When Trayvon Martin was murdered (and I’ve no compunction saying so) I published a blog post saying race and disability are linked by stigmatizing architectures. I wrote from an outlier’s position as I’m a blind man whose presence in public is nearly always conditional. One thing my friends of color and my pals with disabilities (and yes, sometimes they’re the same) know is that nowadays there are more gated spaces in the US than ever. Some places have patrolled fences while others offer no signs of implicit exception. All outliers understand that when you transgress—when you expect to enter closed spaces you’ll be sized up. I said:
As a person who travels everywhere accompanied by a guide dog I know something about the architectures and the cultural languages of “the gate” –doormen, security officers, functionaries of all kinds have sized me up in the new “quasi public” spaces that constitute our contemporary town square. I too have been observed, followed, pointed at, and ultimately told I don’t belong by people who are ill informed and marginally empowered. Like Trayvon I am seldom in the right place. Where precisely would that place be? Would it be back in the institution for the blind, circa 1900? Would it be staying at home always?
Tippy-toe-racist-ableist-architecture isn’t new. Slavery was always architecture. And the “ugly laws” kept cripples off the streets of America for a century. Yes, we’re living in a time of vicious retrenchment. Enter Starbucks.
By now almost everyone knows the CEO of Starbucks, Howard D.Schultz launched a campaign called “Racing Together”—baristas were instructed to write the phrase on every coffee cup sold. Starbucks’ aim was to start a national conversation about race. I’m saying the motive was good but I’m also scratching my head, for Mr. Schultz must have imagined his franchises are genuine 18th century coffee houses where informed citizens gather regularly to exchange ideas and conduct solemn conversations. I love the notion. I enjoy picturing Samuel Johnson seated across from me, slumped in a leather chair, hoisting his mocha latte, and cheerily dissecting our manners.
I fear Mr. Schultz had a good idea but oddly, inexplicably, misunderstood what the average Starbucks essentially is. Note: I’m not claiming his coffee shops are gated spaces (though some may be) nor am I saying conversations about tricky subjects shouldn’t happen—for I believe our nation is woefully indisposed to the art of engagement. In fact I care so much about conversing I even wrote a book about it called Do Not Interrupt: A Playful Take on the Art of Conversation.
No. I think Mr. Schultz forgot that for over sixty years, Americans have been schooled by Madison Avenue to think they deserve a break today. Although the slogan was originally coined for MacDonalds, it stands for the advertized appeal of every commercial space. The slogan was also accompanied by the claim: “at MacDonalds it’s clean.” The subtexts are variable but one thing’s for sure: you shouldn’t feel guilt when spending money on junk food (you deserve it) and you have every right to expect the place where this food is sold offers “time out” from your daily troubles. All franchise businesses in the United States sell these presumptions.
In fact, so trouble free are these franchises imagined to be, their managers often run afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are frequent stories about people with service dogs, mothers with crippled children, deaf people trying to sign—all experiencing discrimination in fast food venues.
Some gated communities are entirely created by the advertising industrial complex. (How can the Hamburglar cheer up the tots when there’s a motorized wheelchair user at the next table?)
Where would the right place be for coffee and conversation about outliers when long ago we sold the vision that fast food restaurants are fully sanitized for our protection?