So we’re still talking about straws. Have you noticed? In between the cat videos, baby photos, and Fuhrer Trump articles filling your social media, the straw ban talk isn’t going away.
Do you know why people are so excited to jump on this “ban the straw!” bandwagon?
Because it’s easy.
The straw ban is such a classic example of white liberal activism. That doesn’t mean there aren’t non-whites or non-liberals on board this time. And obviously not all white liberals are riding this train. But it’s straight out of the white liberal playbook!
White liberals love to feel like we’re good people. Maybe that’s not fair; it’s human nature to want to feel like a good person. But white liberals seem to have an extra intense craving for it.
But… we don’t want to work too hard. We don’t want to leave our comfort zones or stretch ourselves. That’s why we love sharing memes, wearing awareness bracelets, and signing change.org petitions. Easy! I can rack up all kinds of Good Person Points before breakfast! In fact, if I sign a straw banning petition before breakfast, and then drink my orange juice straight out of the glass at breakfast, that’s two Good Person Points already.
It doesn’t bother us that these actions are super low-impact. Even if we get rid of every plastic straw from the face of the Earth, we’ll have eliminated only .03% of the world’s plastic waste. Look closely–that’s not 3%, it’s point-zero-three percent. Three one hundredths of a percent. I don’t know what exactly that number means, but it sounds like the best we can possibly hope for, if the entire planet bans plastic straws, is saving the lives of half a dozen fish and a couple pelicans.
But just think how good we’ll all feel about ourselves! Never mind that 99.97% of the plastic waste will still be polluting our oceans. We’ll feel like we made a difference! And there’s nothing white liberals are better at than low-impact, feel-good activism. (Tangent: Do you know how many discussions I’ve sat through just in the last year or two about whether my students should be called English Learners, English Language Learners, Emerging Bilinguals, Emerging Multilinguals, or something else? It’s such an enormous waste of time, and it makes everyone in the room feel like cutting edge changemakers without having to do anything.)
If we were serious about cleaning up the ocean, then we’d tackle the estimated 46% of the ocean’s debris that’s made up of abandoned fishing equipment. We would create systems and incentives for more environmentally friendly disposal of this equipment. We’d figure out how to tackle the problem in different countries with different resources. It would require an investment of time, money, thought, and effort. And in the end, the oceans would actually be cleaner…. But that sounds hard. And we wouldn’t get the fun little dopamine boost every time we enjoyed a strawless meal.
Is white liberal activism really about the earth? Or is it about the dopamine?
Of course, when I say that the straw ban is low-impact, what I mean is low positive impact. It will absolutely have a very real negative impact on the disabled community. It’s already happening.
Recently I went out to brunch, and asked for a straw with my water. The server gave me a judgmental look, because obviously I hate the earth, and said “We have some paper straws for now…. but we’re trying to phase those out too.” I was taken aback, and told her directly that’s really inconsiderate of customers with disabilities. She shrugged and walked away. She returned shortly with a paper straw, which made my water taste nasty.
A week later, out for dinner, I forgot to ask for a straw when the server was taking my order. I forgot again when he brought my meal. I only remembered when I wanted to reach for a drink of water. But he didn’t return to our table until he was bringing the check and I felt silly asking for a straw after the meal was over, so I didn’t. To rub salt into my thirsty wound, he then told us proudly about how he’s keeping the straws hidden now as a matter of policy.
Sure, yes, it’s my fault that I didn’t ask. Sounds like it would have been provided if I had asked. (No telling whether it would have been provided with a smile, though. I might have been shamed again for hating the earth.) I also didn’t ask for a fork, knife, napkin, plate, or glass, but those were provided.
This is why the disabled community pushes back against the phrase “special needs.” Why are your needs a given, and mine are special? The entire world is designed to accommodate your needs. As an able-bodied person, you’ve never been invited to an event that didn’t accommodate your need for a place to sit. Your need to enter the building, through the main entrance no less. Your need to eat, drink, and use the bathroom to your heart’s content. These buildings and events aren’t a product of nature; they were designed special to meet your needs. Except, your needs aren’t special; mine are. And “special” means I can’t expect you to care about them. I can ask politely, and watch you earn more Good Person Points when you grant my requests, but if you come up with an excuse not to meet my needs, I’m supposed to smile and be understanding.
It’s so exhausting to have to ask for things all day. My brain seems to have a set number of asks, and once I’ve reached my quota in a day, I just don’t ask for any more. I’m not sure what that number is, but I can feel when I reach it. If I’ve already reached my quota, I’m not going to ask for your help opening the candy bar; I’m just going to hold it and let it melt. I’m not going to ask you to hand me the blanket on the high shelf; I’m just going to be cold. I’m not going to ask you to move my foot a little to the right and forward just a skosh; I’m going to live with it hurting for the rest of the day.
So asking for straws isn’t something I love to do. I do it when I need to, except for when I forget, but I don’t love it. Especially now that I’m afraid I’ll be shamed, or told no, or given some nasty paper straw. Now there’s an extra layer of taking a deep breath and gathering my courage before asking, “Can I have a straw?” It doesn’t feel like asking for a water refill, or something I could reasonably expect to receive. Now it feels like begging a favor and hoping for kindness.
And this is why white liberal activism is so exhausting. The environmentalists originally chose the plastic straw issue, because it seemed like an easy win that wouldn’t hurt anybody. When the disabled community spoke up and said, “Actually, it hurts us!” that should have been the end of the conversation. That was the cue for the environmentalists to say, “Oh, our bad, no problem, we’ll pick a different thing.”
But, no. Instead, they get mad at us for letting our negative impact get in the way of their good intentions. We aren’t awarding them Good Person Points, and they want their Good Person Points! It doesn’t matter that they’re trampling on a marginalized community to get them.
People like being advocates for the environment and animals. You know why? It’s easy. Relative to activism and allyship for groups of humans, I mean. The environment doesn’t talk back and tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Animals don’t tell you that your good intentions were misguided and they’d like you to take a step back and let them define their own needs. Humans are so much messier and more complex.
It might not seem like a big ask for the disabled to carry their own straws or whatever. And if this were going to actually save the sea lions, I would probably be willing to make the sacrifice. But it’s not going to do that. This is asking the disabled population to bear the burden of a trendy phase of low-impact activism.
So leave us alone. Don’t make us pay the price of your Good Person Points. It might seem small to you, but this could be the “straw” that breaks some camels’ backs. (See what I did there? I’m so funny…)
You have no idea how much effort goes into creating the illusion of an effortless, typical day in my life.
Just getting out of bed in the morning requires coordination of assistants, equipment, schedules, government agencies, trainings, hour sheets, materials… Everything I’m going to need for the day has to be arranged where I can get to it. I choose clothing that’s going to keep me warm, because I’m always cold, but isn’t too heavy, because that weighs me down and makes it hard to move, but doesn’t require taking layers on and off, because I can’t do that myself and whatever I put on in the morning is what I’m wearing all day, and doesn’t have a waistband that digs into the spot on my skin that’s sore from wearing something that was digging into me all day yesterday, and is aesthetically appropriate both for work and for the thing I’m going to after work…. (And THEN, someone will have the nerve to laugh at me, “Did you forget your coat??” No, you idiot, I put more thought into my outfit this morning than you put into your wedding day outfit, so how about you leave me alone?) My morning routine gets thrown off if somebody absentmindedly picked up my mascara and tightened the lid, so now I’m by myself and can’t get it open. (You’d be surprised how often people pick up random things and tighten the lid for no reason.) I don’t have time to mess around, because I have to be ready to walk out the door the minute my bus window is open. And I also have to be ok with sitting around and waiting for the bus all morning. There’s no way of knowing if this wait-and-ride-the-bus routine will take 20 minutes or two hours, so I have to be ready for either. I carry the things I’ll need in my lap, arranged so that I can balance everything. And when I get to work, I hope that all the buttons to open all the doors will work, but I usually have to find a helpful person for at least one of them.
That’s just getting my day started. Getting the plane off the ground. We haven’t even gotten to the substance of the day yet. And it’s already exhausting.
So maybe just let us have our straws? Maybe don’t add that to my list of things to plan for and/or be ashamed of? The straws aren’t hurting anything, not really. Science is more than welcome to work on creating a better straw. But until they do, just leave us and our straws alone! Put them in a dispenser on the table, same as you do with napkins. If you don’t need a straw, don’t take one. If you do, there they are. This doesn’t have to be a thing!
What this is really about, white liberal activists, is you wanting a win. Living in the times of Trump has been hard for you. It’s been hard on all of us, and harder on some of us, but you aren’t used to things being this hard. You’ve marched, and you’ve protested, and you’ve called your senators, and you’ve argued with your racist relatives… and none of it has seemed to matter. Things are worse now than before you started hashtagging #resist all over your social media. You’re tired of crying and feeling helpless. You’re tired of yelling and feeling helpless.
Believe me, I feel you!! Some of us have spent our entire lives feeling this way to some extent or another.
But it isn’t about Good Person Points. It’s about people. When your good intentions aren’t having the impact you hoped for, and are actually hurting people, it’s time to change your course.