Content warning: mentions of various manifestations of prejudice (e.g. harassment, assault, discrimination, etc). There is nothing graphic. Mental health issues, self-suppression. Mention of self-harm (nothing graphic).
I dislike the term ‘passing privilege’. In the context of marginalisation, the word ‘privilege’ usually refers to advantages conferred upon individuals simply because they are not part of any marginalised groups, and to them being able to avoid things like discrimination, hate crimes, and similar things based on their identity.
The phrase ‘passing privilege’ – whether it is someone passing as abled / healthy / neurotypical, as cisgender / endosex / straight, as white, or anything else along those lines – refers to someone who is part of a marginalised group (e.g. the neurodivergent community) being perceived as part of the corresponding privileged group (in that case, neurotypicals) by others.
The thing is, while this can definitely enable the individual to avoid various forms of oppression simply because people won’t think to throw such harm at them, it is definitely not the same as having systematic privilege. And it feels like it is erasing the struggles that people who are able to and who choose to pass do have, to call their situation privilege.
For starters, not every neurodivergent person wants to pass as neurotypical (I’m going to keep using neurodivergent / neurotypical as an example, but this can apply to other situations too). Some people feel positive about their neurodivergence and want to be perceived as they are. In their case, being perceived as neurotypical would be in itself a kind of suppression of their identity.
Even if they don’t want it, though, passing as neurotypical would still gain them some benefits. Neurotypical people are not discriminated against in education, employment, housing, and so on based on their neurology. Neurotypical people do not face harassment from people they know, from strangers, and from “professionals” based on their neurology. Neurotypical people are usually able to move through the world with less fear, less assault, less expectation (often outright demand) for them to prove themselves and justify themselves. They are allowed to exist in public spaces – true, there are no laws specifically against neurodivergent people existing in public spaces, but the simple fact that so many of those spaces are inaccessible and harmful to us can feel like all of those places are putting signs up saying “No neurodivergent people allowed.”.
Passing as neurotypical can gain you at least some of these benefits. That is true.
But it comes at such a cost.
The cost is fear. Constant fear, worry, stress. That you will be found out. That anyone – someone you know, or just a stranger, could notice something “off” about you and figure out that you’ve neurodivergent, and it could all come crumbling down.
The cost is hiding. Constant self-suppression. Monitoring every tiny action, from whether you’re breathing too fast / too noticeably (a sign of anxiety) to whether you’re “walking funny” or standing in an unusual position, or hunching over. Do I look sad? Do I look scared? While these are just emotions, the neurodivergent among us know how quickly they can lead to intrusive questions (no, I am not just referring to people asking if we’re okay; that’s fine) or to negative judgement. Am I sitting right? Am I moving too much, or too little? Will it be obvious if I dissociate, or hallucinate? Are my self-harm marks showing? Suppressing the compulsions, suppressing all the good and bad things that could mark us as different. Suppressing the communication devices that are so helpful to us, like echolalia and stimming. Suppressing so much of who we are and what we experience, because if we don’t suppress every single bit of it, if even a tiny amount slips through, we could be found out, and we could lose all that we have gained.
The cost is self-respect. There have been times when I have tried to pass, not just as neurotypical but as other things too. It makes me feel dirty, and dishonest, and feels dangerously akin to self-harm. Well, self-suppression is a form of self-harm, even if it is done for a good reason. All marginalisation, all suppression of who someone is, is harm, including if it comes from oneself. It hurts. And it allows shame to creep back in. While shame can certainly be a problem for me when I’m not passing, I find it particularly insidious at times when I am self-suppressing in an attempt at passing. Because in those times, I am basically mirroring ableism. I might know inside that I am trying to pass for good reasons, not because I am shaming myself. But if I am mirroring the same behaviours (hiding my neurodivergent traits) that I would do if I genuinely did feel ashamed, it can still be all too easy for that shame to creep back in. And on top of all the shame that I used to feel, back when I was still so ashamed of who I am, now that I have more self-acceptance and more links to my wonderful neurodivergent community, trying to pass feels like letting down my community as well as myself. I know that a lot of them wouldn’t dream of shaming me for it, and wouldn’t view it as me letting them down. But that thought is still there. There is immense pressure on marginalised people to always be ambassadors for our communities. And I do want to represent my people, to show the joy and worth of neurodivergence, to neurotypical people who need to learn, but even more so to other neurodivergent people who need to see that freedom and self-acceptance are possible. Trying to pass feels like I am denying myself and others representation.
The cost is exhaustion. All of that fear, all of that stress, all of that self-suppression…it takes a toll. Of course it does. No-one could deal with all that, day-in, day-out, and not be exhausted. It feels like being worn to the born, like being so done, like you just can’t keep doing it. It leads to burnout, a significant problem for many of us (that can happen as a result of many things, including constant self-modification).
The cost is isolation. Isolation from your communities because they sometimes perceive you as “not one of them”. Isolation because you worry that if your family, your colleagues, anyone finds out that you are going to mental health support groups or that you interact with autistic self-advocates online, this exhausting image that you have so carefully cultivated will break, and you won’t be able to pass anymore. And of course, you cannot publicly participate in any discussions about neurodivergence, because if you do…you lose your ability to pass. Which means that you can rarely contribute to the important conversations, to public projects or acceptance / awareness campaigns or most other things that can make a real difference. You have less impact on your own life, because you cannot contribute as yourself. You either have to lie (which, to me at least, feels wrong and icky and painful), or you just don’t contribute at all, and watch as other members of your communities bond with each other and create positive change together.
The cost is the time it takes to unlearn self-suppression. I expect that every single one of us has aspects of this to unlearn. But when we are forcing ourselves into suppression, as well as receiving suppression from the world, it can be even harder. And it brings its own host of issues. There are some situations where we actually need to appear “neurodivergent enough”. When we’re trying to get accommodations, accessibility, benefits. Things we need to survive and to participate in society. Our rights. These are situations when we generally need to be perceived as neurodivergent in order to have any chance (still not a great chance, but it’s something) of receiving those things. There have been times when my benefits have stopped and I have had to ration my food, all because I wasn’t “neurodivergent enough” for the assessor to believe I needed benefits. But letting out all my neurodivergent traits can be so hard if I have trained myself to suppress them. Trying to pass constantly means that my body doesn’t know how to be free, to let itself stim and repeat and be gloriously, beautifully, “enough”-ly neurodivergent.
What I really have an issue with is the conflation of the different meanings of the word ‘privilege’. If we use that word in general, it can just refer to any kind of advantages. But in the context of marginalisation, it specifically refers to systemic advantages, to being viewed and treated as superior based on who you are, to avoiding discrimination and hate crimes and so on, to statistically having a better quality of life, to seeing yourself represented in reality and in fiction, to not facing relentless rejection and prejudice and ignorance, to people knowing that people like you exist and not having to constantly be the “first one” of your groups that they have ever met, to being able to move through the world with less fear and stress and pain and self-modification.
And the thing is, genuinely privileged people – be they / we abled, cis, white, or anything else that is treated as better – generally do not have to fear that they will lose their privilege. As a white person, I know that I will not become a person of colour tomorrow. I will never face racism. My whole life will be altered by the privileges I am granted based on my skin colour.
This isn’t 100% true for every privileged person. Abled folks, for example, might become disabled due to illness or injury. Quite a few people are abled for most of their life, but become disabled in some way during old age. But even with this knowledge, I highly doubt that most abled people spend their lives worrying about facing ableism the same way disabled people do.
But “passing” (a problematic concept in of itself, but one that I will discuss more in a different post) as privileged is not the same as actually being privileged. It comes with a whole host of problems that genuinely privileged folks do not have to deal with, and it could come crumbling down at any moment – something we are very aware of. It can wreak havoc with your emotions, isolate you from communities that you need, impact the way you view yourself, and restrict you from any feeling of freedom that openness can bring.
I do not pass as neurotypical these days. I haven’t for years. I doubt I ever fully did, but there were certainly times when I could pass more, and when trying to pass was an actual option for me. There are other kinds of privileged identity that I never tried to pass as. So I have some experience with passing, and some experience with not passing.
Neither is safe. Neither is devoid of fear. Each one comes with its own set of issues, and they both share a lot of issues too. Passing has, at times, kept me safer, and allowed me to move through more spaces in the world unharassed. If I had ever worked, it would probably have given me more job opportunities. But being openly neurodivergent has given me self-acceptance and a certain amount of freedom. They both have advantages and disadvantages.
And that brings me back to the terminology. Because passing is not about privilege, it is about advantages. It cannot honestly be described as equivalent to actual privilege. Passing brings advantages that simply look like privilege. But it brings them at immense costs, and even if someone is able to pass as neurotypical so well that they receive every single one of those advantages, they will still not have anything near the experience that actual neurotypical people have in this world. If I had spent my whole life trying to pass, I would have spent my whole life self-suppressing, not engaging with my community fully, and probably experiencing worse mental health.
Now, I know that my experiences with this topic are not the be-all-and-end-all. Other people will have different experiences. Maybe passing comes with fewer costs, or maybe they prefer it to being openly neurodivergent (or marginalised in any other way). But I honestly cannot conceive of a way that passing could ever be genuinely equivalent to real privilege. From what I can tell, it always comes with costs that legitimately privileged people never have to experience. Which is why I think the terminology should change. We can – and, I think, should – talk about the advantages that passing can bring, and the fact that some people have the option to pass while others don’t. But, in order to talk about it honestly and with all the required nuance, we need to stop using terminology that, in these contexts at least, usually refers to something very different. And we need to start acknowledging that while passing can definitely come with advantages, especially regarding safety and lesser discrimination, openness can too. If I had never been honest about my neurodivergence and other marginalised identities – some through choice, others because I wasn’t able to pass, and some because I was outed – then I would not have got to this level of self-acceptance, nor would I have learned a lot of things that have been vital to my (hopefully) ever-growing understanding of the world I live in, nor would I feel as able to call out prejudice (though I certainly still don’t feel very able to do that, but it’s an improvement). I am sure of all that.
The way I see it, passing is something that is rooted in marginalisation. We would not have a concept of it if marginalisation of some identities did not exist. There would be no reason for anyone to ever try to pass as anything (other than in acting, of course) if some identities were not prioritised and rewarded while others were sidelined and punished. So I struggle to imagine a situation in which any marginalised person would try to pass as a privileged person without that attempt at passing being rooted in pain and fear. With that thought in mind, it is hard to ever see passing as a privilege. Passing can gain a person advantages, and result in them facing less blatant marginalisation. It does not result in them being free from marginalisation, which is what privilege is. And being noticeably marginalised, while it might seem entirely negative on the surface and can result in additional targeting and more obvious forms of marginalisation, can have its benefits too.
It might seem excessive to discuss a simple, two-word phrase in such detail. But I think it is very important to analyse how we discuss marginalisation. Our experiences are so often misrepresented by privileged folks; we should ensure that we are not misrepresenting each other too. We need to be accurate about this.