A comment was sent to me about the hospital letter and it is the closest thing to hate-mail that I have ever received. The more usual comment/email I get is glowingly complimentary thus I wasn’t sure what to do with this particular post!!! Though the writer was passionate in her expression of disgust towards me for writing the letter about my experience, she did raise a couple issues that might be important for readers to consider as I work through them myself. She claims that the worker had a right to freedom of speech, that I should have stopped to “educate” the worker regarding my experiences and views that opposed those she was espousing, and that I should not have sent a letter to her supervisors but instead handled it with her personally.
I’ll briefly respond to each of these issues below, then write about what all this might mean as we work toward a more socially-just way of being in the world:
Freedom of speech: This is tricky territory isn’t it? When does my “freedom of speech” become diminished as a result of the professional expectations of my job? How, or does, freedom of speech get played out differently in one’s work life and in one’s private life? I haven’t given enough thought to these questions to offer any insight here, but I do know that as an educator I do not see it as my “freedom of speech” right to denigrate groups of people who are supposed to be served by the educational system.
Stopping to “educate”: African American folks often complain that they are constantly expected to “educate” White folks about their racist ways, even when they were presumably unintended. Some people take on this position happily while others steer completely clear of it. Perhaps working-class and poor people should also be expected to “educate” middle-class and affluent folks about their classist ways – even if they are presumably unintended? I don’t believe this is always possible, nor always the best route to take, but I’ll offer some thoughts here:
1. On a better day, I might have pushed back a little and (too) politely asked, “Why do you say that?” or “I actually disagree with that,” because I do those things on a regular basis. But I was in PAIN, exhausted, and more than anxious to just simply get out of the hospital and get home. I didn’t have it in me in that moment – and there are many other moments when I don’t have it in me either.
2. I completely agree that personal interactions are an important way to work toward changing racist, classist, sexist, etc. beliefs and behaviors. But such change is not likely to happen in a 5-minute one-time talk with a stranger. At least a letter to the facility will put the issue on their radar and perhaps create opportunities for more “talk” about the issue to be ongoing and productive rather than a one-time shot.
3. So, I guess, I believe that it takes lots of efforts on lots of levels (interpersonal, institutional, private, public) to work toward a society that is filled with people who respect one another and act in respectful, non-judgmental ways.
Don’t go to the supervisor: Would the commenter suggest that this is true if the worker violated me directly (shaming me for being on Medicaid) rather than indirectly? My guess is no, at least my advice to anyone who is personally violated by a worker in an institution that is supposed to be caring for citizens would be to approach the worker’s supervisor to register a complaint. So…how is it different when the listener of offensive comments does not directly belong to the group that is being overtly offended? Does the listener have the right to complain? Ask for an apology? Go to a supervisor?
Here’s what I think: Different experiences are differentially “offensive” to me as a person, and differentially offensive to others as well. I have experienced thousands of interactions that are blatantly classist – some against me, others against me indirectly, and still others that were much farther removed from me personally. Sometimes these experiences make me feel so powerless in the situation that I simply can’t respond in the moment – and those are times when after-the-fact letters, complaints, conversations, etc. may be the only recourse. Other times the experiences are so enraging that I can’t help but lose my temper in such moments. But, most of the time, the experiences are somewhere between those poles and I make decisions about which offensive comments to essentially ignore, which ones to register in my mind and decide not to patronize the business any more, which ones to “talk about” with family, friends, and colleagues afterwards, which ones to push-back on in the moment requesting that the offender reconsider her/his comments, and which ones to take-on beyond the offender.
On my spectrum of offensive, had the woman in the hospital stopped the bantering when I tried to wheel myself out of the office, I would have likely ignored it or talked to friends, family, and colleagues, but little beyond that. It was the persistence of the comments even as I was trying to politely excuse myself that pushed me to take-on the issue in a broader way. I was not in a position to “handle” this issue with the woman personally, and feel very strongly that this is an issue that is much bigger than me and the woman in that office. It is unfortunately an issue that impacts millions of people’s lives daily and therefore should be talked about, cared for, and responded to in public, private, and institutional ways.
What are the best ways to work toward change?
My favorite answer – it depends.
Sometimes it’s interpersonally, sometimes it’s publicly, sometimes it’s through writing, sometimes it’s through relentless pushing-back, sometimes it’s through revolt, sometimes it’s through teaching, sometimes it’s through kindness, sometimes it’s through anger, sometimes it’s through sheer desperation. But it’s always through passion and persistence.