Someone on the bus the other day asked me if I had been “born that way.” I assumed she meant blind. I assumed this because she’d just spent the better part of the previous 5 minutes telling Kiva what a good dog she is and how good she is for “seeing for your mommy.” I ignored all this, because I haven’t figured out a good way to end this line of monologue yet. So, I just pretend it doesn’t exist, like a good Midwesterner.
After she said, “Were you born that way?” I figured attention had shifted from dog to human. Benefit of the doubt, I somehow figured she wasn’t actually expecting the dog to answer.
I very politely told her, “I’d prefer not to answer that question.” This is a new thing I’ve just started doing. I used to feel compelled to answer all the questions lobbed at me on a daily basis by semi-bored bus people: “How much can you see?”, “How did you go blind?”, “How do you pick out your clothes?” I thought it was my “job” to “educate.” Whether it is or isn’t, everyone with a job has the right to time off. So sometimes, especially when I’m on a thickly crowded bus, sweating, trying to keep myself contained and compact, I take my vacation.
She didn’t get that memo, because she spent the next several minutes until I reached my stop, complaining to whomever would listen, about how if “people” expect respect, and expect opportunity, then they should have enough decency to answer a perfectly innocent question. After all, how is she supposed to know? She doesn’t know any blind people. She’s just trying to show interest, to be educated. How can she try to understand when people “refuse” to answer her perfectly logical questions?
Yup. I’ve heard this before too. I’ve probably been guilty of at least having some of the same thoughts, about people whose experiences I don’t understand and am ignorant of. Of course, I too want to learn and to hear perspectives different from mine.
I also totally get that, for instance, “my trans friend” is not under any obligation to answer all “my trans questions.” “My Latino friend” is not obligated to answer everything I want to know about being Latino. “My hard of hearing friend” owes me no explanation, ever, about what it’s like to be him, if he doesn’t want to offer one. Sure, I hope he will, but I’m not his victim if he declines. I don’t get to feel cozy with my ignorance, to sit back and say, “Oh well, I tried, guess I get a free pass now.”
There are other ways to learn. There are countless things to read, free, on the Internet. There are other people to talk to, if someone isn’t up for it when you’re bored and it’s convenient.
I’ve often thought that in recent years, I’ve noticed increasing awareness and embracing of differences. Things are, obviously, far from ideal, but I’d like to think, however tentatively, that they’re improving. No doubt social media has a lot to do with this. It’s now easier than ever to have a voice online, to speak of diverse experiences for those who want to listen. And, we’d like to think we’re good listeners, enlightened citizens. But our ears should also be attuned and accepting of a “No”, a “I’m not comfortable discussing that with you”, a “let’s talk later when I have better focus.” Just because you ask once and perceive you’ve been denied, you don’t get off the hook for not asking again.