I was afraid. My 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Worthy, told my parents that there was something wrong with my hearing, or that it was not as good as it “should” be. I don’t remember exactly how it was phrased. I only know that I had to have hearing tests at school, and I was afraid.
I loved this teacher. She was an older Black woman who really nurtured her Black students and made us excited about learning. She was funny too. Whenever we would say “I’m done” she would say “what did you cook?” We would laugh and say, “Mrs. Worthy, I am finished with the assignment” and she would nod her head. She didn’t like us yelling out “I’m done!” I liked her so much that I felt betrayed that she thought that something was “wrong” with me.
As a little Black girl at a predominantly Black elementary school, I was familiar with the intraracial teasing that we did as children. Some of it was harmless. Some of it, upon reflection, revealed the impact of White supremacy, racism, sexism and misogynoir on young Black children. Were you light skinned enough? Colourism. Eurocentric beauty myths. Internalized racism. Were you thin enough but not too thin as a Black girl? Eurocentric beauty myths. Fatphobia. Did you begin to physically develop as early as the other girls? Misogynoir via controlling images of Black sexuality and hypersexualization of young Black girls because of the combination of racism and sexism. (Black girls are viewed and socialized as adult women because of this.) I didn’t want anything else to make me stand out. I didn’t want to be teased in a way that revealed young children’s ableism—learned from adults and a society where at the time the Americans With Disabilities Act had not even passed yet. Though people still do it now, back in the 80s when I was in elementary school, it was more common to call someone “retarded” and laugh it off. Even teachers would use that word at times, so I was afraid. I could hear…but apparently not well enough.
I passed the hearing tests, however. Even so, I remember when I started the 5th grade, my mom told my math teacher Ms. White that I have trouble hearing. Ms. White called me aside and said if I ever needed any “extra” help, to let her know. This offended me. There was nothing “wrong” with me and I did not need her help. This caused me to withdraw during class and my grades started to slip. They blamed this on my hearing. I felt even more annoyed. I decided to focus and bring my grades up. Meanwhile, one of the “popular” girls laughed and said “I thought you were supposed to be smart!” I thought, wow, they think I cannot hear well, and if I cannot, then I am stupid? I started focusing to prove them wrong. But after a while, it was just to prove it to myself that there was nothing “wrong” with me.
As a young child, I didn’t realize that ableism is bigotry and able-bodied people are complicit in the oppression of people with challenges. Audism is defined as “discrimination that is based on a person’s ability, or lack of ability, to hear. Because it does not directly affect the hearing community, it is not a form of prejudice that is often discussed. In many cases, people who are not deaf have not heard of audism and may not realize that this form of discrimination exists.” I just knew that I did not want people to pick on me beyond already being picked on for not being as light as the light skinned girls (though I was not considered dark skinned either, so I was expected to join the light skinned girls in picking on the dark skinned girls, while knowing my “place”), for not having long hair, for being too thin, and for not developing breasts/hips when others did. I was also picked on for attending a church more extreme than other girls; after a while, I couldn’t wear pants to school and I dreaded them seeing me wearing a lace prayer veil, which actually happened one day as was leaving church with my mom and one of my sisters. No matter how different I felt, I was always “middle level” popular. Not quite the dance team or light skinned girls; not quite outcast like very dark skinned girls or heavier girls. With all of this going on, I really didn’t want people to mock me if they thought I had a hearing problem.
The 6th grade was the last time that I had a school-issued hearing test. Again, I passed. I couldn’t figure out why my mom thought I couldn’t hear as well, at the time. Later on in high school years, I realized why. I daydreamed a lot. A LOT. All of the time. I tuned people out. I grew up in a large family in a small home (and often tuned my siblings out when I didn’t want to play) and men started street harassing me at 12 (I tried to tune out as they insulted me). I think my mother processed me ignoring everyone and almost dissociating from the world as a hearing problem. In reality, it was both.
Now in adulthood, I have trouble with low pitch sounds and I watch American films with the English captions on so that I don’t miss any of the script. I have to play my iPod above the midpoint in volume to hear lyrics properly. Even so, I can hear well enough without hearing aids. Further, I am not deaf. I still have able-bodied privilege.
According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2 to 3 out of every 1,000 children in the United States are born deaf or hard-of-hearing. 9 out of every 10 children who are born deaf are born to parents who can hear. Approximately 17 percent (36 million) of American adults report some degree of hearing loss. Hearing loss or deafness cannot be seen by the eye as some abilities can be; however, people are still judged, shamed and even lose opportunities because of this, even as legal protection under the law should prevent this. Worse, safety can be at risk.
A mutual follower of mine on Twitter mentioned that being deaf alters her experience with street harassment. Men assume she is ignoring them (without say, headphones on) and become even more belligerent and aggressive. I realized that of all of the street harassment experiences that I have endured for over 20 years, I never even thought about how they would react by assuming they’re blatantly being ignored in that way. The reveals my able-bodied privilege, despite both me and this mutual follow being Black women and enduring misognyoir via street harassment.
Obviously as a child, I could not have known then what I now know. I do know that my parents would have loved me regardless, even if I was not able to get by with the level of hearing that I have now. I wish I was not so afraid then when I was a child but when I reflect on it, I actually did have more courage than I thought. I navigated through a world that’s very complicated and painful for Black girls and Black women. And now, I’m committed to the intersectional perspective needed to fight oppression and check privilege.
I mess up sometimes though. I have said phrases like “blinded” in regards to someone not understanding a perspective or “fall on deaf ears” in regards to someone being willfully ignorant. These phrases are ableist, however, and I will continue to work to not use them.