Passing Privilege

I came of age during the beginnings of internet feminism, starting on blogs and LiveJournal and then moving to more social-media based sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. I was fairly active for awhile, and saw the rise of acknowledging ‘privilege’. One aspect of this is passing privilege, where you can benefit from the privilege of something when you aren’t really a part of it. Examples are ‘straight’-acting gay men or lighter-skinned people of a non-white race. (These are all conversations I have witnessed but not participated in as I have absolutely no connection to anything of these situations, and have no qualification to speak with authority on them).

When considering how I benefitted from privilege, I never considered that I might benefit from passing privilege. Sure I had some depression and anxiety issues, but that was the extent of my mental health stuff – otherwise I was white, well-educated, conventionally attractive, straight(ish), cis, etc. But as with most of the rest of my life, my autism diagnosis has caused me to re-examine privilege.

I’ve had issues at work recently, and had an appointment with my diagnosing psychologist to discuss them. She said something that really struck me, and I think is at the heart of my problems at work – “Even when you tell people that you are autistic, because you present so well and are so intelligent, they expect you to be ‘normal’ and are confused when you don’t act ‘normally’, and they don’t understand why you don’t ‘get’ it.”

What she meant by presentation was at first glance, I appear neuronormative. Because I don’t look different, people expect me to be the same as them, and then get a bit confused when I sit with my feet tucked under me on a chair, or if I get tired at work and have to lie on the floor. I am gregarious and outgoing, talkative and funny and not the stereotype of the socially awkward Aspie. (not that there’s anything wrong with being socially awkward!) Because I appear socially intelligent, when I say something that hurts someone’s feelings or is inappropriate, there is more of a blame put on me that I “should have known better”.

What she meant by intelligence, is that when it comes to work I am very good at my job. I am a capacious learner, work quickly and efficiently, and have a good work ethic. Because I am intelligent when it comes to work, there is this expectation that I am not really that disabled – when talking about how disabled I am at times, I have had people tell me that I’m “not that bad”. Which completely disregards how difficult basic life functions can be for me. When I had a meltdown at work recently, it was a completely baffling experience for my managers. I felt that I handled it as well as I could in the circumstances, and afterwards tried to explain it to them, but I still have the feeling that I am being blamed in some way for not just getting over the problem (which they didn’t see as much of a problem) and getting on with work instead of freaking out.

Passing privilege is often framed as a positive thing. Yes, I gain a lot from passing privilege. I can go to a job interview and not have to disclose that I am autistic. I can date people and go to university and do any number of things without telling people I am autistic. Hiding who I am is exhausting, however. And when I disclose that I am autistic, I then have to work twice as hard to “prove” that I am disabled and that I deserve alternate accommodations. I feel external pressure to be a good conforming Aspie and to not make people too uncomfortable with my autism, just because most of the time I don’t. And the crux is, at the moments when I am most autistic and most need special assistance, they are the moments when I am least able to communicate this effectively in a way neuronormative people can understand, and they are the moments when people are most likely to blame me for supposedly knowing better than to act the way I do.


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