Grappling with the disappointments of graduate school as a disabled student during the COVID-19 pandemic
As we slide into our third summer dealing with COVID-19, I cannot stop thinking about privileged people’s approach to problem solving. I find myself surrounded by people who seem to seriously believe that if they ignore the problem, it will cease to exist. In some ways, this response is baffling. Mostly, though, the response feels like repeated kicks to the gut.
As a highly educated white woman, I’ve experienced the sheltered world of privilege. I understand that it is genuinely shocking to some people to realize that very bad things happen, and even more shocking that they sometimes cannot be fixed. As someone who came into most of this privilege in adulthood, I also find myself frustrated that my similarly privileged peers seem to believe they are helpless.
As a white person, I have and always will have white privilege. As I gained privilege through my education and relationships with middle/upper class peers, I began to understand that white privilege is the most beneficial alongside other forms of privilege like health and wealth. Prior to graduate school, I had experienced adversity in the form of bullying. My earlier experiences with anti-semitism and classism were nothing compared to the ableism I experienced as a graduate student when I could no longer pass as abled. I did not understand what my previous experiences with bullying meant in context of my whiteness, disability, and identity as a practicing Jew, until the big flare up.
The one that shredded the nerves in my legs and feet. The one that introduced me to my rollator, and later, my wheelchair. The one that forced me to recognize and accept that I am disabled. The one that led me to an online community of disabled people, to the support system that helped me survive the disappointments and struggles of pre-pandemic graduate school, to the people who are now some of my closest friends. To the community that gives me a reason to get out of bed and fight to survive this pandemic another day, every day.
Until the big flare up in 2018, my white privilege and ability to pass as abled shielded me from having to deal with the consequences of growing up on the “disadvantaged” side of inequality. I understand why many white people strongly believe that any and all hardship can be overcome if you work hard enough and treat people nicely, because I was once one of those people. Until I became severely and visibly disabled, I, too, could get on board with the idea that people have “choices” about their behavior. It’s easy to dismiss your own role in reproducing inequality when white privilege helps you evade the most limiting barrier to success—intentional exclusion from social life.
I grew up in a working-class family, and because both of my parents were in the military, I spent a lot of time living with my grandmother and aunts. My father was raised in a highly religious Christian household, and because family is complicated, he practices judaism but never converted to save his relationship with my grandmum. If you know anything about conservative judaism, you know interfaith marriage is still highly controversial, and practicing without converting? Practically unheard of. My father also has a son from a previous relationship, which was pretty taboo among middle class white jews in the early 2000s. Let’s just say I quickly learned the meaning of “white trash.”
The first notable signs of my disability emerged at age 14, and it started to become obvious that I was different when I couldn’t participate similarly to other students because I was either home due to an infection finding its way to my suppressed immune system or because I had injured myself in attempt to participate. The internalized ableism was strong, hence my resistance to identifying as disabled until the big flare up.
I was bullied for these things, most often (but not always) by kids with wealthy white parents in corporate jobs, who I knew through Temple. In public school, I had the additional pleasure of being teased for being Jewish. As it turns out, being bullied for being poor had a greater impact on my success than antisemitism ever did, probably because (1) I am a white Jew, and (2) the antisemitism I experienced as a child came from other poor people, some with white privilege, most christian, but none even remotely wealthy.
I chalked most of the bullying up to “snobby prep school kids” when I was younger—then I married one of those kids. Let me tell you how shocked I was to learn that the things I did not discover about privilege and exclusion until the big flare up had actually impacted me all along. Me, and every other poor kid like me. The only difference was that the poor white kids were taught to believe in the system, that if they contributed and participated, the system would serve their needs.
Contribution and participation—what does this even mean?
As a sociologist, I find it useful to look at this issue in terms of the Functionalist Paradigm, most specifically, the ideas of Talcott Parsons (1951). The functionalist perspective conceptualizes society as a self-regulatory organism. Per this framing, contribution and participation can be defined in terms of statuses and roles, the idea being if you perform your role as is appropriate for someone of your status, society will continue to function smoothly. I believe that many white people are socialized into functionalist thinking, and thus, taught that the appropriate way to contribute to and participate in society is to keep ones head down and mind ones own business.
If you are taught that making waves is inappropriate, that going about business as usual is the expectation, and that the expectation for going about business as usual exists because it is what keeps society functioning, for better or worse, then I guess I understand why some might believe themselves to be helpless. I can definitely understand this stance as a “cog in the machine,” your average working class and poor folks. I’m more skeptical of the stance among members of the ruling class, including and especially the political elite. My privileged peers, both within and outside of academia—isn’t “going about one’s business” as a privileged person about exercising power to gain additional privilege?
Lately I feel surrounded by peers who completely ignore that their privileged position is precisely why they are not helpless and are in a position to act.
As someone who came into economic privilege through a very expensive education, and later, through marriage, I will never understand wealthy people’s need to hoard. My peers’ dedication to capitalism is mind-blowing, to say the least. I cringe when I witness wealthy people complain that “something must be done!” about the volatile stock market, the “worker shortage,” inflation, the “housing crisis,” and numerous other social problems related to inequality they refuse to address (because inequality = success for the capitalist).
As a disabled person, I want to jump out of my skin every time a nondisabled person laments that they just cannot deal with mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
I often find myself thinking, snarkily, “it must be really nice to have a choice on that.”
Because it’s frustrating beyond belief to not have that choice, and it’s infuriating to have that choice taken away by other people because they cannot cope with reality.
It’s exhausting to experience the snowballing of crises because, even though most of these privileged people threw all caution to the wind around June 2021, they are still justifying their busy lifestyles of hoarding and luxury as a reward they deserve for their sacrifices during the pandemic.
When I see my privileged peers living the high-life while also asking absurd questions like, “what will Americans do about the supply chain issues?” and “how will we ever get fuel prices to drop?” —what I hear them saying is:
UGH the past year of rewarding myself for living through 2020 has been SUCH a sacrifice, I need a vacation!”
In my professional world, the justification comes in the form of enthusiasm over in-person conferences with no hybrid option, not-so-humble bragging about the many publications accepted after the tough experience of writing said publications during lockdown, and “It’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated and I am vaccinated,” my interpretation of which is:
UGH, I’m glad I was able to overcome it with productivity and these publications, but lockdown was depressing, and people reminding me COVID-19 still exists post lockdown was exhausting…I DESERVE this in-person conference!”
I feel like I deserve to receive the medical care needed to manage my chronic illnesses, but hey, we can’t always get what we want, right? I laugh at the thought, because according to some of my privileged peers, their recent excursions to routine check-ups were extremely safe and easy—further justification of their lack of risk mitigation during a crisis.
I want to be okay with everything that’s happening, but today, I just feel exhausted as a disabled person trying to survive this pandemic.
Even worse, though, is that I feel what I can only describe as something between FOMO and vengeful. My autistic need for social justice makes the feeling almost impossible to bear sometimes. Today, the feeling is a cage surrounding me and my disappointment, trapping me with the pain and sadness of failure, unable to escape the success of those around me. I am not upset about their success, I’m upset that their success involved sticking me in this cage. I’m upset that no amount of success will ever be enough, that “success” is a lifelong pursuit, that “success” is apparently another hoard able commodity. Most of all, I’m upset that most of my privileged peers do not view their unwillingness to relinquish some degree of success as the very thing limiting so many others’ successes, especially in context of the pandemic.
Today I’m grappling with another disappointing grad school setback. Disappointment during the PhD is normal, and this isn’t the first “setback” I’ve had. As far as “setbacks” go, this was minor. I’ve had much worse experiences (read: failing the first attempt at written comprehensive exams). I’m also not alone—other students in my cohort, in earlier cohorts, and in the cohort just below mine, are experiencing similar setbacks. It’s not like my entire group of friends is graduating. It’s not like everyone got a job, or that those who did get jobs landed at ideal places.
As I ponder my frustration over an expected and comparatively minor disappointment in the scheme of grad school, I realize that my feelings have nothing to do with my colleagues, or really “success,” at all. My frustration today is that, at the time time I acknowledged a personal failure, took accountability, and adapted course, my privileged peers are living in a false reality where “success” is still possible. I am terrified that my steps to adjust today will be rendered useless as our society collapses. I am terrified that my privileged peers will be unable to cope with the reality of societal collapse and instead opt to take their denial with them to the grave.
I guess it could also be the email we just received from administration proudly announcing the end of the pandemic because COVID-19 is now “just like any other virus.” If anything in that email were true, I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay about another frustrating grad school setback I tried everything to avoid but couldn’t.
So, today I am grappling with my own disappointment over failure, but I am also grappling with fear that I see so many people choosing to avoid this kind of disappointment by ignoring or denying failure instead of acknowledging it and moving forward.
What are we going to do?”
Well, TBD. I suppose it depends on acknowledging the appropriate “we” with regard to doing things to address social problems. To do that, my peers, my colleagues, my friends, WE the privileged need to stop asking and start doing, ad doing includes sacrifice. If you must ask, do not question what can be done, instead, ask yourself:
What are we willing to give up?”