(Image by Ashley Norquist used under CC 2.0 via)
It was one of those conversations where you bare all because you feel you have nothing to lose. A recent, unexpected statement about my dwarfism voiced to me by someone in a position of power had brought me to tears. Three decades of being insulted both directly and behind my back by people I know, and indirectly by many of my heroes—from John Lennon to Stephen Colbert—had left me thinking that I had heard it all and was above it all. But this had left me shaken. My friend Dee, who does not have dwarfism, cracked open two beers and examined with me the best way to deal with the insidiousness of certain prejudices.
Those of us with achondroplastic dwarfism are roughly 1 in every 40,000 people, but Dee himself has heard demeaning comments about dwarfs with far greater frequency. When confronting such remarks, he argued:
I wouldn’t use the “I have a friend who is a dwarf” argument. Because it would sound like I only care about the issue because I have a friend who could be hurt by it. It doesn’t convince other people because it doesn’t force them to examine why the idea is cruel. It just makes them think, “Well, I’ll be sure not to say that around him anymore because he’s touchy about it because of his friend…” Instead I play dumb. I keep asking them, “Why? I don’t get what you’re saying.” And they can never explain why.
I had never considered this before. Many people use the “I have a friend who is…” argument in the hopes that this might illustrate to the ignorant that such people are everywhere – that they are our friends and siblings and partners, not just oddities we get to abstractly pick apart in headlines and on TV. Yet that’s not what others hear.
And members of a given group often do not appreciate exaggerated claims of expertise on the issue via association. Madonna and Bill de Blasio, both white parents of non-white people, have been lambasted in the past year for publicly cracking black jokes that fell flat. NPR’s Karen Grigsby Bates explained it best when she wrote:
Even though you’re dearly loved by and even related to black people, you aren’t black. You are NBA — Negro By Association — and that gives you props for knowing the culture and lots of little intracultural folkways. But it doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail card for using phrases like C.P. Time. Especially in mixed company, in public.
The Kinfolk Kollective has argued that white parents of adopted black children must always be ready and willing to understand a perspective they simply do not have and to stand corrected when necessary. When such a willingness is absent, the issue is not at all about opening minds but the desire for insider expertise.
And “I’ve dated someone who is…” is not a solid argument—neither in defending the minority in question nor one’s own character—because simply having dated someone is no guarantee of true understanding. Not only are exes the last kind of people we tend to regard fairly, but so many people of minority status must face the risk that their date sees them as little more than a fetish – as in “I’ve always wanted to f*** a little person!”
And yet, in order stop rampant prejudice in its tracks, these issues must be talked about by those who are not experts. Journalists and writers like myself speak on behalf of all sorts of groups without belonging to them. The results are, of course, mixed.
In the film, Stories We Tell, producer Harry Gulkin argues that the truth about any issue cannot be found by giving equal weight to the perspectives of everyone involved in any way. There are, he argues, three circles of knowledge: The first, innermost circle comprises the people who are the players involved in the issue, the second comprises those who are directly affected by the players and their actions, and the third comprises those who tangentially know about it because they have heard accounts from those in the first or second circle. This theory applies easily to the experience of someone considered Different by their society and the other lives affected by the attention society affords it. Using the example of disability:
First Circle: The person who is disabled
Second Circle: Their parents, siblings, partners, closest friends (who are not disabled)
Third Circle: Relatives, friends, coworkers (who are not disabled)
The people in the Third Circle are most at risk for spreading misinformation, regardless of intention. It is noble, for example, to fight the good fight in the bathroom debate because you know someone trans whom you really like. But it doesn’t mean you won’t misinterpret their thoughts and feelings, or give in to temptation and reduce some of their story to gossip.
The people in the Second Circle, as Madonna proved, are also at risk for such blunders. And too many partners, close friends and immediate family members err by letting their darkest fears and most selfish impulses lead them to say or do something terrible to the person in the First Circle. But on the flipside, much of the best work in minority rights has been produced by partners and parents of frequently marginalized people. And the experiences of the caregiver and their place in society is another kind of knowledge altogether.
Returning to Dee’s approach, the goal should not be about personal relationships and expertise, but about the most effective way to open minds and halt the spread of misinformation.
Meanwhile, the More-Enlightened-Than-Thou game should be restricted to the smallest of circles. This was perhaps best elucidated to me by my friend Bill. Shortly after having come out, he mused to me, “I’ve decided you’re more open-minded than I am.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you have lots of friends who are gay. I only have one friend who’s a dwarf.” He took a sip of his Coke and smiled out of the corner of his eye. “And I’m thinking of dropping her.”