I consider myself to be a fairly open person. You can ask me pretty much anything, and so long as it is asked with respect in the context of some form of a relationship, even one that is just starting, I will answer you as honestly as I feel comfortable. I recognize that I have knowledge and a perspective that many people don't share and I am always happy to share the theories I have come across as well as my own experiences. I am not however, willing to let that openness be transformed into something where I am akin to the monkey at the zoo.
Within the last week or so I've had a few experiences that made me start to question why I do keep myself so open to other people and where do I draw the line.
A group of Social Work students (From a program with a strong anti-oppression foundation) approached me and asked if I would help them with a group project on disability within the school. Given that this past year I sat on and chaired many disability-related committees and had my own lived experiences of disability I felt that I was in an excellent position to provide them with a really detailed look at who the major players are regarding disability at the school, and exactly what each committee and group was doing.
I met with one girl, and she was awesome. We had a great conversation about disability, and even though it was clear that she hadn't been exposed to a lot of disability theory or know much about what the issues were, she engaged with respect and sensitivity and all of the things that make people an awesome ally. As we were leaving I mentioned that if there were other members of her group who wanted to contact me, she could go ahead and share my contact information and I would be happy to meet with them or talk to them.
A couple of days ago as the project was getting closer to being due, I got an email from another group member. Whereas the email from the first person had engaged respectfully, had asked for my time and a discussion, this person took it for granted that I would be willing to help them, and in the same email where they were asking me for help attached a list of questions that if I just wouldn't mind answering them and sending them back to him, that would be great.
When I read the questions I was kind of shocked. Initially off the bat the first question was who are you at the school? Staff/Student/Faculty, able/disabled, male/female? I felt reduced to someone who could be put into this little tiny binary box to be dissected and examined. It would have been one thing if the question had been phrased "Can you tell me a little bit about who you are within the school community?" Perhaps using the interviewing and counselling skills that they teach in the social work program. Or, perhaps recognizing the privileged position that allows you to even ask those questions to someone else. It was terrifying to me that someone who is in school to be a Social Worker and who will be working with marginalized and oppressed populations for the entirety of their career could approach a person in such an intrusive manner.
I'd like to be able to say that I called them out on their oppressive behaviour. The truth is that I tried to fight for some basic respect. I put out there that if they wanted to talk about these things they were complicated so they needed to happen in person rather than email. I tried to get them to realize that that meeting should happen in a time and manner that was convenient for me. Sadly in the end I gave in and had this conversation in a manner that I didn't want to. I'd like to hope that now this person at least has a better understanding of what the issues are, but I am disappointed with myself that I didn't feel convinced enough that what they were doing was oppressive to call them out on that behaviour. For their own good, and the good of everyone that they will come across.
I think it is shocking though how many people there are like this in the world. For me it was shocking that even though I've had more than my share of run-ins with close-minded oppressive service providers, that these people are in my school and that they come from somewhere. That there are people who treat people like they should be in an exhibit and studied rather than as full citizens to engage with. That as much as I live in a socially aware little bubble, there is still a big world out there that would rather study me and examine me from afar rather than actually see me as a person.