A few years ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Privilege as Blindness: Why North American Christians Need Haiti” for the online theology journal, The Other Journal.  In it, I argued that social privilege impairs the privileged person’s ability to see social reality accurately.  Social privilege, I claimed, induces a type of “blindness.”  I intended to use this methodology to uncover the United States’ relationship to Haiti as not just unjust but imperial.  This was my one and only goal; my singular intention.

A few days ago, I was chatting with a person I have befriended through the blogosphere.  In the course of this conversation, I shared my article with him.

Although our initial conversation took place on Twitter, he responded the next day via Facebook message.  I felt my phone buzz while perusing the “ethnic foods” aisle of the grocery store. After tying up some of conversational loose ends, he wrote:

“Anyways, about the Other Journal article you shared, and which I enjoyed back then and now: … [in the past], i got called out for ableist language and using ‘blind’ as being something coldhearted. I dont know if your article is using blind the same way, but someone could consider it that way.”

When I first read his message, I scoffed, “how ridiculous.  It’s obvious that I don’t mean ‘blindness’ to refer to actual blind people.”

Then, I thought, unleashing what was clearly my most delusional and self-aggrandizing self-justification of all time: well, if someone wants to critique me for speaking in the language of the gospels, what can I do?  If it was good enough Jesus, I guess it’ll just have to be good enough for me.

But I was unsettled.  My mind searched for additional self-defense.  I turned nasty.

In the time it took me to travel from this aisle (I think I was looking for black beans) to the eye care aisle (I was in desperate need of contact solution), my mind unloaded a venomous barrage of self-justifying mental attacks on my friend and theological conversation partner.  I could not accept his sororal correction.

Despite the fact that I had known him to be nothing but upright and good-natured, I assigned to him a slew of petty and malicious intentions.  Across the bow of my imagination, I fired off an explosive series of self-protective and sarcastic retorts.  *Boom! *Pow! I waged cartoon combat in my mind.

I was doing everything I could to absolve myself of moral responsibility.  My ego begged not to be wrong.

By the time I started unloading my basket of goods in the check out line, I had resolved to simply stop thinking about this whole affair.

But I could not stop thinking about it.  I could not put it to rest.  My mind would not settle.  My friend’s words needled at me.  I kept hearing them in my mind.

From some tightly repressed corner of my mind came memories of other times when I had been similarly wrong.  I remembered my adolescent use of the word “retarded” as a disparaging slur for anything I disliked and the time a college roommate called me out on it.  I remembered how I similarly huffed and puffed and asserted my innocence.  But I was not ready to concede my error.  I batted these moral volleys down with unreflective immediacy.

Eventually, I admitted, “well, crap.  I guess I don’t know whether my use of the term blindness to designate a type of ignorance is ablest or not.  I have no clue what I’m talking about.”

I finally felt settled and cool-headed enough to respond to my friend.  I thought I had found the truth of my intentions.  I responded saying something rather bland and dispassionately cheery about how I needed to learn more about this topic.

But almost immediately after writing this, I realized that although I certainly carried ignorance within me, there was no doubt that I had erred in using the word “blindness” in the way that I had.

Eventually and with great reluctance, I accepted the truth:

When I wrote that article, was I trying to hurt blind people?  No, I wasn’t thinking of them at all.  And that’s exactly where my sin lay.  One of my professors, Fr. James Keenan, SJ, defines sin as the failure to bother to love. I had never bothered to find out what constitutes ableism and how our collective linguistic habit of using blindness as a synonym for ignorance and moral failing hits them.  This is exactly what I had done: I had failed to bother to love people who are blind.

I was also culpably ignorant.  In class one day, Professor Keenan offered a pithy and profound paraphrase of this Thomistic moral concept: if you could have known better, he quipped, then you should have known better.  Keenan’s definition of sin and his apt paraphrase of Thomas operate interdependently: I could have known about the ableist impact of my ordinary speech if I wanted to.  If I had wanted to love, I could have.

I had heard “blindness” used as a damning metaphor for ignorance a thousand times, imbibed it as a part of my cultural ethos and applied it uncritically.  I used it because it fit my purposes, because it helped me make a clever argument.  In seeking to shed light on one sin, I unknowingly engaged in another.  In seeking to weaken the stranglehold of one form of oppression, I helped tighten the grip of another.

I had proven the truth of my central argument—that social privilege makes it difficult for the bearers of this privilege to see both the existence of injustice and their moral responsibility for it—but not in the way I wanted to.  I proved the truth of this fact not through the eloquence of my words but in the embodied ignorance of my own ablest privilege.  How ironic.

Too often, we think an action (or its omission) sinful only if its outcome was consciously and explicitly intended.  We like to make our sphere of moral responsibility very narrow.

But sin is not only where we want it to be.  It’s not just in the evil we know; it lies much more insidiously and inextricably in the evil we don’t know, or, should I say, in the evil we don’t want to know. 

11 thoughts

  1. This is an important question, and one I wish sighted writers and academics considered more often. I suspect that the language of sight/blindness will be part of ordinary discourse for a good deal longer that many other forms of ableist language, because for sighted people the connection between ‘sight’ and ‘perception’ is innate – they are, to all intents and purposes, synonyms. As a person with a sight impairment, I do my best to recognize this and usually end up filtering out figurative use of ‘blind’ and ‘blindness’ from what I read (it is thankfully becoming less common). On a more general level, though, the linguistic connection between ‘see’ and ‘perceive’ is so basic that I doubt it will ever vanish. That’s okay – the experience of sighted people is not invalid because mine is also valid – but I wish it were more widely recognized as a metaphor, not a precise description of reality.

    1. Thank you Sarah for your wise and kind comments. I now realize that my use of the word “see” in the first paragraph also partakes in a type of ableism and I should have used the word “perceive” instead. Thanks for sharing this with me.

      On a side note, even in responding to your comment I am newly aware of how much this type of seeing language is so central to my everyday speech. My initial instinct was to thank you for “opening my eyes to this.”

      So thank you for sharing your experience of language with me. I still have a lot to learn!

  2. Thank you so much, Katie, for this modelling of real metanoia and effective amends (versus the many forms of pseudo-apology). I have been overwhelmingly challenged tonight–convicted, to use evangelical language–by the two articles about racism and riches and ecclesial and national self deception publicly available on your academia.edu account (sacraments and Haiti) and was so moved when I scrolled down on the latter and found the link to this impressive piece.

    1. wow, Laura, thank you so much for this generous comment. If you would like to keep talking about these things in greater depth, just let me know. I can privately give you my email address. I would love your feedback…

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