The expression, “stay in your lane,” is getting increasingly common among Disability activists.
The term is a reference to driving, and if you veer all over the road, you’ll end up hurting the other drivers. In addition, it points out that you don’t own the whole road; others have a right to use the road as much as you do.
Often, we say it to parent activists and other busybodies who can only speak about their personal experiences, and suddenly, they’re swerving over to talk about the Autistic experience or the experiences of another Disabled person. It’s also used in issues of race or class or religion. Basically, anything that is deeply personal, about which only someone who has lived the experience, can really testify about.
If someone witnesses you talking about a life experience that you do not actually live for yourself, it’s possible an activist will tell you to “stay in your lane.”
When you hear that, you might get offended. You might try to respond that you have as much rights as anyone else to speak your truth. You’ve seen Muslim people, Autistic people, Disabled people, Black people, whatever you’re talking about, and so somehow you know the experience.
Seeing something and even living beside someone does not guarantee that you know the experience. Sure, you might understand things a little better than someone who has never lived with a Disabled person (etc.), but that doesn’t mean you belong in their lane, so to speak.
But that’s okay.
Let me tell you about something that will help you feel a little better if someone tells you to, “stay in your lane.”
What is “Human”?
Let’s start by talking about Paolo Freire. Freire was a Brazillian educator who taught everyday people to read, write, etc. But he was also teaching them to organize, and to build a new world. You see, inevitably all these literacy programs all over the third world have a covert motive to keep the people in their respective places. Sure, the poor can be taught to read, but that’s only because industries can better use literate workers.
They’re still not going to pay them much of anything, but, you know, business is business.
So the government reasons for making the poor literate have to do with industrial growth and the ability to collect more taxes. It is rarely, if ever, about improving the lot of people who are struggling. The rich understand how the world they set up works (of course they do; they created it). Money is finite. You can create new wealth, sure, but it’s just moving money around in the system. If one person gets rich, someone else doesn’t have enough.
There’s a narrative if people worked harder, they’d have more, and there is some truth to that, but the reality often is that the true lazy person is rare. Inevitably, the poor and marginalized are working much, much harder (physically, mentally, emotionally) and having fewer comforts to make it possible to get up the next day and keep going.
Life always sucks for the oppressed because they have to work harder for less.
Some people would tell you, in this reality, to stand up and take back what is yours, and, when you do take it back, you can make those people suffer who harmed you in the past. The oppressers deserve this.
But not Freire.
See, he was all for taking back what the poor deserved because they were human beings, and all human beings deserve to be treated with respect.
A lot of what humans have messed up over the years has to do with treating people as less than people. Indigenous peoples around the world were seen (and often still are) as “lesser” than non-native peoples by the powerful non-native people. So, too, are Disabled people seen as “lesser” than abled people. See, if you treat another group as a lesser human, it’s possible to justify doing wretched things to them because they’re not real people.
It’s horrifying (or, at least, it should be).
Freire was different, though. So often rebel communities talk about throwing off the oppression of the powerful and then turning the tables. Instead, he wanted people to be constantly reminded that people are people. That means, yes, the powerful have to give up some so the oppressed can not be oppressed anymore, but then, they are going to build the new world together, where no one is oppressed.
See, the goal is not to get back at those in power; it’s to help those in power realize they’re denying their own humanity by allowing themselves (they’re human, too) to treat other humans like they do. The goal is to build a new world together.
We need each other.
Admittedly, all this revolution is going to hurt, at first. The rich have to give up their stuff so the poor have some stuff. But it’s the only way to treat both sides as human, which should be our ultimate goal, always.
Obviously, world governments, typically made up of the wealthy, aren’t pro-Freire.
But if you think about it, this is what real advocacy is: helping marginalized groups to get ahead, but not to hurt to humanity inside those who are oppressing them. It’s about educating both sides: the oppressed to recognize their oppression, and the oppressors to realize how much ahead they are in the race, so to speak, and to give up some of those advantages, to help everyone actually have an equal playing field.
So, getting back to “stay in your lane,” I like to envision this.
Have you ever seen snow trucks clear the road in Minnesota? I’m in another state, and we’re reasonably good at it, but if you see the Twin Cities trucks move along the freeway, it is impressive: they put one truck in each lane, kind of staggered a bit, and they all move, in harmony, to clear the road. It is absolutely amazing to watch a snowy road go immediately all clean, just behind the snow truck wall.
But each truck stays in its own lane.
And each truck has a job to do, working in concert with the other trucks. If one truck gets too fast or goes too slowly, the driver will mess up the whole thing.
See, with knowing a bit about Paolo Freire, you can see how “stay in your lane,” doesn’t have to be a negative. If you work on your part of the road, trying to line yourself up with all the others working on their lanes, the road will be cleared, and that’s better for everyone.
If you only work on your lane, alone, like the trucks do around here, you’ll have one clean lane at a time, but the job is never quite finished and there won’t be enough clean road for everyone.
If you stay in your lane, while everyone else stays in theirs, but each person looks out to see where the others are and works together, together, you will clear the road. Everyone wins.
So, see being told to stay in your lane as an invitation. It’s a reminder to help clear your section of the road, but also a nod that you noticed someone else was beside you on the road. Now, your goal isn’t to swerve over, but to sync up. You will create the new world together, but only if you keep your lane clear by focusing on it, and focusing on the drivers in the other lanes so you can work beside each other.