Archive for March 28, 2015

Separate Worlds: Race, Disability and Sexuality

The reason I wrote the previous post is, I cannot say enough how important the concept of intersectionality is to me as a bisexual disabled woman who is considered “white”.  I have tried to articulate these types of ideas before, “interconnecting identities” I believe is the phrase I used. But it seems as if I knew no one else who was talking about it. Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw, a legal scholar who researched how Black women experienced both racism and sexism within the legal system, but that the system would only recognize those as separate forms of discrimination without seeing how they interacted.  Yet as I watch various conflicts unfold between feminists and other activists, I sometimes wonder if intersectionality is a concept I can truly share in, because I am socially and legally classified as white. I have noticed that some Black feminists resent white feminists using this term. But more about feminism and my place in it (or lack thereof) later.

As I’ve discussed before, I grew up with my parents being involved in racial justice in the NAACP and in the United Methodist Church in particular- in both Topeka, Kansas and Dubuque, Iowa in the 1990’s.  This may have been where I started to get the idea of the Civil Rights movement as the Holy Grail to which all social movements cannot be compared.

While we were living in Topeka, my brother and I were both labeled as being on the autism spectrum. I was noticed as having anxiety problems (fragile moods, the doctor called it) and my brother had various developmental delays including with speech.  At the time it was very unusual for so-called “high-functioning” autism to be identified, and we were lucky that my Dad was working for the Menninger Foundation, a mental health organization where we had access to more state-of the art psychologists. So while my parents advocating for justice along racial lines, they also began advocating for my brother and I’s inclusion as students with disabilities. They attended state autism conferences (and once my mom made it to an international one in Toronto). They developed a small social network of other parents with autistic children, particular with Asperger’s Syndrome. I was always the only girl. I never thought about that fact that everyone we seemed to encounter in the “autism world” was white- this was Iowa after all. This was not really questioned or commented on.

Advocacy for disabled student inclusion in schools was a matter of civil rights and justice too, and yet it seemed to exist in a parallel world from the NAACP- or the United Methodist Church for that matter. I remember my mother describing the pain and isolation she felt from other church members, when she tried to explain the emotional outbursts, the embarrassing questions, the sensory issues. Somehow all this didn’t seem to be a part of the church’s social justice mission- they were just her parenting problems.

My parents also advocated for multicultural education, following the lead of a controversial new superintendent in the Dubuque Area school district. I believe this encompassed including the perspectives of Black, Hispanic and Asian-American and possibly Native Americans in the social studies curriculum, and perhaps the roles of women in American history. I mostly remember February as Black History month, and little insets here and there in our textbooks about African-Americans and American Indians and women of various ethnicities. It was certainly, more advanced than the education my parents had received. I don’t believe multicultural perspectives were incorporated into other parts of the curriculum, such as art, music and science. But it was a start, I suppose. While controversies over “political correctness”, the lascivious behavior of Presidents, and other matters raged on, we quietly went about our lives in “flyover country”. Diversity included race and ethnicity, perhaps religion (if you were allowed to discuss it) and the most exotic religion I was aware of at the time was the Bahai’i Faith, due to friends my parents had made in peace and racial justice movements. And gender- which mean men and women- no other options.

Gays and lesbians (bisexual and transgender people were barely on the radar) were just starting to emerge into the national spotlight to demand their rights, though I wasn’t really aware that homosexuality existed until I was in junior high. At the time, no one would dream of breathing a word about the existence of gay people in K-12 schools. Just mentioning it would magically cause young children to decide that they couldn’t possibly resist this decadent “lifestyle choice”. And disability- well that existed in the form of Linda on Sesame Street, the Deaf lady that taught us bits of American Sign Language, various characters and people in real life who used wheelchairs and canes or were blind or had Down Syndrome. Sometimes when a kids TV show wanted to show how awesome and modern it was they would have a multiracial cast with bonus- one white male in a wheelchair! It was truly radical.

To be continued…


March 28, 2015 at 2:29 am 1 comment

Civil Rights Movement: How Dare You Compare!

I’ve often seen the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s held up in a sort of strange but lofty isolation from other social justice movements, to the point where people almost seem to regard it as the only real legit social movement to which all others look silly and petty in comparison and Martin Luther King Jr. is the Best Activist Leader Ever, and the whole thing including him as prophet was anointed and blessed by God. I’ve seen this portrayal by everyone from Black men and women to both white liberals and conservatives. Along with this ideology is the belief that racism is the worst form of oppression, and anyone who tries to compare it with other forms of oppression or their own movement with The Movement, is being racist and appropriating from Black people.

It’s hard to articulate exactly where I’ve seen this, though I think it was a more common tactic in the earlier 2000s and 1990s. As I’ve read and listened to more writing and speeches by women and queer people of color, in particular I have come to realize the disrespectful attitudes white feminists and white GLBTQ movement activists have had towards communities of color and their struggles. When we hear this narrative, we need to question who is promoting it and who is framing it, and what is their agenda? Who are they trying to win over or alienate? Likewise, women, queer and disabled people of color are  in the strongest positions to critique these ideas- they can speak from their own experiences about how racism is similar and different from other types of oppression. The view of MLK as the Best Leader the Black Community Will Ever Have is very self-defeating and oversimplified. He was a great man surely, but like any man he was flawed. He is given way too much credit while many women such as Ella Baker, and Bayard Rustin, a gay man who was responsible for much of the organizing of the March on Washington, are all too often forgotten by historians. This is the case with *every social movement* or field of art or science for that matter. Each one has many people who played key roles, but were more introverted, too ill or disabled, or female, or queer, or radical to be in the spotlight, or did not have the means to access education or travel or media coverage. That’s why I really enjoy reaching into history and remembering those who have been forgotten as my activist ancestors.

March 28, 2015 at 1:24 am 4 comments


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