Disability Rights So White: Disability and Racial Justice

Fakequity Blogger Note: This week we welcome a guest post by my friend and colleague Carrie Basas. Carrie is our first white-ally to blog for us. I invited Carrie to write for us about disabilities; this is an area I need to learn about. -Erin

By Carrie Basas

Inspirational porn star . . .
Look we got enough problems
No need for you to call a cop who can’t solve one.
-Wheelchair Sports Camp “Hard Out Here for a Gimp”

carrie 2

Photo from Carrie Basas

I come from a long line of cleaning ladies and people who passed as white because they were poor and did not want to be further marginalized. They set me up to not experience that racism—rather to benefit from white supremacy. They did their best, but hate and shame seep in and shape us.

Maybe it’s not surprising that when I was born with disabilities, I was told to pass as normal, as non-disabled. My family no longer had to worry about their skin color. Now, there was a new challenge—how to get a disabled girl through a world that would read her as “less than” and defective. Those fears—of racism and ableism—are not the same, but they are fueled by similar systems.

My parents were not disabled like me and had not received a mythical handbook on how to raise someone like me. They did their best and absorbed the messages of well-meaning others that encouraged them to make me better. Their fears became written on my body and mind, but also my motivation to do well in school.

I was “supercripping”—I tried to overcome every stereotype about disability by being palatable—smiling, kind, smart, overachieving, conflict-avoidant, tidy, and funny. I was not the disabled person that we fear—angry, bitter, lazy, benefits-receiving, argumentative, unkempt, and aggressive. I made non-disabled people feel more comfortable with disability, mostly because I wasn’t comfortable with it myself.

I didn’t realize that the disability rights movement existed until I met a POC professor who was becoming disabled and grappling with it. She introduced me to community, history, and positive identity that shook me to the core. I had a new way of seeing myself and also new tensions with those that only knew disability as deviance.

My physical and mental impairments do not disable me as much as how society reacts to me. I am disabled in the supermarket when a stranger touches my shoulder and tells me how inspired they are. I am disabled by men in former workplaces who made sexual comments and then denied them because I wasn’t a real woman. Didn’t I know?

What disability also gave me is people of color in my life, a place where I could just be and know what community could look like. Disability justice and racial justice are intertwined. Stigma about each experience can make us avoid exploring that connection. I might say that young Black men are more likely to have disabilities than people who look like me, that disability is caused by discrimination and resource inequities and that discrimination makes us sicker, that most people killed by police are our shared brothers and sisters. But the pain of our distinct discrimination can be too much to bear, let alone intersect. As one colleague said, “Why would I claim disability when part of my fight is to make sure that my people are not labeled more?”

I sit in spaces where disabled people bemoan the fact that POCs don’t include them on the agenda. We each have work to do, but disability rights can pause and learn first from POC activism:

Representation in leadership matters: Non-disabled leaders (siblings, parents) of disability rights organizations claim to change the conversation about disability but never cede their power. That reminds me of the NAACP’s early days of benevolent whites insisting on leading. That had to change, as does this. Being an ally is not a proxy for discrimination and experience, just as I do not know racial profiling in my bones just because my husband experiences it.

Effective organizing is about individual and collective needs: Recognize where we are, but don’t rush to ensure safety for those with power. There is no checklist, no “one-time woke training,” that will relieve the discomfort of not knowing how to be with another person’s reality. Be humble. Be open-hearted. Be uncomfortable: that’s the work. I am uncomfortable constantly in an ableist world. I need to be uncomfortable with how much racism has given me power.

Faking is obvious: Many of us in disability rights understand the rising, patronizing tone used for children when it is used on us. We see people talk to non-disabled people and ask them to speak to our experiences. Don’t do that to our POC friends. Being fake doesn’t dismantle racism or ableism; it perpetuates it.

Being an ally is not an additive process: In the foreword to “When They Call You a Terrorist,” Angela Davis writes that fruitful movements “… call for an inclusiveness that does not sacrifice particularity.” In disability communities, we are used to other organizations failing us and we start to expect it. We can rush to argue that ableism deserves as much airtime as racism. They are different. We degrade one another’s experiences when we claim anything else.

We need one another for the growth of our movements and mutual recognition. We must take off our survival masks and talk about our shared overrepresentation in prisons, discrimination by doctors that wouldn’t want to be us, schools that would rather outsource us to other buildings and teachers. We need community and collaboration. Sometimes, we just need to be one another’s witnesses—that we do not face identical oppression, but oppression corrodes us and blocks our work. Where we most need to have a conversation is about how disability leadership is too white, male, English-speaking, middle class, wheelchair-using, inspirational. In many ways, disability is too me.

Professor Mari Matsuda encourages us to “Ask the other question.” Ask what we haven’t considered, whose voices are missing from our movements. We can work on dismantling systems that keep us apart and yet both marginalized. When we do, I hope that our soundtrack will be crip hop.

As I make our playlist, meet some POCs making sure that disability is not too white:

Twitter: #disabilitytoowhite

Carrie Basas works in education advocacy and formerly in civil rights law, specializing in disabilities rights. Formerly she was a law professor impressing upon law students the importance of understanding race and its impact on people. Carrie has a MEd in Education Policy, Organizations and Leadership from the University of Washington. She earned a Juris Doctorate from Harvard Law School and an Honors B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Sociology/Anthropology from Swarthmore College. However, her biggest claim to fame is some of her fashion weekend wear while hanging with her family and dog.

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