I am a member of an oppressed minority. I may not look it at first; my deviance from the social standard is nearly invisible. However, my people have been treated with prejudice and sometimes violent persecution through much of history. While things have improved for us, we are still subject to systematic oppression on many fronts. Even though I no longer need to fear beatings or forced conversions, I have been frequently excluded from activities, forced to adapt to systems and interfaces not designed with my kind in mind, and often treated as an exotic anomaly.
I am left-handed.
Being a leftie is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of oppression, nor should it be. I don’t suffer much for my minority status. It’s the diet, caffeine-free version of marginalization. However, that wasn’t always so.
At various times throughout history, left-handedness was viewed as anything from incorrect to downright evil. That’s not ancient history. My grandfather was beaten for being left-handed and forced to convert. I understood from a young age that I was lucky to grow up in an enlightened place and time, where some minor consequence of genetics or prenatal happenstance could be accepted and not ‘corrected’ through an institutionalized regimen of abuse. Even so, that isn’t true around the world. There are still places where I would have to hide who I am or risk harsh judgement.
Even though the socially sanctioned violence against lefties has passed, there is still a bias against us here in North America. It’s not a personal, hateful prejudice. It’s a systematic one.
The world is built for the right-handed majority in so many subtle ways that it puts lefties at a slight, but pervasive disadvantage. There are some obvious things like writing, where we have to struggle not to smear our ink; scissors, where we need to painfully contort our hands to cut anything; sports, where the selection of equipment is much more limited; and music, where few instruments even have a left-handed version available and barely any teachers that would know what to do with one if there were. But there are many subtler systems that work against us: the design of tools, handles, doors, computer peripherals, remote controls, even some pens, all have handedness subtly built into them. Each of these puts lefties just a little bit behind our right-handed counterparts. We have to work a little harder, search a little longer, pay a little more, stretch a little farther, and in most cases, learn to do it ourselves because our teachers can’t show us and don’t understand the problem.
None of this is malicious. We aren’t being actively discriminated against. I don’t think anyone is sitting down in design meetings talking about how to exclude left-handed children from arts and crafts. In most cases they’re designing for themselves and failing to recognize where someone might interact with a system or product differently. Or, if they do recognize the issue, they’re just doing business and designing for the largest market segment. There is no incentive to change. A few will cater to the niche market, but most will not, and many won’t even know it.
In addition to having to navigate in a right-handed world, we are strangely fetishized at times. We are treated like we’re exotic and special, and have remarkable qualities ascribed to us. I’ve frequently had people lament their right-handedness, wishing that they, too, could be a magical left-handed unicorn creature like me. They imagine that it makes me better at art, more intelligent, and more interesting. This is, of course, absurd. Being left-handed is no more remarkable than being red-headed, having dimples, or being able to do the Vulcan salute. Nor does it have any more bearing on my goodness, personality, or quality as a person.
Why is my minor inconveniences at living a widdershins life relevant to anything? Well, left-handedness is a nice, safe microcosm of the ongoing history of discrimination and oppression. What was once persecuted, slowly became tolerated, then accepted, but still weirdly fetishized. However, the lack of overt prejudice has not torn down the systems that hold back the oppressed party. They still have to struggle to work and live in a world build for and by people with fundamentally different experiences.
We can see the same process happening at different paces and stages with sexism, ableism, racism, and prejudice against every letter of the LGBTQ2 rainbow. To those who claim sexism is solved, and racial discrimination is a thing of the past, the left-handed experience is a convenient means to discuss how systems that support that old ways still exist. They’re still alive, pervasive, and unfairly hinder those that don’t fall into the straight, white, Christian, able bodied, right-handed male world. Also, for those who are left-handed, remembering the history and current realities of our sinister lifestyle should remind all of us lefties to be better allies to those still struggling against the systems that would see them ousted, erased, or injured. It wasn’t so long ago that we were counted among their number.