Black Feminism and Disability Studies — an important intersection
“The Autistic Self Advocacy Network strongly condemns the conviction of Kayleb Moon-Robinson, a Black and autistic sixth-grader, for disorderly conduct and felony assault after kicking over a trash can at school and struggling to get away from a School Resource Officer….”
There are few other disability organizations that have taken up solidarity with Kayleb Moon-Robinson. And even fewer with Tanisha Anderson. Anderson’s death while in the custody of Cleveland police was ruled a homicide. Anderson was a 37 year old black woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
The cases of these two black people are representative of the specific place black people, and black women specifically, inhabit in regards to disability. Disabled black women are next to invisible in disability studies. So much so that scholar Christopher M. Bell called for the field to be renamed “White Disability Studies.” Bell was inspired to write the paper “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal” after a class with renowned disabilities scholar Lennard Davis where none of the readings were about or by people of color. Bell called out the overwhelming whiteness of the field and made a start to integrate identities in a collection he edited, Blackness and Disability.
The disabilities field’s imagination is quite limited in terms of how being disabled would interact with being a black woman. Intersectionality is a term used to think about how being both black and a woman produces a specific experience for a black woman; Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term. In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color” she says, “And so, when the practices expound identity as a woman or person of color as an either/or proposition, they relegate the identity of women of color to a location that resists telling.” The whiteness of disability studies often forces black women to deny their disability or deny their blackness if they want to be a part of the disabled community.
Three disabled black women, Harriet Jacobs, Sojourner Truth, and Tanisha Anderson, show some of the complexity of how black women are allowed to relate to disability. Jacobs suffered disfigurement because of her enslavement. In order to escape, she had to remain in a cramped area for 7 years. Many years later, still her “limbs continued to trouble [her] with swelling whenever [she] walked much.” Truth had a hand injury, that has gotten little attention. One scholar, Meredith Minister, suggests that Truth highlighted her strength instead as a tactic to confront the oppression she faced as a black woman.
One of the many enduring mythic stereotypes about the black woman is the “strong black woman.” Melissa Harris-Perry (formerly Harris-Lacewell) has written about the legacies of this figure. The stereotype can be a positive one, seen in the figure of Sojourner Truth, but has costs for disabled black women. If black women are supposed to be super-humanly strong, what about women who can not perform to that standard, or need help, or simply have a disability?
This is why disability studies needs to address the specific position of disabled black women. The policing and violence against disabled black and brown people doesn’t often reach the white academics that make up most of the Disabilities Studies field, and so it’s not seen as a disabilities issue. But an intersectional analysis tells us otherwise.
Lydia Brown offers some advice.
This is what intersectionality means: to practice social justice in ways that grapple with the complex impacts of multiple systems of structural oppression (or systemic injustice, if you will). For those of us who are non-Black autistic activists, that means recognizing that behavioral compliance, indistinguishability, and conditionally passing as neurotypical can be tools of survival for Black autistic people. Resistance to arbitrary norms of abled and neurotypical existence can take multiple forms. Survival and resilience can mean navigating complicated tensions between out and proud autistic existence and safety from racialized violence. Intersectionality demands complexity without easy answers or simple slogans, because the real lives of everyone in the movement are infinitely more complicated than single-issue politics can recognize. Intersectionality requires thoughtful organizing and intense labor if we truly seek to build more just and equitable communities.