Of all the personal taglines I’ve used online over the past twenty-six years, the current I think basically sums it up: “Mediocre white guy.” I feel compelled, then, to share a bit from Michael Harriot’s write-up of a phone call with Pete Buttigieg.
“A mediocre white kid with mediocre intelligence and mediocre parents can easily make it in America,” I explained, blackly. “A smart black kid with smart parents and a supportive community still has to fight every day to hope to reach the levels of what a mediocre white man accomplishes. And, odds are, they still might not make it.”
When I actively refer to myself as a mediocre white guy, I don’t mean it to suggest an ignorance of the above; the world is full of mediocre white guys lavishing upon themselves successful lives, if not also inflicting the downsides of that success upon the people around them.
It’s true that generally I consider myself a failure and a fuckup, up to and including as an actually-autistic person who feels more or less constantly barraged by the existence of successful autistic people. It’s also true that there are many backgrounds from which I could have come that would not have afforded me to fail and fuckup so regularly at life, across four decades, and yet still be housed, fed, and yet nonetheless remain, for now, essentially comfortable.
All of which I’d wanted to sit down and mention for the past few days anyway, but today felt like the day to do it because I got so (autistically?) rankled over a Twitter thread about criticism of a book by an autistic teen in which the reviewer focuses on questions of privilege.
(This included pushback against the reviewer calling out Greta Thunberg’s privilege and while they definitely pushed the line here they also aren’t wrong. Does anyone think a black African teenager skipping school or sailing across the ocean would generate the same sorts of coverage as Thunberg? That doesn’t take away from Thunberg’s passion and commitment, but denying her privilege seems weird to me. The author is right that privilege is relative—it’s certainly different to be a white man versus a white woman—but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. To suggest “privilege” is a “dangerous” term, though, is very problematic and convenient; “privilege” does not mean “never had any problems”.)
Much of the support given to the author seems to suggest that the review says more about the reviewer than it does about the author, but that seems to me almost exactly the very point the reviewer was making: the book effectively is about the author but presented as universally applicable.
It’s not, after all, The White Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic or even just One Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How I Grew Up Awesome and Autistic but The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic.
No one appears to have suggested that book not be written at all, per se, including the reviewer’s wish that the book had addressed “our patriarchal, racist, sexist, capitalist society”, but the author’s response that “these topics would have involved writing a very different book aimed at a very different audience” and that she “wasn’t qualified to write about racism” very much reads as a white-as-default perspective.
That’s what “these topics would have involved writing a very different book aimed at a very different audience” means, in the end, regardless of intention or self-awareness. The author wrote a book about her own of-course-valid experiences but the book is presented as for the “spectrum girl”.
I’ve talked before about how exhausting I find autism Twitter, which is why I unfollowed most of it, and while the Twitter thread isn’t necessarily representative, I only learned of it because a prominent actually-autistic account retweeted the author’s original post. This is a community that sometimes talks up intersectionality, and yet doesn’t seem to see the fail here.
Who and what is the “the” in “The Spectrum Girl”, if not the author representing what’s viewed as the default experience, with considerations of things like race being for “a very different audience”?
Being white and privileged doesn’t mean you never get to speak, but in 2019 it does mean you’ve a responsibility to be more self-aware about the position from which you get to do that speaking. You don’t get a pass because you’re white, privileged, and autistic. Or young.
Is there a The Black Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide? Not according to this Amazon search. Even publishing a book is a position of privilege, and it shouldn’t be controversial to suggest that should be acknowledged by those who get to do it.