Vegan Blind Spot

By: Loolwa Khazzoom, Founder, Dancing with Pain

November 25th, 2010 • Living with Chronic PainPrint Print

I recently moved to Sacramento, and I’m making a point of getting out and finding my community. I decided to go to some vegetarian/vegan gatherings, for a few reasons: Those circles tend to attract the kinds of people with whom I connect; as someone who keeps kosher, I can eat anything at the gatherings; I have eaten mostly vegetarian food for most of my life; and I am interested in learning vegetarian, vegan, and raw foods styles of cooking, to spice up my menus.

As anticipated, there have been some very cool people at the two gatherings I’ve attended. There also have been some people who, while demonstrating keen awareness of animal rights and planetary issues, demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity around disability and body space issues — making it unsafe for someone like me to be at the meetings.

At the first meeting, there was a woman taking photos with a flash. Every five seconds. Each time she’d turn the camera in my direction, I’d duck one way or another – lowering my hat over my eyes, lowering my head into my arms, or towards the end, lifting up a piece of paper in front of my face while turning my face sideways – the only way I could protect my eyes and still see the speaker.

As happens in these kinds of situations, I was stuck. I couldn’t go up to her and ask her to use the flash more judiciously (seriously, who needs to take that many photos of one event?), because to approach her would mean to be assailed by the flash. Plus the place was packed, and I’d have to navigate my hypersensitive body around a whole lot of people and chairs. So I kept hoping she’d get a clue from my duck-and-hide routine, and perhaps take that initiative herself. No such luck.

Even when I asked the speaker a question, I saw her turn toward me with the camera. Now that’s some serious cluelessness. I stopped mid-question and faced her. “Please don’t do that while I’m speaking,” I said. “I know you don’t want your photo taken; I saw you,” she replied, in an irritated tone. “I’ll take pictures of other people.” I felt uncomfortable continuing this one-on-one conversation in front of an audience of 100 or so, but a gal’s gotta do what a gal’s gotta do. “It’s not the photos. I’m sensitive to the light of the flash. Please just stop while I’m asking my question.”

To her credit, she did disable the flash. Although she continued taking pictures. It would have been nice if she’d told me she was disabling the flash, so that I wouldn’t have anxiety the next time she picked up the camera and shot, but whatever. My eyes didn’t get hurt.

Then there was the meeting today. I came about 90 minutes late and was wandering around a bit, looking for the place. I went down a pathway and saw a man coming toward me. Or more accurately, barreling toward me. My instinct was to bolt to the side, but he said, “Hold on” in an authoritative voice, then stopped moving. He asked what street was behind me.

A lot of things were going on through my head simultaneously. First, I was questioning my inclination to bolt sideways, because I’d be ducking to his energy – which was taking up the space of three people. I’m well enough now that I want to stop doing that and seeing what happens if I don’t cater to other people throwing around their energy fields. Will they actually run into me, or will they step aside?

Since the guy stopped while asking his question, I figured I’d stop too and see what would happen. As soon as I answered his question, bam! The guy seriously, honestly, really, truly barreled into me. His left side careening into my right side. Who the hell does that? There was tons of space all around us.

And here’s the kicker: I didn’t say anything. Because it’s been a long-ass time since my activist days, since I confronted people and spoke up in a direct manner. I’ve spent the past decade plus avoiding confrontation, because when one is in a fragile state, confronting people is just asking for physical trouble.

Aside from which, once something already has happened – ie, once this guy slammed into me – it’s already over. The damage is done, no matter what I say or don’t say afterward. And I’m conserving energy by not engaging in a verbal confrontation.

But here’s the thing that sucks: I’d just biked 15 miles, danced one hour, and lifted weights. I was feeling fantastic. My mom also had done all kinds of energy healing on me last night and today, and I’d transcended my super fucked-up state from the ear test. Then this clown slammed into me, and my whole body was off kilter. My pelvis and tailbone were all whacked and in pain, my shoulder was hurting, and my spine and neck were off and in pain.

I bit the bullet and carried on, piling a plate full of vegan delicacies. Really yummy food. And I found a little corner of cool people to speak with.

About an hour or so into the evening, I was sitting with a group of people in a corner. The guy next to me pulled a camera out of his bag. Uh oh, I thought. “Can you tell me before you use a flash?” I asked. “I get shots of nerve pain from flashes.” He continued fiddling with the camera, looking at the controls on the backside, then assured me that the flash was off.

Thirty seconds passed. Flash. Flash. Two photos, one after another, with shots of light sending pain through my eyes. I looked at the guy with a WTF (what the fuck) glance, but he was oblivious, poised to take the next shot. Presumably with a flash again. So I bolted out of my chair and stood behind a beam, waiting it out, feeling confused. What just happened? Did he not understand what I told him? Did he switch the flash back on, not giving a rat’s ass about how it affected me? Were his actions conscious or unconscious?

Even from behind the beam, the flashes were bothering me, but tolerably so. Until the guy was suddenly standing right in front of me, poised to take more flash pictures. That right there is a form of assault: knowing that a certain action is hurting someone else, and doing it anyhow.

I’d been talking with this guy on and off for most of the night. He seemed intelligent, aware, and sensitive. So his behavior didn’t compute. At all.

Being that I haven’t been in the activist in-your-face mode for so many years, switching to confrontation doesn’t come as easily or quickly to me anymore. I’m still in the avoidance mindset. So I avoided the situation. I went back to where I’d been sitting and rejoined the conversation.

I wasn’t, however, hearing a damn thing anyone said. I was feeling very upset. Plus my eyes were fucked up with nerve pain from the flashes. I wanted to leave, but by that point, this guy was running all over the common area, taking flash photos. I’d have to pass through that area to get to the door. So I waited it out.

When the coast was clear, I left as quickly as possible. I passed the guy on the way out. I considered talking to him. I mean, I was really upset and confused, and I wanted to ask him what that disconnect was about. But he was engaged in conversation – everyone looking at the photos he’d just taken — so I left.

Then I came back. I didn’t want to leave angry. I’m at this transitional point where I’m well enough now that I’m reclaiming my badass self – the person who confronts things and gets them over with, instead of slinking off into the shadows. But when I returned, he and that group of people were taking flash photos again. So I turned on my heel and headed toward my car.

The eye pain continued and morphed into the wicked head pain from last night. Great, I thought. His stupid flash triggered all the crap it took two days to get rid of.

When I got home, I called my mom and told her what happened and asked for her energy healing. I shared my confusion about how people in a vegan crowd could be so clueless around people. “Maybe,” she offered, “they need meat to focus.”

That made me laugh.


Heather Freeman November 26th, 2010

I’ve found that blind spot is sadly common among activists who are concentrating on a single issue. It’s akin to feminist communities who are dismissive of women of color, or GLBT communities who ignore trans issues. It seems supremely hypocritical to me that members of marginalized groups can turn around and oppress people on their own group’s margins so easily; but there it is.
All the more reason to emphasize at every turn the inherent worth and dignity of ALL people, regardless of their gender, race, ability, orientation, creed, class, or any other characteristic.

Sharon November 26th, 2010

Not to knock anyone reading this or anyone you know who is vegan, but I’ve actually found within the vegan community, having been vegan and vegetarian for over a decade when I was younger:
too many are often far more concerned with their activist causes (animal rights, global warming) than they are about how they treat one another as human beings. But y’know, it’s the same all over. It doesn’t matter how “high-minded” a group or an individual may be on the surface, a certain percentage of the population isn’t wired right (mentally–personality disorders case in point), and they
can be bright, engaging, interesting, seem “conscious” and any adjective you may admire or desire in other people. but the fact is, people are disordered and do things like these people with flashes. They cannot put themselves in others shoes. Your needs & pain are an obstacle to what they want, so your needs don’t exist for them. Groups are made up of individuals, some very messed up but high-functioning.
I totally understand the judicious use of your energy. and not reacting as I used to before what happened to my body even if I could take it. My baseline, and therefore habit, changed out of necessity and having to gauge the toll anything takes on me.  People are difficult. in the workplace I saw the difference between how I’ve been treated (like the plague–to be avoided) and an unliked colleague who was diagnosed with stage 1 cancer and cured. the disparity (the gulf) of understanding between the two of us ….
maybe it’s coz they feel cancer isn’t in their family, therefore more unlikely, but what I have–and the fact that I of all people got it–means they can too. and their fear overrides understanding and Me & my situation. I contend with it every day. I am too fatigued to remind people. It doesn’t matter. they’ve decided to look at the overt, negative manifestations of the diseases as being everything to do with Me, instead of the diseases, in order to maintain their denial. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

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