Seeing the invisible
“You’re left-handed, right? Why is it that so many lefties feel they have to tell you they’re left-handed?”
Good question, fictitious sophont! The answer lies at the root of invisible privilege. But first, I must introduce you to a few items in my daily life.
My office desk
My office desk is right-handed. Yours likely is, too, but perhaps you never noticed. There is a cutout for my computer, and a big area to the right of that for writing, coffee cups, or other such uses. To the left, there’s a tiny strip of space.
If I want to have coffee at my desk, my choices are to place it in front of my monitor, reach across my body…or be right-handed.
It’s worse if I need to take actual notes, but we lefties are used to writing at awkward angles.
Like all drive-on-right-side cars, my car is strongly right-handed. Shifter and radio and AC controls, all on the right. (Turn signals on the left, as normal, but that’s a holdover from when most people drove stick.)
Of course, having been taught to drive a manual transmission here, I’d be quite bewildered if asked to drive a car in, say, the UK. My right hand has learned how to navigate the gears, wheel, and radio controls.
As a kid, I could never cut paper at school — the scissors would twist in my fingers and gum up the paper. Eventually I learned to jam the blades sideways in my fingers to make them cut, a grip that left deep grooves in my hands after a few minutes. This was tiring, and I’d eventually fall back to using them the way everyone else did, and gumming up the paper. It was just something I was bad at!
When I was about nine, half as a joke, at a “lefty” store, my parents bought me my own pair of scissors. These scissors had a bright orange handle, and were molded to fit left hands only. I still have them, nearly 40 years on. Because as it turned out, scissors are deeply handed.
It’s not just the handle. The handle’s nice, but it’s only part of the story. With scissors, the cutting action depends on the blades being brought together precisely, and if you use the wrong hand, the natural motion leans the blades away from each other. The left-handed scissor doesn’t just differ in the (highly visible) handle design — the blades are attached ‘backwards’ from normal scissors.
But the damage was done. I grew up “bad at using scissors”. Because of stuff like this, it took me a long time to eject “bad at arts and crafts” from my personal narrative. (Ask any lefty about pencils and pens, and what color the meat of their hand is after writing. Or 3-ring binders and workbooks where all the fill-in-the-blank are on the right-hand page. Or…)
These are all minor things, but they’re annoying. A steady drip, wearing down on me.
It forced me to wonder if I was defective. If it was worth staying left handed — whether if I just tried a little harder my latent superpowers might kick in and I could slide to fully right-handed status. (Then I try writing with my right hand — nope, still no.) I know some ambidextrous folks who decided, intentionally or unintentionally, that it was easier to be right-handed, and that’s how they grew up.
But these pains are largely invisible unless you’ve experienced them — and perhaps even then. Many lefties I’ve talked to were quite surprised to learn about right-handed desks, and often a lightbulb went on after I mentioned it.
While the solutions range from trivial (shift my monitor slightly to the right) to impossible (go back in time and make all countries of the world drive like the UK), all too often no one even tries. My workplace is very accommodating, but they certainly didn’t ask me my handedness when selecting a desk or office setup for me. I’ve never heard of an office doing that; it’s not on anyone’s radar. It didn’t even occur to me at first; that’s how pernicious this stuff can be.
No wonder most lefties end up at least partially ambidextrous.
So what the heck does this have to do with racism?
Handedness is a nice, safe venue to explore privilege.
The topic is fairly bounded and reasonably safe. Nowadays, few people are being punished for being left-handed, and the coercive “conversion therapy” of my mother’s generation has vanished. (For example, my great-uncle was left-handed, but they beat it out of him. I can only wonder if he grew up thinking that he simply sucked at things his peers were excelling at.)
All of this makes handedness a good place to experience what it means to be part of a cultural default, without pulling in the incredibly harder context of other isms.
It gives us an opportunity to start examining our reactions to encountering our own privilege. What was your reaction to reading the first half of this article?
- Did you find yourself thinking that I was a whiner, or that the problems were trivial?
- Did you find yourself leaping to problem-solving? (“Why don’t you just…”)
- Did you find yourself leaping to help — putting on your armor, becoming the White Knight mentally preparing a letter to your onboarding staff to ask pointed questions about handedness?
These are all feelings that arise when we are confronted by a privilege we may not have realized we were enjoying.
So here’s a place to have those feelings, and figure out what they mean for you. Did want to help? Great! Find people who are further along than you, and work with them. Or take the smallest steps that can help, and build on successes. Did you want to trivialize — hmm. Do you know why? Is this threatening your self-image in some way? Did you want to skip ahead to problem-solving? That’s sometimes a reaction to encountering something we didn’t know was busted in our lives or our society; it’s a way of avoiding thinking about how we participate in the injustice.
So what don’t I know about racism?
There’s a ton I don’t know about the experience of living in modern American society while simultaneously being non-white.
Some things I can imagine, the way righties might imagine left-handled — not left-handed — scissors. Lacking a lived experience, I’m going to get it wrong, and possibly in ways I can’t really foresee.
Some things I’ve missed, but can be taught about — the way truly left-handed scissors are constructed differently, and the experience of thinking the fault lies in ourselves, rather than in a society that defaults to something we are not.
Some things I simply can’t image —they are truly invisible, but more than that, preconscious. Like the right-handed desk, it doesn’t even occur to me to ask the right questions, let alone accommodate the answers.
And then you couple these things with truly dire consequence: centuries of prosecution; a societal narrative that sees you as subhuman; a hostile, nation-wide community group only a few years removed from dangling folks like you from trees. (Or perhaps you don’t have to imagine; this may be your situation already.) The stakes are very high. It’s on me to skill up.
Of course there’s a lot I don’t know. But at least I know who to listen to; and I know that I don’t know.
So tell me — who will you listen to?