On the accumulation of well-meant microagressions

Me and that super nice lady at the store. I'm getting SO big and I can do lots of things all by myself!

Me and that super nice lady at the store. I’m getting SO big and I can do lots of things all by myself!

I think a lot of my friends don’t get why I am sometimes so ANGRY, and why I can’t always give well-meaning people the benefit of their well-meaningness.

So I’ll share my trip to the grocery store yesterday with you all, which is a common occurrence (especially in wealthy areas, and this was a Whole Foods in Minnetonka, near I work– not my local Cub in the Hood. Don’t blame the victim, man. I needed some decent gluten-free bread.)

Yesterday, I was having a good day, legwise. I almost didn’t even bring my crutches into the grocery store. I used only one, since my mobility is so variable and might give out halfway, and strode along rather quickly as I was on my lunch hour.

As I came through the doors, an employee saw me and said: “Hey, kiddo!”

I was somewhat surprised as I am a middle-aged solidly sturdy and not-remotely-willowly-girl-like woman with salt-and-pepper hair, but she was older than me and perhaps just jocular. I pushed out of my mind any notion that she was infantalizing me due to my crutch. Don’t be paranoid, I said to myself.

My trip through the grocery store was what it nearly always is: everywhere I go, people back away from me smiling condescendingly, pityingly, or nervously and give me TONS of space to do my thang.

They also apologize. If I am just STANDING next to someone looking at the collard greens while she looks at the kale, she says: “Oh, sorry!” and moves away.

I am sure each and every person was very pleased with how they’d treated the handicapped girl at the store. They always look out for those less fortunate.

This happened, in a very quick visit to the store, at LEAST ten times. Near the gluten-free crackers. Near the yogurt. Near the frozen vegetables. At the lunch buffet line.

I found myself smiling very hard and taking deep, cleansing breaths. When a man asked me if he could help me find something I nearly snapped at him until I realized I was looking lost, and so I let him help me find the hummus. (That dude was only doing his job and wasn’t being disablist in the least, btw.)

I bought my stuff; I walked briskly and without any difficulty through the doors and out to my car. I had one crutch supporting my left arm and I carried a very small paper sack in my right hand. I was moving fluidly and easily toward my car.

Ms. ‘Kiddo’ was on her way in.

“You need any help?” she asked the clearly not-struggling woman.

AGAIN I thought: “This is Whole Foods, where customers are so bent under the weight of their own wealth that they often cannot manage their own bags. She is just doing her job,” so I mustered all the strength and good will I had left and I smiled a nice, warm smile and said: “I’m good! Thanks, though!”

I put extra effort into sounding genuine.

She put her hands up as if I had just shouted HOW DARE YOU MADAM and says: “I was just asking! You’re doing GREAT. But I just thought I’d ask.”

GRRRRRRRRRRRRREEEEEAAAT.

She used her Very Special Voice. That voice that makes me and every other disabled person for miles around want to stab people in their vocal cords.

You guys, I was doing great! She was super impressed by how I managed to walk with seemingly very little impairment if any toward my car while carrying four pounds of groceries.

I WAS DOING GREAT.

I stopped. I took a deep breath. She whisked by me, radiating smug confidence that she just brightened someone’s day a little by complimenting their walking and carrying abilities and I stopped.

Did I have time to educate her?

Did I care about educating her?

How late would this make me for work?

I sighed and I got in the car. I drove back to work. No one at work held open the door for me, but if they had, how do you think I might have reacted?

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34 thoughts on “On the accumulation of well-meant microagressions

  1. Seriously have none of these people seen folks in crutches/chairs etc. do their own shopping? Though there is also this MN Paranoid Personal Space thing where people apologize for being within inches of you, even if they didn’t bump into you, regardless of mobility stuff. I’ve also heard of people using crutches or chairs have people get mad at or glare at them for being slower, taking up space, or just existing. Sometimes the condescending crap feels worse though. Hard to say.

  2. On one of my most recent trips to the grocery store, while looking for a bottle of allergy pills, a woman in front of me — maybe a dozen years my senior — piped up with a very loud and enthusiastic: “Hello, Sweetie!” …I actually looked behind me expecting to see a toddler with a lollipop or a balloon … maybe with golden curls, and a pink, frilly, dress — someone whom Central Casting would pick as this woman’s granddaughter. Because that was the only relationship for which that tone of voice was appropriate. But there was no one else there.

    *Sigh*

  3. I think it’s notably worse at Whole Foods. Condescension and $30 brie apparently pair well.

    • Also, in my neighborhood there are just more disabled people. I am not particularly notable. Wealthy neighborhoods do not contain as many of us.

  4. Yes yes yes. To any one individual, my insistence on taking care of myself might seem rude. But on this side of the drama, it’s happening so many times my eyes are bleeding.

  5. This is the same “I care because you’re _so_ special” voice that many Kindergarten and Nursery school teachers use. They squeal with delight and praise at the tiniest bit of progress, celebrating and thus appropriating _for_themselves_ any perceived success the poor little dear might have.
    Can you imagine using that tone with a police officer, a judge, or the President of the United States?

    Can you imagine any of them using that tone with you?

  6. Yesterday my family was finishing our vacation. The hotel gave us one room on the third floor and one on the first basement level, and I had just gone up to the third floor room to make sure the family member occupying it didn’t need anything, since I was done packing. On my way down, the elevator stopped on the first floor. The hotel manager saw me in the elevator with my cane and elaborately gestured for me to exit while he held the door. (I am fast with my cane. Elevator doors do not need holding. But okay, whatever.) I said, “I’ve got one more floor, but thanks.” He said, in his best slow and patronizing voice, “This is the first floor!” Me: “Yes.” Him: “This is where the lobby and the exit and everything are! You can go ahead and get out now!” Me: “My room, on the other hand, is on the next floor down. Floor G.” It is *amazing* how embarrassed the patronizing able-bodied get when they are patronizing the poor dim crippled lady and get demonstrated objectively wrong. He *babbled*. He babbled about how not many people go down there, but it’s where he went last winter when they had eight feet of snow and ha ha how about that. I said in the same slow, chilly, patronizing voice, “Well, you’ve given me a perfectly lovely room there.” I have never seen someone so visibly glad to be done sharing an elevator with me. LIKEWISE, MISTER.

  7. This totally spoke to me! So well stated. I get this on a daily basis and sometimes (perhaps more often than sometimes 🙂 ) I get snippy and snappy. Sometimes I’m all out of patience and understanding. One of my “favorite’s” was when a gentlemen yelled across a parking lot that he would pray for me. I’m walking along a sidewalk, in one hand is my soda that I’m happily sipping and in the other hand is my long white cane that’s arcing back and forth doing it’s job, yet, apparently I’m the poor blind girl that’s in need of prayers. I was not gracious. Most days, though, I try to be gracious, and try to let my actions do the speaking for me. Although it’s tiresome to realize that in a town of 50,000 in Wisconsin, I often feel like the appointed ambassador for “all” blind people and what I say and what I do “confirms” or “refutes” opinions and perspectives of “those people.” I am so visible here! Just this morning a gentlemen pulled up beside me as I was approaching my house to tell me that there was a racoon in the yard close to where I live. I had NO idea who he we was! Ugh. The sheer luxury of being able to go about your business without attracting unwanted or unsolicited attention.

  8. I live in Minnesota too. I have had almost verbatim experiences like this. Although, now that I’m an almost full time wheelchair user its gotten more creepy. A lady followed me around target one day asking “Who left me here” and if she could “buy me candy”…. Thanks for writing this.

    • BUY YOU SOME CANDY?!?!

      I have a friend with cerebral palsy who took Metro Mobility to do some holiday shopping at a small shop and the manager began freaking out, demanding to know who ‘left her’ here (and refusing to stop shrieking long enough for her to use her communication device to respond), and CALLED THE SHERIFF.

      Those kinds of aggressions I simply cannot call ‘micro,’ even though I am sure your horrible candy lady thought she was doing a great thing.

  9. Don’t know what you’re complaining about. Most of the time I go shopping I have to fight back the urge to literally shove people out of my way. Be thankful they give you space, most of us have to fight for it.

    • Ha ha ha no. I will not be grateful for disablism. Thanks for your well-informed and thoughtful suggestion, though! I’ll file that in the proper area.

  10. I usually have the opposite experience in my scooter shopping. People steer clear of me, dangerously avoiding me. If I need help in reaching which I normally do, I got to make eye contact, smile and say ” Can you please reach the pkg cole slaw”?

    • I actually refuse to allow non-disabled strangers to hand me stuff most of the time. I’ll look for an employee instead. Why? 1. When ADA was being considered, stores went to congress and *begged* to be allowed to put stuff out of our reach and *promised* they would have employees available to ‘help’ us. I hold them to their promise. (I don’t care if the employee was doing something else, my rights take precedence). 2. Employees are *required* to wash after using the restroom, I’ll leave the rest of that to your imagination. and 3. I’ve found from long experience that when I practice this, they eventually move the things I buy often into my reach range. Win!

      • I always ask someone so that we can have a nice moment together. They appreciate a chance to help a fellow person and I appreciate a chance to ask instead of fending off unhelpful crap.

        I think both of our approaches have merit. 🙂

  11. Having shopped in that very Whole Foods as am autistic adult who gets lost in the store and uses an EBT card (as my partner works near there and I sometimes have to drive him to work) and our kid has gluten and other sensitivities……I am sitting here nodding in agreement, almost till my head falls off.

  12. I hate that “I’m sorry BS!” I have to say I get that all the time at grocery stores and am not disabled or anything. People are just annoying and allergic to each other. “I’m sorry you feel awkward just sharing space with another human. Really, it’s no big deal.”

    • I get it when I’m not visibly disabled, too — my condition fluctuates. I hate it all the time, but it’s even worse when you’re visibly disabled. It has a panicked and weird quality to it missing from the usual “I’m sorry” that is hard to explain but easy to identify.

      • That’s really interesting. I wonder what that “panicked and weird” quality is? I’m visibly disabled 100% of the time, so I don’t have contrast.

        • The ordinary courtesy version of “excuse me” or “I’m sorry” sounds pleasant and casual. The “panicked and weird” one sounds startled and rushed and aghast at having possibly acted poorly toward someone with a disability, and they would NEVER do that! Ever!

          I’ve never given in to my temptation to say, “Chill, dude, it’s okay, I’m only a little crippled.” 😀 (I use a forearm crutch to walk outside my house.)

  13. http://www.raggededgemagazine.com/0500/b0500polite.htm

    Thought you might enjoy this [more than slightly] tongue-in-cheek treatment of the same sort of shopping trip 15 years ago… it doesn’t seem to change, does it?

    BTW, I’ve taken to a ‘standard’ reply to those who observe ‘how well’ I’m doing (driving my wheelchair, etc.), “thank you for telling me that, I’d never have known without you.” I *try* to deadpan it but don’t always succeed.

    (W. Carol Cleigh is my maiden name and I still use it for activist articles.)

  14. God, this is ridiculously perfect!
    Happens to me a lot, particularly in the summer time when I’m in shorts and people can see my leg braces.Good times.

  15. I love strangers who can’t understand the irony (or the offensiveness) of this exchange:

    Total stranger who is overly pleased with their powers of observation, “Is your daughter autistic?”
    Me, “Yes”
    T.S.W.I.O.P.W.T.P.O.O, “Well, you’d never know it!”

    But you just….NEVER MIND.

  16. I’m autistic and flee in terror when I think I might be in ANYONE’S way, because I can’t stand being touched, and people are so frigging *touchy* when you’re between them and something they want, from taps on the shoulder to physically pushing someone out of the way. I really hope I haven’t aggravated any physically disabled people that way. Then again, I honestly think allistic/nondisabled people get less of the physical contact from complete strangers issue, because when I can pass for normal it doesn’t happen as much.

    • PS I find it REALLY interesting that when you pass as “normal” you don’t get touched as much. I find that really, REALLY interesting and utterly enraging. It’s a lack of respect.

  17. Every day in MN is a trial. If it’s not the too-familiar people (I am not your sister, dearie, hun, etc) it’s the people who cross the street so they don’t have to share the sidewalk with someone whose appearance disturbs them in any way.

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