Warning: mentions of sexual abuse threats, racial abuse
Reading a Facebook post by disability activist Carly Findlay got me thinking about “niceness” – in particular, the concept that minority groups such as the disabled must always be “nice” to their oppressors, lest they seem angry, ungrateful, or unworthy of accomodation. It is my contention that the idea of “niceness” is just another way to silence minority groups, and define the ways they should behave to be deemed worthy of acceptance by the prevailing majority.
I speak to this issue as a member of the disability community, though I feel it is a problem shared by many minority groups.
What do I mean by “niceness”? As used in this post, “niceness” refers to the way that minority groups are expected to act in a grateful, submissive fashion, especially towards their oppressors, in order to prove their worth. Those who are not “nice” are labelled as angry, divisive, ungrateful, or uncommitted to their cause.*
By niceness, I mean the “good disabled”, that mythical person who is eternally thankful for their condition and its Lessons, who does all the right things by their health and attempts to overcome their disability so as not to make able-bodied people feel uncomfortable. Someone who does not act “disabled” in public, or let their unconventional body take up space.
“Niceness” is the expectation that women should laugh off sexist jokes in the workplace like a good sport and take online rape threats as the cost of speaking out. “Nice” girls don’t report sexual abuse. We expect “niceness” from our First Australians when we tell them to forget their culture and “get over” centuries of dispossession and abuse – bringing up the past isn’t “nice”, after all.
In other words, “niceness” is a means by which the status quo is enforced, and activism by minority groups suppressed. For if we spend all our time and energy acting “nice” and trying to prove our worth, what resources are we left with to fight our own battles?
The true danger of the enforcement of “nice” is revealed when minority groups step out of their defined boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
Australia is a racist country, despite our posturing to the contrary. Perhaps the most egregious public example of Australia’s deeply embedded bigotry is the case of Adam Goodes.** For those not in the know, Goodes was an Australian Rules footballer, a proud Adnyamathanha man who recently resigned due to the relentless racial abuse hurled at him during the course of his AFL career.
This affair began when a 13 year old spectator called Goodes an “ape”, causing Goodes to stand and point at her in a form of non-violent protest. (He, and other Indigenous AFL players, received other racial slurs from the crowd at this match, and many others.) Goodes urged restraint in public criticism of the girl, stating that she needed education. He received an Australian of the Year Award in 2014, in part for his actions in turning his own hurt and sorrow into activism for the Indigenous community.
From this moment, every time Goodes stepped onto the football field, he was subject to intense booing from the crowd, as well as further racial slurs. He was portrayed both as a sook for not enduring the taunts with good grace, and a perpetrator who unfairly maligned his victim and was therefore receiving just punishment.
The media frenzy came to a head when Goodes performed a short, celebratory dance after kicking a goal. The virulent criticism and hostility he received for his 10 second display of Indigenous culture was enough to force Goodes to take a short leave of absence, then retire from the AFL altogether.
In short, Adam Goodes was subject to such intense racial harassment he was forced to give up his career and life in the public eye. His abuse was not necessarily just because he was Aboriginal – it was because he was proud of it. Goodes broke the mould of what was expected from Indigenous Australians by Australian football culture, and was maligned for it.
Similar scenarios can be found in nearly every minority group. Black lives matter protestors are invariably portrayed in the media as violent and angry, no matter how they protest. When a woman reports the death and rape threats she receives to her abuser’s publicly displayed employer, causing him to be fired, it is she who is labelled the instigator for naming and shaming him. And if you are a disabled person confronting ableism, expect to be portrayed as the stereotypical angry, bitter cripple, rather than having your opinion actually acknowledged.
By rejecting “niceness”, I am not advocating everyday hostility or violence as a first course of action (though there is certainly an argument to be made for punching Nazis). Nor am I daring to suggest how any member of a minority group should act – just the opposite. No one can tell you how to “do” disability, for instance.
That said: no one should have to throw petals at the feet of their abusers to be seen as a “good” minority. Our need for accomodations is not contingent on our meekness in the face of hostility. And no minority group should have to expend valuable energy on appearing inoffensive in order to advance their cause.
When people argue that minority groups do not deserve the right to exist, do they really deserve “niceness” in return? Will niceness somehow change the minds of those who speak only in the language of violence? Discourse surrounding inequality should be focused on how society’s imbalances can be redressed to improve the quality of life for many, not a critique of the actions of the marginalised which only serve as another tool of control.
It is tempting to think that if I am just nice enough to those who mock me for my disability, or attempt to legislate away my rights, then they will eventually see things from my perspective. Unfortunately, it takes more than “niceness” to instigate change. As Stella Young said, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp”.
In a world where merely existing as a marginalised person can be a political act, pride in oneself is a powerful statement. For me, being a proud, disabled woman is a good start.
*In case I wasn’t quite clear in the piece, I am not criticising those who, for whatever reason, cannot or do not show pride in their minority status. Not everyone can be “out” and safe, or are able to take part in activism. I am criticising instead the system which expects us to remain silent and compliant, not those who do.
**I’m talking in terms of public symbolism here. Some other horrific examples of abuse of Indigenous Australians include the case of Ms Dhu, who died at the hands of the Western Australia police after being arrested for an unpaid fine, and the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre in the Northern Territory which was found to have committed a series of assaults against its young inmates, including being hooded and tear-gassed.