Monday, August 27, 2018

#DisabledWhileBlack; Missed Opportunity, #SerenaWilliams, Adaptive Wear, And Intersectionality

Image of a female form clothed entirely in black
 with a Black mask resembling a Black Panther,
she is leaning back against a tree with one arm
 draped over a branch and the other petting a large
 black panther, her fingers seeming to be scratching
the panther's head. The panther's teeth are bared.
The disability rights conversation around the French Open Committee banning of tennis champion Serena Williams compression catsuit took a singular turn on social media that merits further discussion.

For anyone who may have missed this, Ms. Williams needed a compression suit to reduce clot formation. @Nike created one for her in Black. The suit also had an emotional meaning to her as an athlete forced to make a comeback for the 'crime' of nearly dying giving birth to her daughter Olympia.

I witnessed disability activists discussing this from the perspective of accommodation for disability excluding the rest of Ms. Williams' identities when this entire episode is happening because of the combination of her roles in the African American experience,  her position as a role model for women in sports, African American women survivors of pregnancy and childbirth in our country, and career women punished for giving birth.

I was taken aback by a negative comment about the Black Panther movie reference when discussing the entire kerfuffle. For those who don't know, in the @Marvel Universe Shuri becomes the Black Panther, meaning the Black Panther superhero archetype can potentially transcend gender identities. The Black Panther movie also has historic cultural and emotional importance to our community.

So #SerenaWilliams saying she felt powerful in this catsuit has layers of intersectional meaning addressing how an accommodation for a medical condition can empower disabled bodies and how important character representation is to our disabled and our Black communities. She felt like a Black superhero at this moment and that means more because we now have such characters in major films representing us. For those of us who grew up with the first nonsegregated representations in all media expecting more but remaining disappointed for decades, Ms. Williams gave voice the reality that we feel; the realization of  a small dream deferred too long.  Giving voice to this matters to every young African American child and every Black child globally. It cannot be left out of the catsuit conversation or why this prompted an official to single out this particular suit as an example of what is unacceptable.

How Serena feels in the suit after overcoming a traumatic childbirth also matters and should be
Serena Williams in her awesome catsuit. Credit Nike.
included in any conversation as her high-risk birth was directly related to her health challenges. She is in fact, by virtue of her chronic health conditions, a disabled Black athlete. Sadly, no one in our community is stating the obvious, that despite internalized and externally strong ableism, Serena Williams is a disabled champion athlete who is continuing to compete with her nondisabled peers and defeating them. Making her, in fact, a living icon or hero.

Serena Williams' role as an African American woman who disclosed how she nearly died during childbirth and her struggle to return to health and the fitness needed to be a competitive tennis player again must be included in any disability conversation about the issue of accommodation for her tendency to create clots. 

I am an Afro-Latina disabled woman who nearly died in childbirth and in the fifteen years since the birth of my disabled son, I have not completely recovered. The efforts that African American women like Serena Williams and Beyonce have made to share their stories of survival, recovery, and self-nurturing are life-affirming to me and the thousands of others who have survived this trauma, as well as the families of women like Erica Garner, who have not. Her survival and recovery should be part of any conversation about her need for a compression catsuit.

The conversation about Serena's fashionable adaptive clothing is also a conversation about the fetishizing and patriarchal control over women's bodies. With the tremendous push for the acceptance of disabled bodies and our need for stylish adaptive clothing, this opportunity to discuss the topic was lost as well. 

I am asking disability rights activists to try not to compartmentalize and focus on a single disability aspect of an issue without addressing the intersectional aspects that combine to cause a problem. If the intersectional aspects of any event are something that can't be addressed by you that means that the voices of those who can understand the totality of a hot-button topic should be amplified. Comments that resent the Black Panther catsuit homage aspect of this, the disabled pregnancy and birth for African American disabled women aspect of this, in short, every angle of how this episode matters to our intersectional disabled community does not do this catsuit as adaptive clothing debate justice, and actually erases African American disabled women and treats adaptive clothing as something that is somehow segregated from disability and racial discrimination, disabled maternity, disabled career challenges and disabled POC representation.

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