White and disabled “privilege”

Following on from Umm Zaid’s post on “white privilege” and how it affects white Muslims, Ginny posted one on that topic and one on how it specifically affects her as a blind person who also happens to be a white woman. Nobody has so far commented on it, which is why I decided to post here to point people over to it, as well as offer a few comments of my own. Ginny talks of how, when she goes through airports, situations she expects to be stressful turn out not to be and people with a reputation for being hostile are helpful to her. She thinks she might be benefiting from not only “disabled privilege” but also white privilege: perhaps these same people would not be so helpful to a Muslim from another background who was disabled.

To be honest, as a sighted white male Muslim I don’t begrudge Ginny any of these benefits; they are not the perks of being a member of a dominant race, but rather, small compensation for what others see as a difficult life. Actually, disabled people face a lot of difficulty travelling: I have heard many stories about disabled people (including blind people) being removed from flights for “safety” reasons, and people in wheelchairs simply cannot use most of the London Underground. Until recently, on many middle-distance trains in England, they could not sit with other passengers, but had to travel in the unheated guard’s carriage with the excess baggage and bicycles.

I also think there’s a difference between this and the courtesies people used to show women (and in some places still do). A lot of women think them patronising; a lot of men might be unwilling to give up their seats to someone who most likely does an easier job than they do (albeit a less well-paid one); both might also have the perception that if women want equality, they must have equality in the hard things in life as well. This applies, of course, to some courtesies and not others; it does not apply to holding open doors, which many people would do for anyone. In the past, of course, the courtesies were not awarded to women for the political reason of them being an underprivileged class, but because it was the “gentlemanly” thing to do for a member of the fairer/weaker sex, and it no doubt offered the opportunity for a bit of momentary communication between the two. These days a lot of men say that while they wouldn’t do this for any female, they would give up their seats for a pregnant, elderly or disabled woman, a stance which often rebounds when they offer a seat to a woman they think is pregnant, but turns out just to be fat.

But it’s hard to disagree with Ginny’s suspicion that she is enjoying a combination of the privileges of the white and the disabled. A few months ago, in the aftermath of the bombings and bomb attempts in London, a police leader caused controversy when advising his officers not to waste their time searching little old white ladies; in other words, go for the dark-skinned young men. People just don’t expect trouble from elderly or disabled white ladies (at least not from Islamists today; in past decades it may well have come in the form of left-wing agitation). They may also underestimate the abilities of a blind person in particular.

Then again, perhaps it is simply the case that the airport security people she meets just don’t suspect her, and besides, lots of Muslims pass through security every day and most don’t have trouble. When Mas’ud Khan and one of his friends visited Chicago for the ISNA conference in 2004 ([1], [2], [3], [4], [5]), they reported that they did not have any trouble from immigration, and they are British Pakistanis (remember that the Tel Aviv pizza parlour bombing, involving two British Pakistanis, was only a year and a bit before that). No doubt Ginny’s name doesn’t resemble any of those on the terrorist watch list, a problem which arises because there are a lot of men in Muslim countries with similar names. And the treatment does occasionally happen to those who might be least expected to receive it; remember that it happened to Shaikh Hamza Yusuf, who was in the company of the president in the months after the 9/11 attacks.

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