What is the difference between being thankful to avoid oppression, and seeking to end it? Does that difference matter?


*Editor’s Note: This post contains spoilers of The Shape of Water.

March is National Disabilities Month and our themes at Black Youth Project are Ableism & Physical and Mental Health. We are interested in publishing works that address these topics and the things surrounding them.*

I don’t even recall who said it last. Perhaps it was an inspirational Instagrammer, or the most recent religious service I’d been to. I’ve heard the sentiment so many times that they all kind of blend together, its legitimacy reinforced by its sheer predominance. All I know is that, once again, I was reminded to focus on my blessings in order to put my struggles into perspective. “Life could be so much worse,” the lecture went, “I’m just thankful I wasn’t born blind or deaf and have all of my senses.”

On the surface, it makes sense to be thankful for such abilities. We all know that we live in an ableist world that is difficult if not downright cruel to those who don’t have them. In contrast to these difficulties and cruelties, much of what I have faced in my own life seem to pale in comparison. But who is asking us to contrast our traumas in the first place, and why do we feel so constantly compelled to acquiesce to their request?

What is the difference between being thankful to avoid oppression, and seeking to end it? Does that difference matter?

RELATED: The myth of “unintentional” or “implicit” racism

I pondered these questions last week as I belatedly watched the most recent Oscar Best Picture winner, Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water. The film is a gorgeous blend of Del Toro’s signature whimsical fantasy and dark explorations of the human capacity for brutality. It follows the story of a mute janitor who falls in love with a humanoid fish creature at a top secret government facility where she works.

The Shape of Water has a lot of brilliant things to say about what humanity is, who is deserving of love, and the validity of love’s different forms. But, importantly, it says all this through a lens that sees oppression only as a thing to be escaped, never destroyed. In one sequence, our main character makes such an escape off into a daydream where she can sing, after tearfully telling her friend that she must save the creature because “he doesn’t know that I am less than whole.”

The implications are clear: to be disabled is to be “less than whole.” And, rather than such lack of wholeness being recognized as intentionally mandated by society and therefore addressable, it is innate to disability.

So, instead of imagining what life might look like if a mute person was offered a stage to artistically express themselves to the same extent as any vocal music, in Del Toro’s world, we only imagine what they would do if they were “blessed” with a voice. As many disability advocates have pointed out in the past, this world is one in which to be disabled is understood to automatically have limitations, rather than limitations we as a society violently impose.

“Society says that disability makes us lesser, makes us uneven humans,” Elsa Sjunneson-Henry writes in the amazing critique of the film “I Belong Where the People Are: Disability and The Shape of Water”:

The worst of humanity looks at me with my one clouded eye, and my one hearing ear. It looks at me and it says I am half of what I could be… I don’t feel less than whole. I have had people tell me that I am lesser than them. That they couldn’t imagine what it would be like to inhabit my body, that they would rather die than experience what it is like to live in a disabled body.

When simple terms like “privilege” are used to describe complex systems of oppression, reducing the experiences of those who are oppressed to what one should be “thankful” to escape is unavoidable. “Privilege” asks us to focus on the trauma the “privileged” avoid rather than the trauma they are complicit in.

We are implicitly told that we should want to be more like our “privileged” oppressors—should be thankful when we are—even though their “privileged” social position requires violence. In this way, even if we ever were to escape the oppression we face, someone else is forced to face it in our stead because it goes unaddressed.

RELATED: Why “privilege” is counter-productive social justice jargon

It has often been said in social justice spaces that straight men of color largely aspire not to end racism, but to take the place of the white men who benefit from it. But it is worth analyzing how those of us who are not straight men of color use similarly violent ideas of in patronizing views about “privileges” and “blessings” toward those with disabilities, or other oppressions we do not directly bare the brunt of, too.

When we reduce people to something to be thankful that we are not, rather than a person whose oppression we must actively work to destroy, we, too, aspire toward comfortability in the position of oppressors.

I cannot say that no one with physical disabilities dreams of not having them anymore, but I do know that if all of us could dream of a world in which physical disabilities did not bar anyone from care, from love, or from access, and actively worked toward it, that world would be so much better than this one. What would it mean for us to only be thankful for our position if our “blessing” was in doing the work to make that happen?