picture of the word nice crossed out

by Alex Lu

I have been the first in a lot of places. The first Deaf person in a number of nonprofit boardrooms, for starters. The first in various places of employment, including an ill-advised summer as a customer service agent at the international airport. Certainly the first Deaf student that my piano teacher in high school had to teach. And less than two years ago, the first Deaf graduate student in my department at the University of Toronto. I have been the first in these spaces not because I’m exceptional, but because of the way people like me are marginalized and sidelined in our society. It’s hard not to be first when you’re getting your life started at a time when institutionalized barriers are just beginning to soften.

Being the first representative of your identity that someone is exposed to is always an interesting experience. You are the first real imprint on a mind previously occupied by misconception and hearsay. Encounters with you help move from uncertainty and discomfort to acclimatization and acceptance. After enough such encounters, you figure out, as I eventually did, what you can do to influence the outcome and encourage that acceptance. Over a lifetime of being the first, you could say, I’ve become experienced at “changing hearts and minds.”

But I don’t say that, and neither should you.

Being the first representative of your identity that someone is exposed to is always an interesting experience.

That phrase, “changing hearts and minds,” is frequently used to antagonize marginalized people who are perceived to step outside the bounds of respectability politics. Be it Black Lives Matter protesters, queer activists disrupting police PR events, or trans women critiquing the cisnormative rhetoric used in many signs at the Women’s March, commentators will inevitably emerge to insist that the language and tactics used by the marginalized are unsympathetic and “divisive,” thwarting their ability to “change hearts and minds.”

The phrase has become associated with a very narrow rhetorical strategy that demands that people sit down with those most hateful and violent toward them, and patiently explain their humanity, taking great pains to neuter their language surrounding any concepts that may provoke defensiveness, like “privilege” or “racism.” Moreover, it contends that making minorities look sympathetic to the majority is the only worthy goal: Outcomes like building community, showing solidarity, or disrupting harmful institutional actions are ignored.

I clearly do not match the popular image of one who “changes hearts and minds.” For one, I get angry easily and hold grudges. When I first entered my department, another graduate student questioned if I could really do research, claiming that technical language was too complex to be communicated through sign language. I immediately shut down the conversation, and proceeded to do so each time he approached me for the next year. I’m impatient and don’t always have the energy to explain myself. When I began working with my supervisor, he would often invite me to talks where I didn’t have interpreters scheduled. Most of the time, I would just decline, without bothering to reinforce that these events were inaccessible for me. I’m cutting in my language, and deliver call-outs easily. More than a few groups in Toronto have received harsh emails from me accusing them of being inaccessible and ableist.

I clearly do not match the popular image of one who ‘changes hearts and minds.’

And yet, the attitudes of those around me have still changed for the better. Fast-forward to today, and the same colleague who originally questioned my capability now frequently makes a show of asking me to send him my latest papers. I never sat down with him to explain what I found offensive about his innocent questions, but I’m sure he came to his own conclusions. My supervisor now checks in with me and advocates to make sure that I have access at each meeting and event I attend; he told one of my interpreters that he noticed a huge difference in my energy levels and participation when I had interpreters. The student groups that I work regularly with now automatically arrange for interpreters when I express interest in being involved, and are diligent about warning overly-eager activists that they need to incorporate enough time in their planning to make sure everyone gets included.

At times, even I am surprised by my influence: At the last conference I attended, the entire audience applauded in ASL (American Sign Language) when I stepped up to receive an award, something that I would have never thought possible in the world of hard science.

At times, even I am surprised by my influence.

Clearly, the tactics that I use sharply differ from the patient soul-crushing labor that people insist I should be doing. If anything, my tactics more resemble me going about my everyday life and reacting to people naturally — and that’s mostly what it is. I expose people to myself. That I am still effective at “changing hearts and minds” reveals the fundamental weakness in the argument that marginalized people need to go out of their way to be eternally patient and persuasive if they want to change the way they’re treated.

If your goal is to get people to see our humanity, why is it wrong for us to act human?

Because I am human, I’ll get angry and frustrated if you say things that are hurtful to me. Because I am human, I’ll get tired and struggle in the face of persistent barriers. Because I am human, I’ll have needs and take up space. I trust that the people in my life will see these truths as well and adjust their attitudes to make room for me. I am lucky enough that for the most part, they do. As for those who do not, who hold me to a standard they would never hold themselves to — we are not operating from the same basic premise in the first place. No number of words from me can change that.

If your goal is to get people to see our humanity, why is it wrong for us to act human?

In many ways, the calls for “reasonable” discourse in the face of growing hostility is a form of victim-blaming. I can be sympathetic about where it comes from; I am also frustrated that marginalized groups are treated so unfairly, that progress on these issues appears to be so slow, that so much seems to be hanging by a thread in our political climate of open bigotry and persecution. But instead of blaming those most at risk, I have an alternative explanation.

Although I’m slowly changing hearts and minds through exposure in my graduate program today, you must understand that it took me extraordinary measures to get to where I stand today. As an undergraduate, I quickly realized that the lecture format in universities severely disadvantaged me due to my disability; my response was to spend three times the amount of time as my hearing classmates, painstakingly going through the syllabus of each class I was enrolled in line-by-line, piecing together the content from lecture slides, textbooks, and independent research, to compensate for what I could not glean from the lectures. Even then, I would get docked marks; sometimes it would be because I would miss that the professor emphasized a particular point not on the syllabus and told everyone else it would be on the exam. Still not being enough, I made the strategic decision to take a full year off from my undergraduate to work as a research assistant, where I co-authored enough papers to finally bridge the gap between myself and hearing students.

Even then, I am just one person. I cannot be in every university department, every boardroom, every workplace, every event, every friend group. How many people like me failed to be at the places where they were supposed to be at, because they did not have the guidance to understand how to sneak past a system stacked against them? Because they did not have the financial resources, the family support, the health, the basic privilege, to work to prove themselves to others? Because their hearts broke prematurely, from the feeling of persistence never paying off, from the burden of never being able to complain, from starting to believe the constant barrage of hate and doubt launched against them?

How many people never even had the chance to change your heart and your mind?

In our current political environment, where civil rights are being eroded, we are beginning to see old institutional barriers re-emerge. We must be very careful not to fall for the alluring lie that if marginalized groups are nice enough, people will see the error of their ways. Pretty and flattering words alone do not change hearts and minds; making the political personal does. To even be in a place where we can even access your hearts and minds, much less change them, we need to be your colleague, your book club member, your neighbor, your boss, your friend, your teacher.

How many people never even had the chance to change your heart and your mind?

Instead of demanding “perfect” behavior from those who have been marginalized, I ask those with privilege to push back. To smash walls. To shout down those who would target us. Show us that we belong. Open the floodgates, so it is no longer just the lucky few that break through.

As someone who is too frequently the only representative of my identity, I’m working the hardest I can on the frontlines already. Instead of putting the expectation of being beyond reproach on me, there are plenty of things you could do instead to help me not be the only one of few out there. Protest and contact your politicians, if you see policies unfairly target minorities. Educate yourself and others about issues. Push for more representation and inclusivity in your field. Defend us from hate groups and harassers.

Criticizing the language and actions of minorities is an easy thing to do; because it is easy, it is tempting for those who want to show that they care about these issues. But this comes at a cost: The weight of responsibility moves from your shoulders to ours. You imply that adding this additional burden of respectability is constructive because you are helping us shed ourselves of any flaws that could be used as reason to deny us access and rights.

Alex Lu
Computer science graduate student and OPIRG-Toronto director. I organize around disability justice, queer issues, and intersectionality when I’m not being a tedious academic.

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