Monday, October 19, 2015

Random Thoughts at The Intersection of Race, White Privilege, and Disability Rights Advocacy

Black letters on a white field read "No one is asking you
to apologize for being privileged; people want you to
stop using your privilege in ways that require an apology."
Ilana Alazzeh
I've spent the weekend thinking about Ted Landsmark, Danuta Danielsson, Edward Crawford, the miseducation of KKK children, the dominant and at times toxic culture in disability rights activism, and what happens when marginalized people intersect with white privilege. Occasionally I think in pictures. So let me share the people I'm discussing in the way they came to mind as their lives intersected with mine.

In 1976, when I was 15 years old, Stanley Forman took a photograph during the fight to desegregate Boston schools that won a Pulitzer Prize the following year. That day Ted Landsmark became the victim of white protesters like teenager Joseph Rakes, who tried to assault the civil rights attorney with a flagpole bearing the American flag.
Pulitzer Prize winning photo "The Soiling of Old Glory" ©Stanley Forman
Mr. Landsmark later assured investigators that Rakes was not trying to spear him but was in fact swinging the flagpole in the photograph from side to side trying to hit him with it. This simple statement on Mr. Landsmark's part may have saved Mr. Rakes from paying the price for his hatred his entire adult life. Anti-bussing protesters beat Mr. Landsmark severely that day. He was fortunate to have escaped permanent injury.  Rakes was arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. It may or may not surprise readers to know his jail sentence was suspended.

The snapshot of the violent Boston anti-bussing protests punctuated by incidents like the assault on Ted Landsmark  emphasizes that poor or working class white people become conciously aware of their privilege only when they view it as being under threat, at which point they lash out to preserve it.

The majority of violent white anti-bussing protesters were considered "good hard working people of faith" who became aware that their children had the privilege of attending segregated public schools and fought violently to retain said privilege only when they were ordered to adhere to federal law requiring they include Black students in their schools. This historical event counters the common misconception that white privilege is a false construct because a white person who is working class or poor has no inherent privilege in society.

These events took place in Boston over 20 years after Brown v Board of Ed of Topeka, Kansas, in Massachusetts, not in Alabama or Mississippi. This should also emphasize that racism is not limited to one geographic area, disparities and crises driven by the racial divide are in fact equal; just expressed differently in the other areas of the country.

In April of 1985, when I was in and out of hospitals with my asthmatic 2 year old daughter wondering if a move to Europe from Turkey was the best thing for my little one, Danuta Danielsson witnessed a demonstration in Växjö, Sweden and, unable to control her outrage at seeing the nazi-skinhead marchers supporting the Nordic Reich Party she rushed out, hitting one with her handbag. She was 38 at the time. Ms. Danielsson was of Polish Jewish origin, and her mother had been placed in a concentration camp during World War II. 

Woman hits Neo-Nazi with handbag, ©Hans Runesson
Ms. Danielsson was not arrested or charged for her actions. Attempts to install a sculptural depiction of this photograph were rejected by local Swedish politicians of the Centre Party for fear it might promote violence.

I and most people at the time empathized with Danuta Danielsson and grasped why she would strike out at someone young and ignorant enough to brazenly march in support of an anti semitic political party despite knowing the barbarity and scope of the holocaust. No charges were filed against her.  She actively avoided the press or any notoriety for this act or the photograph that immortalized it.

Can we all accept that this act did not deserve to be labeled an act of violence?
  1. Ms. Danielsson appeared to react spontaneously upon being triggered by those marching.
  2. Doesn't the circumstance of her being a traumatized member of a marginalized minority that was the target of genocide by those who established the philosophy being supported by the target of her attack, justify her behavior?
  3.  Should survivors of atrocities and their families be made helpless witnesses to the power of  those born with white privilege who were never targets of mass genocide, using that privilege to legally impose and promote white supremacist political views that justified the mass murder of millions of innocent people? 
Whatever the intent of this party and those in it, they are cogs in a greater wheel that abuses white privilege to drive discrimination by perpetuation of beliefs we know are untrue. These negative constructs are constantly retaught to white children, and they grow up, regardless of anything else that might make them divergent from their peers, with this persistent and ingrained parasite of hate that invades them and propagates such that it is passed on to their children and grandchildren effortlessly.

“White power structures often persist independently of the good or bad intentions of White individuals.”  
 - Dr. Katherine Tyler
Last August, 13 years after coming back home and witnessing an increasing polarization of the country along racial lines, I was still reeling from the increasing shootings of Black people and trying to follow the nationwide protests online when photographer Robert Cohen's picture of 25 year old Edward Crawford, the "flag and chips man" of Ferguson, Missouri went viral on social media. Mr. Crawford was caught in the middle of lobbing a tear gas can shot at the children of protesters back at police while not disturbing his bag of chips. Initially this photo was misrepresented by some media outlets as a Black protestor throwing a molotov cocktail.
Edward Crawford, 'whose bag of chips read "the flavor of America's heartland"
throwing a flaming tear gas canister duringFerguson protests @Robert Cohen

I always wonder what white people who are clueless of the impact their own white privilege has on their lives, thought when they first saw this photograph. Because I know that it was probably not what I was thinking. When all these events were unfolding I wondered how those of us trying to fight hate enabled by the abuse of white privilege could overcome the miseducation of white people who refuse to acknowledge their own privilege. How could we explain topics like structural racism to people who don't acknowledge their own complicity in this abusive cycle? How can we show academics and graduate students in fields like disability studies who don't really care how the misuse of white privilege influences their work, the way they view and present facts can cause harm?

Ignoring this bias infuses content with constructs that perpetuate and preserve the prejudices that impose the greatest disparities in how disabled POC in general and disabled Black people in particular receive a free and appropriate education, therapies, state supports, and critical health care. When white privilege is misused to justify deliberately ignoring how content promotes racism,  disabled Black children are misrepresented, research is driven and founded on stereotypes, and disabled Black children are denied the cognitive, physical, and emotional fitness needed to survive and self advocate in society and this continues mistaken beliefs like, for example, the fallacy that Black autistics express autism more severely and have greater challenges because of their race. In fact how autism presents has a great deal less to do with race and a great deal more to do with delays in diagnosing autism and the resulting disparities in all the services and accommodations needed to support Autistic children of color in general and Autistic Black children in particular.

Worse, this lack of willingness to understand terms that don't mean what most presume they mean attaches a stigma to them that distances white people from trying to change. Wrong headed ideas based on modern stereotypes, like the concept that being a political liberal, dating outside one's race, having Black friends and colleagues, or being highly educated exempts a white activist from thoughtlessly perpetuating structural discrimination is dangerously flawed. This attitudinal erasure keeps regenerating a mentality that views Black people as less than rather than equal, a collective 'problem' to be dealt with and Black disabled people as a 'greater societal burden' than white disabled people.

 Child of Klansman meets Black State Trooper
 photo by Todd Robertson, credit Southern Poverty Law Center
I have hit a wall of insensitivity and erasure on how to explain this to my own colleagues. I can't constantly be in the position of appealing to activists and academicians who are supposed to care about my son and his peers as much as they care about white disabled people. I felt it was possible to present things to reasonable people and have them first be willing to look in the mirror and  then analyze where they may need to make changes in how they present disabled people of color in essays on social media. That requires that people respect Black disabled activists first, respect marginalized activists' topic expertise, and have a willingness to accept the world as it truly is not only for them but for disabled people of diverse races and cultures about whom they may be ignorant. I did not think that was such an impossible thing to ask.

It turns out it is.

Like everything in the conversation of structural racism, telling authors and bloggers that their misuse of white privilege is fostering presumptions that are negatively impacting their content is apparently highly inflammatory.  The term 'white privilege' makes everyone squirm. They don't want to be labeled someone whose white privilege has gone wrong in their academic work or online content generation. So they do what many do when confronted by someone with an inconvenient truth online: they mass their followers and begin a flame war.  All manner of gaslighting and other unpleasantness will ensue. But the actual concern, that something in any given content may perpetuate structural racism or denigrate Black disabled people ends up derailed and dismissed.

This is my fault too, because I let other white colleagues who truly want increased diversity in the disability rights community convince me that if I tried to educate, activists would listen and this was simply not true.

Understanding that I have wasted four years of my life thinking I could explain and colleagues would read and listen is tough. But it is also good to divest myself of this fruitless pursuit without bitterness and with the realization that it is not the job of the marginalized person to constantly teach to the privileged group. It is time to focus on things that might just truly make transformative change for my own people, my son, and his peers.

The presumption that writing would give me a voice that might be heard was not completely accurate. Blogging gives me a voice. But those who need to change do not heed it and that means this path to trying to change minds is failing.The disadvantage of heeding those who speak out about not inadvertently perpetuating racism in disability rights activism is that no one can gain anything but a clear conscience from listening to such voices. There is no academic, fiscal, or professional profit in presenting information in a manner which isn't offensive. It is just the right thing to do.

A friend and colleague who does great things offline told me he could not do what I do online. He said no matter what I write to try and reach people, they will resent, react, troll, and insult me. I am beginning to agree with him and am exploring ways reinvest the limited time I have for activism accordingly.

 Online blogging will probably continue, but with no expectation or hope of impact, and with no presumption that persons with white privilege who are academicians or disability rights activists who need to change will heed or respect voices like mine. It will simply be an exercise in expressing my thoughts and leaving them for my son, in the hope that he may someday understand the words I've written. He should know that his mother tried to do something to make the world a safer and more just place for him, even if she failed.

Of all the labels I carry, the one I am proudest of, my race, is going to continue to be the most marginalized. No outward displays of superficial willingness at equality or diversity will change the bias and disparities inherent in the disability rights conversation until those who dominate it are willing to see how the abuse of white privilege impacts their work and act to correct harmful things perpetuated by this without the presumption that white privilege or even racist actions are stigmatizing permanent labels meant to ruin their reputations. The lives of Black disabled people hang in the balance of understanding that the road to healing the racial divide in our community is to first accept when things like white privilege abuse driven structural racism are identified, even when what is exposed is internal.


Resources and References

About Artist Ilanah Alazzeh

Brown v Board of Education

"The Soiling of Old Glory"

The Photography of Hans Runesson

A Woman Hitting a Neo-Nazi With Her Handbag

 About The Iconic Ferguson, Missouri Protest Photo

About Dr. Katherine Tyler

References: Towards a Bibliography of Critical Whiteness Studies

A moment of hate free interaction: Klan baby meets Black State Trooper

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