clear reminder that patriarchy does not just describe male actions of domination, but also how some organizations and cultural narratives function.
Patriarchy, like most forms of oppression, has a way of trying to convince us that, in the words of the Crunk Feminist Collective “things are the way they are because they have to be, that they have always been that way, that there are no alternatives and that they will never change.”
From Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony to bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Audre Lorde, people have been resisting this mentality and pointing out another path away from unjust power systems.
Through the rest of this post I’m going to summarize intersectional changemakers’ ideas on:
The current state of patriarchy The frames that perpetuate the acceptance of patriarchy Examples of patriarchy in our current institutions The main long-term efforts we can take to combat patriarchy
We’re lucky that that numerous changemakers have already clearly demonstrated what we need to do to dismantle patriarchy. Now we just all have to integrate these actions into all of our organizing efforts.
The core attributes of patriarchy
Patriarchy is a system that has many elements associated with it. Below are some of the key expressions of patriarchy:
Holds up the traditional male qualities as central, while other qualities are considered subordinate. The attributes of power, control, rationality, and extreme competitiveness are examples of these traditional male qualities. Emotional expressiveness, compassion, and ability to nurture are examples of subordinate qualities in patriarchal systems.
Dualistic and gendered thinking of roles. Within this structure, men and women both have their own specific roles (e.g. men leading, and women supporting). Even though this view may appear to be fading in some areas, it’s clear that certain careers historically associated with women (e.g. childcare and teaching) have disproportionately lower salaries.
Male domination. Men often occupy the most important and visible roles (e.g. executives, politicians, public leaders, etc.). Women who do hold these positions are expected to subscribe to male norms.
Protection of traditional patriarchal social structures. If a person or group challenges patriarchy in any form, then the patriarchal response is to increase control. In particular, this means increasing control over oppressed or marginalized groups.
Reinforcement of other types of oppression. Patriarch contributes to racism, sizeism, and homophobia. Third Wave feminists, such as Rebecca Walker, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and Cherríe Moraga, are the major voices to articulate this truth. All of the manifestations of patriarchy mentioned above, magnify for those with other oppressed identities.
However, one other important point to remember is, as described on the Daily Kos, “patriarchy is generally not an explicit ongoing effort by men to dominate women. It is a long-standing system that we are born into and participate in, mostly unconsciously.”
This means, that people of all gender identities can perpetuate patriarchy, even if it is mainly male-identified individuals that reap most of the societal benefits.
For a powerful succinct description of patriarchy, check out bell hooks’ article Understanding Patriarchy.
Frames that perpetuate patriarchal ideas
“Boys will be boys.” This idea that men are biologically “programmed” to behave certain ways, against all scientific evidence, is one of the biggest cultural narratives that continues our current patriarchal systems.
Celebrating “macho” or “alpha” men.
Jackson Katz, in his book The Macho Paradox, discusses how society often promotes violent and controlling aspects of male culture. From lifting up the “strong” hero to denigrating “sissies,” our language and media foster this image of what “real men” look like.
Men believing they should be silent, instead of challenging other men on patriarchal and sexist ideas/actions. One of the most insidious characteristics of patriarchy, as mention above, is that it seeks to protect traditional male traits and actions. Even of some men would never subscribe to certain actions/ideas/language, they ignore when their peers commit those very same things.
While there are countless other frames that prop up patriarchy, these are a few of the most prominent.
How patriarchy manifests itself in current society
There are numerous ways the mass media accentuates patriarchal ideas and thoughts.
The media amplifies patriarchal viewpoints through:
Negative coverage of sexual violence (e.g. the commentary of the Steubenville rape case – focused on how a guilty verdict would impact the young football players, rather than on the survivor’s life) Promoting gender binaries Unceasing discussion of women’s appearances and body image Objectifying “transgender women’s bodies by focusing on their physical transitions”
In addition, the journalism industry itself reserves most senior analyst and producer positions for men. Further, both men and women that do have these jobs must make sure to spin their stories that subscribe to dominant patriarchal narratives, instead of challenging them.
Men disproportionately occupy top leadership positions, often because they exhibit those very same traditional male traits (e.g. outspoken, “rational,” and individual-based leadership).
In addition women often have “lower salaries, appointments at lower ranks, slower rates of promotion and lower rates of retention, and less recognition through awards.” This trend continues despite widespread recognition, which to me indicates that we still need to address the root causes (i.e. patriarchal culture).
Bruce Kokopeli and George Lakey write “Patriarchy tells men that their need for love and respect can only be met by being masculine, powerful, and ultimately […]
This article is cross-posted on the incredible Heath Mitchell’s Advance Humanities Fellow blog.
For many people the world over, today is the holiest day of the year. According to the Jewish calendar, today is Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement.
This holiday is observed through a day-long fast and a great deal of praying and repenting. Including most notably, a confessional prayer called Al Chet. Jews pray today, the culminating day of the ten days of awe, that their names will be sealed in the book of life for the coming year.
On this Yom Kippur in the Hebrew year of 5774, my dear friend Drew Serres of Organizing Change and I decided to refocus the community of congregants. Instead of Jews focusing on sins outlined in the Bible. What kind of list might we generate for our audience of people who are united not by religion but rather a drive to create change beauty and justice in the world?
The Jewish confession is less about what you personally did wrong over the past year and more focused on what the Jewish people as a collective have done. It’s communal.
If you choose to adopt a more Universalist outlook, as I do, this repentance demands that believers be not only accountable for their own actions, but the actions of well, really, humankind.
Consider the following a list of human failings that we commit in acting for social change and humanitarian efforts.
1. Seeking to support others, without thinking about ourselves, and “burning out” instead of building a resilient social change culture.
2. Focusing on a single issue (e.g. climate change and health care reform) as opposed to working for intersectional, and cross-issue campaigns/projects.
3. Engaging in campaigns that are sexy rather than campaigns that are more impactful but garner less limelight.
4. Expecting our reason and facts should be enough to convince people we are right (i.e. talking at someone), rather than just talking to individuals like you would to “A Friend in a Bar” (i.e. talking with someone).
5. Looking down on activists whose passions we do not share (“How can someone care so much about animal treatment when people are dying in _____?!”).
6. Getting angry at people who aren’t active agents of change or advocates for social justice (i.e. people we may call apathetic).
7. Believing good intentions are enough to make positive change, even though we know these good intentions can lead to negative results when not tied to clear analysis.
8. Congratulating ourselves too much for our lofty ideals.
9. Ignoring our own creative energy and needs, without considering ways we can instil it within our own activist life and organizations.
10. Fostering a negative mentality/isolating ourselves when something doesn’t go as planned (e.g. low-attendance at an event or unsuccessful lobbying for a particular piece of legislation), instead of learning/seeking our supportive community.
11. Attaching our own self worth to a project’s success or failure.
12. Mistaking self-defeating talk for humility.
13. Comparing ourselves to people who do less/more to make ourselves feel better/worse rather than being inspired to emulate/lead.
14. Thinking that any given problem can be solved with a single “silver bullet” solution instead of needing multiple impactful approaches.
15. Getting discouraged by the enormity and entrenched nature of the status quo.
16. Focussing too much on what is broken rather than using appreciative inquiry to bolster that which is already working well and could work better still.
17. Ignoring the big picture or ignoring the details.
18. Getting pulled into a professionalized nonprofit world that doesn’t allow for accountability to the grassroots movement and limits us to social services, rather than addressing root issues.
19. Letting the importance of data/research get in the way of listening to and acting on people’s stories and calls to action.
20. Falling into the logic that good ideas need money to work or thinking that money alone can solve a problem.
21. Separating “work” and “life” as opposed to building a supportive community of activists.
22. Remaining neutral when injustice is occurring because it’s “not my issue/expertise” or it’s “too political” instead of speaking out or actively supporting the actions of those who do organize against injustice.
23. Thinking that change can only come from the top or that no change can come from the top.
24. Using “its just the culture” as an excuse for why change cannot happen.
25. Stooping to degrading or oppressive imagery or marketing slogans to raise funds (e.g. “Poverty Porn”).
26. Publicly promoting accomplishments, without taking significant time to internally reflect and celebrate as a team within our groups.
27. Over-selling the amount of change an idea can produce.
28. Sharing our successes and hiding our failures, when others could learn valuable lessons from both.
29. Putting in time for short-term victories, instead of also putting in the effort for sustained long-term movements.
30. Waiting for someone else to give us a vision for how the world can be, instead of outlining our own world vision as a way to inspire action.
32. Using online media and mobilizing as if they were the same as on-the-ground or face-to-face organizing (e.g. go to meet someone or pick up the phone rather than sending that email!).
33. Perpetuating the “[white, male, etc.] Savior Industrial Complex,” and focusing on what we want for people as opposed to listening to and following the people most impacted by oppression.
34. Adopting polemic stances of the oppressed and the oppressor wherein change is pitted against groups or institutions (environmentalism= nature versus corporations, feminism= women versus men, racial equality= minorities versus whites, etc).
35. Thinking empowerment is about instilling new ideas/skills in someone, rather than as a […]
“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” – Desmond Tutu
I grew up trying to be neutral so seeing this quote was one of a few that completely altered my life’s direction.
I enjoy being a positive person, but when being a positive person leads me to avoid taking sides or hiding my true values then I am being an individual who supports our current power structures.
Desmond Tutu’s words show us that as our nonprofits, community organizations, and friends increasingly state their desire to be “nonpartisan,” we must remind them that by aiming for neutrality/nonpartisanship they buttress our oppressive systems.
Desmond Tutu, one of the world’s leading moral voices and activist for ending institutionalized oppression, saw first-hand in South Africa how being neutral was a partial reason for the continued strength of the apartheid system.
Freedom fighters struggled for decades before the international community stepped out of their “neutral policies” and denounced South Africa’s apartheid state. Even then, many nations advocated for gradual reforms from the government, instead of supporting the movement demanding the realization of the Freedom Charter (principles for a new just society) and the overthrow of colonialist institutions.
South Africa and the United States reduced their levels of repression only when committed groups and individuals took a strong stand for the values of justice for all people.
Silence and neutrality
“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” – Elie Wiesel
Today we are constantly faced with injustice (e.g. school-to-prison-pipeline and exploiting indigenous land to fuel dominant fossil fuel use), though many times we stay silent. Some may be quite vocal about a few issues, but remain neutral in areas “outside their area.”
In particular, I’ve seen so many organizations refuse to do what they think is right, because taking action “might upset the funders.”
Most funders, whether from foundations or government, encourage organizations to work within existing power structures, resist groups that are politically active and mobilize against governmental, financial, or cultural systems (even if they clearly perpetuate disenfranchisement). This suppression of activism occurs because funders are already deeply entrenched in current ways of operating.
If our groups are operating under the barrier that they must be neutral and avoid confronting our existing institutions of power, then don’t you think they are going to have to keep solving the same symptoms of poverty, educational inequality, and health disparity over and over again?
Impossible to actually be neutral
“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral ” – Paulo Freire
Often in more liberal or community development fields, there is a strong desire to remain impartial and “objective.” However, in doing so they “side with the powerful.”
While having a desire for collaboration, consensus, and community is not bad necessarily, we have to keep in mind that these ideals can expand the reach of injustice.
For example, dominant male culture promotes the expectation that men should ignore sexism and just accept that “boys will be boys.” This passive bystander approach to sexism, is one of the main contributors to our extremely high rate of sexual violence.
By saying one is “not going to take sides” and just remain on the sidelines (e.g. allowing someone to blame the victim), these individuals provide their tacit acceptance.
So how we change this culture of neutrality?
Building a culture of active response to injustice
“The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict…[an individual] who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.’s quote provides another voice that starkly outlines the damage caused by neutrality, but it also leads to one of the primary ways we can build a culture of active response to injustice.
Speak out against any and all injustice, both large and small. Whether you witness an act of interpersonal oppression (e.g. homophobic comments) or you see a trend of institutionalized oppression (e.g. the media and politicians correlating those with mental health issues and violence), try to find ways to illuminate darkness.
Share the voices of those committed to exposing injustice. If you are not ready to be as vocal as you wish, highlighting the thoughts and actions of those dedicated to denouncing injustice (e.g. Angry Asian Man and Feministing) is a great way to build your own courage (it certainly helped me!).
Analyze areas of your organization and life to see where you have remained neutral, in order to decide how you will become active against oppression. I know I rarely, if at all, thought about where I was neutral since it was so ingrained in my every behavior. Thus, you may need to take a close look at where you are quiet and where you have started to express yourself.
Agitate for increasing how your organization (and even yourself) encourages an environment of active responses to injustice. Identity how you can provide training, change policies, and lead by example.
Desmond Tutu, Elie Wiesel, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King Jr., provide a clear moral and strategic outlook at how we can approach neutrality. Their lives show that taking a stand is challenging, but is essential to dismantling injustice. Luckily, we have the opportunity to learn from their experiences.
Have thoughts or examples on other ways to resist neutrality? Post your thoughts on Organizing Change’s Facebook page!
I know I have many good intentions for my work, but what if I’m wrong?
These conversations I have with friends or with my trusty journal, about ensuring our work remains positive, often make for difficult times; however, the time I put into critically thinking always pays off.
So if you ever have doubts about the work you are doing and then making sure to have challenging reflections, then you are probably going in the right direction.
If you’ve never seriously considered the idea of being wrong (and I mean really thought about it, not just in idle moments), then you probably should be.
When people don’t consider the impacts of their intentions
For those familiar with U.S. politics, it’s not hard to find a time where inflexible world views about what was right and wrong led to terrible results. With so many to choose from, here’s just a few examples:
Starting Indian boarding schools: many thought keeping indigenous children in boarding schools would teach students how to “succeed” in the “civilized world.” In what was one of the most heinous of U.S. policies, children were traumatically ripped from their families, not allowed to speak their native language, and forced to demonstrate Western ways and values. Spreading democracy: U.S. officials, along with a significant number of the general public, felt that U.S.-style democracy was the best form of government and thus, the U.S. should “export democracy.” This included supporting military coups against democratically elected leaders (e.g. Allende in Chile), and installing military dictators favorable to U.S. foreign/corporate policy. Eliminating sign language: some felt that sign language created a barrier for the Deaf to “assimilate into U.S. society.” These folks did not/do not recognize the Deaf community as a linguistic minority with the desire for ensuring self-determination. Capturing Joseph Kony: the Kony 2012 campaign advocated for capturing Kony through military intervention, and focused on what outsiders could do to “help.” Teju Cole brilliantly writes how the Kony 2012 campaign fostered a “White Savior” narrative, ignored the solutions promoted by Ugandans, and encouraged militarization of the U.S.-backed dictator Yoweri Museveni.
I could keep on going with this list, but you get the idea.
Our past and present is littered with cases of people doing what they thought was right, only to detrimentally impact those they were trying to “help” (though without even asking if those communities wanted their assistance).”
How to have good intentions AND good results!
Whenever I try to think of the work I’m doing and whether it is having my intended impact on the world, I make sure to take time to listen and carefully reflect. Make sure to consider if what you are doing is right for you AND others or if it is more the former.
Support efforts for self-determination and let the community identify its own needs, don’t say what someone needs without even bothering to really understand.
Always leave open the possibility that you are wrong. It’s easy to find yourself always in the right if you never consider the possibility of being wrong.
Oftentimes, nobody knows the right answer or there are multiple competing ideas. This is where you must research and evaluate the impacts of your work to see if it is having the intended effect.
Accept criticism and be willing to be uncomfortable. I know I sometimes want to push away or not really acknowledge criticism of my work (especially if I have taken time to prepare and considered multiple points of view); however, I never want to get into a place where I am only hearing those who agree with me.
Identify your personal frames and their influence on your proposed solutions. Many times the most intersectional responses require us to move back and see what preconceived notions may impact our analysis.
So when we work for change, good intentions are critical; however, just as critical is a well thought-out understanding of the situation. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just have to remember we don’t always have all the answers 🙂
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