Confronting Ableism by “Looking” in the Mirror

February 5, 2018

I’ve got eighteen interviews in the bag for my Recovering Asshole podcast. Each of them has been a step on the path of me understanding my vast privileges. I’ve learned about white fragility and what it’s like to live in a large woman’s body. I’ve gained insight from transgendered, immigrant, and even left-handed perspectives. Perhaps the most revealing interview was the most recent one (#18) about disabilities and ableism. My desire to have this conversation was rooted in my fear about not knowing how to talk about and to people with physical and mental disabilities. My shame was the realization that, in my life, I had probably done more harm than good.


As a sociologist of extremism, I’ve lectured about the history of eugenics in Hitler’s Third Reich. The first act of the “Final Solution” was the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” All people with an “inherited disease” (which included everything from physical “deformities” to alcoholism) were ordered to be sterilized in an effort to perfect Germany’s Aryan “master race.” In 1939, Hitler began Operation T4 that killed over 70,000 disabled Germans and Austrians in one year, utilizing poison gas as a warm-up for the mass extermination of Jews and others in concentration camps. Of course, the United States had it’s own eugenics programs that included the forced sterilization of “unwanted” populations.

But, as usual, we are appropriately horrified by the extreme manifestations of such bigotries but are unable to identify the same tendencies and leanings in ourselves. “What could I possibly have in common with a Nazi?” we ask as we skip over a news story about the brutal genocide of the Rohingya occurring in 2018.

My podcast interview was with Grant Miller, who is a Portland disability activist who works with a great arts program called PHAME, and is working with Portland Art Museum on disability access issues.  I really wanted to dive into a conversation about how we even talk about people with disabilities. Does Grant “suffer” from a disability? Is he just “differently abled”? As I progressive as I think I am, I realized I didn’t even know what kind of language to use. I always tell folks, when in doubt about subjects like this, just ask the people themselves.


I prefaced this conversation with caveat that my path towards empathy really began in 2002 when I had a brain hemorrhage and a subsequent stroke. I was in the hospital for almost a month and had to relearn how to walk. Suddenly, I was the guy holding up traffic as I slowly crossed the street with a cane. I reflected on all the times I had gotten angry because of the speedy norm of modern life. Hurry up!

You can listen to the interview yourself (or the read the transcription, which I hadn’t even considered until Grant pointed it out). It’s 60 minutes of me stepping in it. They are not “hearing impaired” people, they’re deaf. People aren’t confined to wheelchairs, they are wheelchair users. (Many people are, in fact, liberated by wheelchairs.) Even the way we use metaphors disregards the experience of the disabled. You can’t “walk in someone’s shoes” if they can’t walk themselves. You can’t have “you eyes opened” to an issue if you are blind. All this reflects our internalized ableism.


What we have in common with Hitler is the persistent belief that there is an absolute definition of what is “normal.” That if your hands, or legs, or brain don’t work the exact same way mine do, you are some sort of abhorrent deformity that needs to be fixed, no matter how invasive or traumatizing the process might be. My awareness of this was raised by a deaf student of mine at Portland State who shared a brilliant 2000 documentary about cochlear implants called Sound and Fury. Perhaps well-meaning doctors, with new technology on their side, have begun to “cure” deaf people with these fancy Star Trek-looking brain implants. What the documentary points out is that there is a thriving Deaf community that doesn’t need to be “fixed.” If we just bothered to learn their language (American Sign Language), we could’ve just asked them.

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And that’s the theme of the ableism – that “they” (people with various disabilities) should be more like “us” (people without disabilities) to be more “normal.” My city, Portland, had laws in the 1880s that are now known as Ugly Laws. They made it virtually illegal to be in public if you were “crippled” or “deformed.” You could be arrested and fined. There’s an amazing 2007 movie called The Music Within that’s about the birth of the disability rights movement, and there’s a scene in that movie (filmed in Portland) where a man with a severe case of cerebral palsy is trying to dine in a Portland restaurant in 1974 and is arrested under one of these Ugly Laws. That act was the genesis of the movement that gave us the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. It’s a powerful scene. How dare this man be disabled in public? He was making “normal” people feel uncomfortable!

Why were they uncomfortable? Could it possibly be their ableist privilege that was poking  them in their chest? But then maybe before getting all high and mighty about a scene in the movie I should look in the mirror.

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I was in high school in Stone Mountain, Georgia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was the period before the ADA began making institutions more accessible but after the period when the best career trajectory for the disabled was in a circus sideshow. (Although, I am old enough to remember the Florida sideshow attraction known as Alligator Boy.) It was a time when kids with disabilities were beginning to be “streamlined” into the general public school population and, like those white students at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, we weren’t exactly welcoming.


It sickens me to say this, but not only did we give those kids a wide birth, like their disabilities were contagious, we shared “funny” nicknames for them behind their backs. (I won’t repeat any here. Just know I am in tears as I write this.) I know teenagers can be cruel, but I have to think the obstacles these fellow Redan Raiders faced just to make it to the end of sixth period had to have been greater than anything I could imagine. And no doubt they suffered from their social isolation. I missed out not only their potential friendship, but being a better person by witnessing their courage in just showing up. I participated in their marginalization, no doubt diminishing their high school experience, but I also hurt myself in the process. I’m thinking of digging out my yearbook and trying to track them down to see if it’s not too late.

All forms of bigotry are based on dehumanizing people who don’t fit into the dominant group’s definition of “normal.” Blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, and even the left-handed have, at times, been defined as less-than or even sub-human. Slave traders believed Africans had no souls. (That was B.A. – Before Aretha.) People from Latin America without proper immigration papers are “illegals” or “aliens,” not human beings. There is no clearer example of how this tendency works than how we have demonized people with disabilities as “abnormal.” We might not be overtly racist in polite company anymore, but saying, “That’s so retarded” barely gets a reaction. Add racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia to the recipients of those bigotries to someone who is also disabled and you get a recipe for some old fashioned hate.


Our current way of thinking about disabilities, whether congenital or acquired, is rooted in the medical model. Disabled people have a problem and therefore are a problem, but one that can be, at least partially, fixed. And if not fixed, then we can find a place for them, either out of sight or working (for reduced wages) at Goodwill. The disability community is pushing for a more social model that places the root of the problem, not on the person, but how society is organized to marginalize that person. The barriers can be physical. (Are doors wide enough to accommodate people who use wheelchairs?) The barriers can also be our attitudes, including falling into the classic “us vs. them” dichotomy. There is only us.

According to the 2010 census, nearly one in five Americans experiences some form of disability, and yet so many of these physical and attitudinal barriers remain. I’d like to highlight that that means four in five Americans might be missing out on the benefit of the full participation of the the other fifth because of our fear or ignorance or indifference or belief that we are somehow more “normal”  than the disabled. Thanks to my conversation with Grant, I understand (I didn’t say “see”) this issue more deeply and am ready to be the advocate I should have been in high school. I see you. All of you.



Me, too, Harvey Weinstein, me, too: Undoing the Normality of Rape Culture

October 24, 2017

Women in Manhattan seem immune to the world’s noise. I’m back in New York, parked at Patti Smith’s haunt, Dante’s on Macdougal Street in the Village. I’ve been trying to shake the weight of daily news but I just happen to be here to do an interview for CBS News. Seeing New York women, badass in black, feels like an opposite reality from the exploitation capital of Los Angeles, but I don’t doubt that most of these women (Is it okay to use the term “broads” in NYC?) have plenty of #metoo stories, as well. Isn’t this the birthplace of the catcall? Or was that Mainstreet USA?

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, one thing is clear. Okay, two things are clear if you count how right-wingers have used Weinstein mess as a sociopathic attempt to go after Hillary Clinton while pretending to care about the victims. Where were these faux feminists when the similar charges were being levied at Donald Trump and half the male personalities and leadership at Fox News? Liberals in Hollywood ran Weinstein out on a rail and the National Organization of Women is demanding his arrest. Bill O’Reilly paid out millions in settlements and is still a conservative hero. And Trump. Oh, all those women (going back at least to 1992) must all be lying.


But the other thing that is clear is that, once “Me, too” started popping up on people’s Twitter and Facebook feeds last week, this issue was not just a Hollywood casting couch story. It was an American story. I don’t think I have a woman in my life that doesn’t have a sexual harassment horror story, including my own mother. Nearly as many have rape and sexual abuse stories. If anything, thanks to social media and a hashtag, the lid has been blown off the worst kept secret in America. The disempowerment of women and girls by men and boys might be systemic, but it plays out daily on a personal and personally devastating way with no systems involved.

I have no way of knowing how much of a sea change this is. It feels huge. Just hearing conservative women say, “Me, too” is significant. My hope is all those anecdotes are being read, heard, and processed by the boys and men whose eyeballs they pop up in front of. It’s certainly impacted me. There is the anger, of course. My wife posted a story of a male friend who tried to take sexual liberty with her in Seattle. We had just started getting to know each other, but I hopped in the car and drove three hours so she didn’t have to ride back with the creep. Not a rescuer, more like a dude who doesn’t mind three hours on I-5 to help a friend. I’m far from a heroic knight. My armor is tarnished.

That’s because the other emotion has been shame. In the Weinstein stories and the “Me, too” posts I’ve heard echoes of my former self. Nothing as extreme as Harvey whipping out his schmeckel and masturbating into a potted plant or O’Reilly offering to give a sexual massage with a falafel, but there might have been a moment here and there when I assumed consent, reading the subtle signs in the dance of intimacy. There were certainly things I shouldn’t have said, that, upon reflection, were probably a bit creepy or suggestive in the wrong context. And no doubt there was the minimizing of women’s concerns and a few “Don’t be so crazy”s. The fact that I can’t remember any reflects more about the normality of that kind of behavior. Weinstein tried to frame his abuses by writing, “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.” He got a lot of shit for that (as he should), but if you were there (or even if you just watched the first season of Mad Men), you know he’s sorta right. That was the (rape) culture then, and that’s it now. But the times they are a changin’.


My late teens until about 30 when I began dating my first wife, I was pretty much a heat seeking missile. As a kid who grew up learning that sex was the end goal, once it became available, it seemed like there were few limitations. My freshman dorm was the center of a lot of young men and women unchecking their libido. There was a sense of liberation from parents and the sexually repressed Southern culture on the skids. Then the punk rock scene, then going on tour with a band who, once a video became a hit on MTV, had groupies. I’ll never forget kicking a young woman out of our hotel room in Minneapolis who screamed, “You can’t kick me out, I’ve been with Winger!” That was a more clear-headed act in a world with a lot of the opposite.

I’d like to think I was the sober, respectful guy through all that, but was I? What if there was a woman who posted “Me, too” last week and her story is about an asshole she met at a show in Asbury Park, New Jersey who was relentless until she gave in? Again, I don’t think so, but maybe.

I became single again in my late-30s and forties and still had that 20-something drive as I rejoined the world of dating, hooking up, and “Hey, do you want to stay over?” As an academic feminist, I was keenly aware of power dynamics and the unspoken reality that a lot of my fellow feminists won’t acknowledge – Every single relationship has a power dynamic at work. In patriarchal culture, there is always a power dynamic between males and females. Even two same-gender twins will have a power dynamic. Just ask the one who was born second. You cannot avoid power dynamics. Sorry HR people. The issue is how you respect those power dynamics. Do you leverage them to your advantage? Harvey Weinstein sure did. But did I? Ever? Just because there were broken hearts on both sides doesn’t mean I wasn’t a dick at some point. Often?

Founding sociologist Emile Durkheim argued in 1897 that is deviance is functional because it allows for the evolution of society. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience and criminality facilitated the national conversation about civil rights and allowed the country to evolve. We should thank him for breaking unjust laws. Weinstein is no King, but this national conversation he has caused will help us to evolve away from the normality of sexual harassment. “Hey, asshole, don’t be a Weinstein!” I can here it now (and I might have needed to hear it then).

The men who hear and read “Me, too” need to more than say, “That sucks,” or post a sad-face emoji. They need to reflect how they have participated in similar harassment and sexual aggression, perhaps without even recognizing it. And certainly how we excuse our male peers from the ease of sexual domination. A big part of (male) privilege is that the behaviors that reinforce it are often invisible to those who do it (but not to those whom it is being done to). But when the recipients of that aggression, backed by the weight of centuries of male power, are half of our species, it’s time to see it, acknowledge our part in it, and stop it. Just stop it.


Donald Trump as the Slave Master of the Black Athlete Plantation

September 29, 2017

Sports can reveal so much about where we are in American racial progress: Jackie Robinson, the Mexico City Olympics, Derek Jeter dating white women. White sports fans have made themselves the referees for what black athletes are allowed to do to move the racial equity ball down the field. And they’ll be more than happy to shut down a spectacular rush. And that’s the end of my sports metaphors.

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Enough has been said about Trump’s weird obsession with “ungrateful” NBA players and “ungrateful” NFL players. Except for white people who are in deep denial, anyone that has followed Donald Trump from his Central Park 5 ad, through his relentless Obama birtherism, to his comments about the “fine people” in Charlottesville, knows the man is a racist. He’s the modern kind of racist who says, “I’m the least racist person on earth. I have black friends!”

The way to frame the “I’m not a racist, but…” racism that is flowing down from the White House and across the Facebook feeds of white America is to think historically. They want to make America great again. And for “again,” let’s choose 1857. This was a time when one in four white families in Virginia owned African slaves. And, like the NFL, the best team owners made the most money. There were over a hundred planation owners who owned over a hundred slaves each. The slave labor on those plantations generated millions of dollars in revenue for the white elites, and it wasn’t just cotton sales.


First, let’s get this out of the way. The NFL kneeling protests have nothing to do with the flag or the anthem. They are about the persistent problem of racism in America, especially with regard to policing. Trump and his army of racist overseer trolls can try to spin it anyway they want, but it’s about racism. (Trump lamented that white NASCAR drivers don’t bother us with this nonsense.)  They can act all butt-hurt about how much the flag means to them, but it’s not about the flag. It’s a common racist trick to make any unwanted racial protest an “attack on America.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights activists of the 1960s were routinely called “communists” who wanted to “destroy” America. Trump’s pathetic attempt to make this about the flag only reinforces the fact that this is about racism. “It’s not what the black people say it is. It’s what I say it is.” And I could spend thousands of words talking about how we disrespect the flag on a daily basis. Ever seen a Kid Rock concert?


President Trump has fashioned himself as the ultimate plantation owner and these negroes better get back to work. He (and white America) owns them.  Black players are chattel. Trump’s Treasury Secretary,  Steven Mnuchin, made that clear on ABC’s This Week when he said, “They have the right to have the first amendment off the field.” As if the Constitution is suspended when the beasts are on the field. I guess these black bucks should be “grateful” that Trump is giving them their first amendment right when they aren’t picking cotton.

Obviously, racist whites don’t like any type of black protest about the persistence of racism, whether it’s a football player peacefully kneeling during our national anthem, written by a slaveowner, or Black Lives Matter protestors peacefully marching down a street. Racist whites didn’t like it in the early 1950s, when Trump said America was “great,” and they surely don’t like it now, after a black president. Racism has been solved and these blacks are just being ungrateful, right? They should be grateful “we” freed them, right? (Does “we” include the white guys waving Confederate flags? Post-racial America is so confusing.)

I spent some time on sports discussion boards this week, trying to get the pulse of the hard core sports fans. There was a lot of anger at Trump for inserting his weird version of patriotism into a multi-racial game, loved by many demographics. (Ask some of my Mexican family members about the role the Dallas Cowboys plays in their lives.) Many even recognized that when Trump referred to the protesting black players as “sons of bitches” to a roaring crowd of white supporters in Alabama, he grabbed a third rail. The mothers of football players are beloved, much more than ratings-obsessed politicians. There were obviously a lot of racists posts that moderators were working overtime to delete. However, plenty of “I’m not a racist, but…” posts slipped through.

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A trip through Twitter was more revealing. Not that these knuckleheads are actually going to do it, but a survey of #NFLBoycott posts was pretty harsh. Plenty of discussions of “ungrateful niggers.” And how much “we” pay them to entertain, not annoy, us. One white Facebook friend said she almost walked out a restaurant because they had an NFL game on. Of course she didn’t and if she did it would have had zero effect on the NFL or the need to solve America’s racial issues. But the blatant racism on Twitter has certainly been given a green light by Trump and his call to have these ungrateful negroes fired from their jobs.

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The term “ungrateful” is key in this issue. White men earn their income. Eli Manning earns his $21 million dollar salary. Black men are given their income. They should be grateful for their millions. I don’t have millions. Who are they to complain? (The average player in the NFL makes $1.9 million, so there are a majority of players who are not getting payed millions to cover Matthew Stafford’s $27 million dollar salary. If fact take a look at the 15 top paid players in the NFL. Thirteen are white guys,)


Another friend on Facebook, who was angry about these “ungrateful athletes” said, “But we pay them millions!” (Something one of the indigent white hosts of Fox & Friends also claimed.) I asked, “Who is ‘we’?” Nothing. But the message was clear. White people pay them and the team owners own them. The don’t own Ton Brady, but they own Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, and any other black player raising a fist or taking a knee when they should be picking cotton and swearing allegiance to the the slave owner’s anthem.

In my nearly thirty years of research on white supremacists, one of the recurring themes is the anger directed towards African-Americans who made more money than them. In my original study of skinheads in Orlando, Florida, racists were completely obsessed with the fictional middle-class Huxtable family on The Cosby Show. Their parents had been laid off from a Florida textile mill, but every Thursday night there was this black family on TV that had everything they thought they deserved. “What’s wrong with this picture?” I remember one saying in 1988. During that study, the movie Mississippi Burning was released. There’s a powerful scene in it which Gene Hackman’s character is trying to explain the racist white mentality to Willem Dafoe’s character. It perfectly summed up the skinheads I was living with and many of the NFL fans burning Colin Kaepernick jerseys (who, apparently, has not punished enough).

Donald Trump clearly has a number of personal issues wrapped up in this circus act, including his legacy of driving the USFL, a football league meant to rival the NFL, into the ground. His Twitter barrages rile up his under-educated white base while distracting the country from his numerous legislative failures. Perhaps there’s also some admiration for Rocket Man Kim Jong Il. Nobody takes a knee during the national anthem in North Korea. Trump doesn’t have his dictatorship (yet), but if he can get enough of his knuckle-dragging followers to demand that these ungrateful savages be fired from jobs they’ve worked their entire lives to have, he can call it a win.

Ratings for all sportscasts have been on the decline for the last few years. It’s because young people would rather watch YouTube videos instead of sports, not because a handful of athletes want to make a peaceful statement about the race problem in America. Watching these idiots burn their sports crap in protest reminds me of the same idiots who burned their Beatles albums 51 years ago because someone told them the Beatles believed they were better than Jesus. (John Lennon had just tried to make a valid point about the declining role of religion in young people’s lives, but DJ’s in Southern U.S. states and the KKK didn’t care about context.)

Racism is real and continues to traumatize Americans on a daily basis. A black millionaire football player is still a black man in America. Malcolm X once said, “You know what a white man calls a black man with a PhD? A nigger.” And here we still are. Those who are peacefully protesting racism by kneeling are honoring the flag and the men and women who died for the right that gives them the freedom to do it. They are the patriots, not Trump and his racist cult.


It’s all a part of asshole recovery

June 15, 2017

Other than Donald Trump, does anybody truly like the sound of their own voice? Mine makes me cringe when I hear recordings of it. I feel for the thousands of the students who have had to listen to me over the years. But I do love to talk and maybe my jabber has some value in the world. Those students got a lot of stories from my weird life to illustrate points, hopefully finding applications in their own stories. Maybe I should keep talking.

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The reason for talking is that I’m an asshole. But I’m trying to get better. I was featured in a front page interview in yesterday’s Oregonian newspaper. I casually chatted with the reporter about all things related to racism in Oregon. I assumed this was background research for a larger story, but it was an actual interview. I was trying to make the case that institutions are changing from the inside and said, “I’m the last person in the world that says human resource ladies are giving us hope in the world, but they are a reflection of how much institutional change has happened. Every HR department has an equity and diversity department now.”

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I was trying to make a joke about the stereotype of people who work in Human Resources offices and how they are, in fact, agents of change. In print it fell flat. I just looked like an asshole and the online commenters sunk their teeth into my quip. I could’ve gotten defensive, bleating, “It was just a joke!” but I’m in recovery and that means taking responsibility for my mistakes.

There are two types of people in the world, (I love it when people bisect humanity like that) assholes and people who know they are assholes and are trying to not be. I’m trying to be in the latter category and that requires more listening than talking. So why am I starting a podcast about my privilege? Shouldn’t I shut my privileged mouth up?


Privilege is such a dirty word in our culture. Everybody’s “worked hard” for whatever they have. Try telling a white guy who is homeless that he has white privilege and male privilege. It might be a hard sell. But he does. Devah Pager’s profound 2003 study, “The Mark of the Criminal Record,” found that African-Americans without criminal records faced more job discrimination than whites with criminal records. For years I assigned Peggy McIntosh’s “White Privilege Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” to my Intro Sociology students. (“1. I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.”) Most of them were smart enough to get it. Having an unearned privilege doesn’t make you a bad person. It just means the playing field that you walked on to is not even.

I had a trick that usually worked pretty well in the classroom. I’d ask the left-handed students to raise their hands. Then I’d have them testify to the multitude of advantages that right people have. Usually the right-handers would be a bit surprised. “Well, I never thought of that,” they’d grunt. Then I’d ask the righties how many had lefties in their life that they cared about. “Is it possible that there’s a similar dynamic with race or sexual orientation?” “Oh,” they’d grunt.

I’m right-handed.  And a white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, heterosexual, male, middle-class homeowner. I’m pretty damn privileged. Some days it doesn’t feel like it, but even on those days I am. If I ignore it or, even worse, deny it, I’m officially an asshole. So I thought I’d make my own recovery a public one. Growing up in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I can recall some pretty racist moments in my life. I wrote a paper in high school titled, “If they have Black History Month, why can’t we have White History Month?” I was a product of my environment. Now I’m actively anti-racist, but I have to acknowledge there is racist residue (it’s sticky), and it is strongest when I deny my white privilege.

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So I’m kicking off my first podcast, Recovering Asshole. I’m going to talk to people who don’t have privileges I enjoy. Maybe they can help me (and you) be a little less of a privileged asshole. In the wake of the Portland Max stabbings, I thought we’d tackle immigration first. It made sense to talk to my fabulous wife, Andrea Barrios, about her boarder crossing. In the spirit of John & Yoko, we did the interview in bed. It gave me a deeper appreciation for what she went to just to be in this country. I won’t discuss what happened after the interview. (Maybe I should launch Recovering Asshole: After Dark as a paid subscription podcast.)

Recovering Asshole Episode 1: My Favorite Alien

We’re here on iTunes. Please subscribe. It’s free. And share. If you don’t have iTunes, you can find it on Soundcloud. Maybe we’ll get a sponsor. Maybe we’ll bring a bit of empathy into our lives. I know there are a ton of great conversations coming.

I’ve got lots of interviews lined up. We’re going to talk to Muslims, African-Americans, Trans people, gay parents, domestic violence survivors, and, yes, even left-handed people. I’m a podcast fan (Fabcast is my current favorite), so I think I know how to keep the listener engaged. My hope is that people who find Recovering Asshole with share it with their friends (especially the assholes) and it can grow into something that can have an impact.

We’re allowed to make mistakes on this journey. It’s not easy. I’m sorry if my comment about “HR ladies” came off as sexist. I’m using it as a moment of reflection. My tagline for the show is my tagline for life – We’re all works in progress, so let’s get to work.



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