Reseña de: Percy Jackson y la Maldición del Titán. - HIJO ...

I’m sitting in the park right now and Camp Half-Blood (a LARP, D&D-inspired summer camp) is nearby. I’m sitting by the lair of Echidna, Mother of Monsters. She’s upset because her monster children are playing in the public park, training for the fight for good and minding their business, but the Woodsmen keep attacking them unprovoked. She’s getting frustrated and angry – no one wants to talk and understand the monsters’ perspective, they just fight them and she’s fed up! She explains this to each camp group that approaches and an interesting scene plays out; sometimes a bunch of kids immediately decide to fight her, with one or two shouting that they shouldn’t fight, they should talk! Sometimes the groups have a fight with Echidna and then decide to talk, sometimes one or two kids advocating for conversation convince the group to talk instead of fighting, and in just two groups all the kids decided to side with Echidna without a fight. Then they talk: Some other monsters the kids met have attacked campers and they want to understand why. Echidna tells them that the monsters don’t want to fight, but those monsters are really frustrated. In the end they decide that just because monsters are different than the demigod campers doesn’t make them bad and that they can co-exist. Good on you for a timely and clever way to approach discrimination, Camp Half-Blood


Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in ...

Given what we’ve learned in this series about the history of disability rights, it comes as no surprise that in comparison to similar disciplines, Disability Studies is a fairly young field, and Music and Disability Studies is even younger. The Society for Disability Studies was founded in the 1980s with academic disciplines slowly taking notice; Rosemary Garland-Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies (1996) is considered a seminal study of disability studies in literature, and The Disability Studies Reader (2006) brought (non-musical) disability studies further into the scholarly ring.

Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies, Paperback ...

Music joined in the next decade; Joseph Straus’ 2004 presentation “Disability Studies in Music” is often cited as a catalyst for the flurry of music/disability publications that have emerged in the past decade, and The Oxford Handbook of Music and Disability Studies (Oxford Handbooks are typically perceived as indicators of when a field is blossoming) was released in 2016.

The majority (but not all) of scholars who have studied disability-related topics thus far are Caucasian, either American or European, and have focused primarily on disability-related research in Western countries, mostly with white disabled individuals or groups. Given that this blog series is devoted to exploring race-related topics, today’s entry will dive into what scholar Chris Bell calls “White Disability Studies.” Is that label an overreaction or an accurate depiction of the field? How much of scholarship on disability is produced through a white lens, and what perspectives are lacking? What can be done to ensure that racial diversity is taken into account when considering disability?

Disability and Blackness

This post draws from two sources on my exam list. “Disability and Blackness” by Josh Lukin is Chapter 22 in The Disability Studies Reader, followed directly by Chris Bell’s “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Bear in mind that more recent publications on disability and race do exist, but I either don’t have them on my reading list and/or haven’t gotten to them yet…still a lot to read before this exam!
(note: I couldn’t find images of either scholar under Google’s “Free to use or share” filter, hence the lack of photos)

Josh Lukin will start us off today with some stats (from 2006):

Although African Americans constitute twelve percent of the population in general, they make up eighteen percent of Americans with disabilities; so one might reasonably ask why the appearance of Black Disability Studies has taken so long considering that a greater percentage of black people appear to be disabled? And what role can literary scholars have in developing black disability studies? The answers to those two questions are connected, and relate to the tensions between black activism and disability advocacy going back to the earlier days of the disability movement.

Lukin 2006: 308.
Johnnie Lacy - DRILM - University of California, Berkeley
The only non-copyrighted photo I found of activist Johnnie Lacy
(photo source)

Lukin highlights some of the history I’ve covered regarding oppression of people with disabilities even by those who supported racial and gender equality. He mentions Black, disabled activist Johnnie Lacy, who recounted in a 1998 interview her experience as an activist from the 1960s onward. In the 1960s and 70s she observed “that many African-Americans consider being black as having a disability, and so they didn’t really identify with disability as a disability but just as one other kind of inequity that black people had to deal with” (309). As the 1970s progressed and the “504 Demonstration” (“the Stonewall Inn of the disability rights movement”) led to advances in the disability movement, Lacy “became a kind of ethnographic guide to the largely white disability community, trying to educate its members who had no clue as to how to approach the black community” (ibid).

Lacy and other Black advocates for disability rights largely felt as if there was a gap between the black community and the disabled community, resulting in disability rights largely being pursued from a white perspective. This created an “us” vs. “them” mentality not just by race, but also between Black people and disabled Black people. As Lukin explains, “whenever one group said ‘We are the same,’ the other group said, with some insight, ‘No. You are exploiting my group’s experience just so that you can have a metaphor for your own.’ And individuals who occupied both groups at once were caught in the crossfire” (311).

This reminds me of the Black Lives Matter protests recently; a lot of (well-deserved) attention has been given to George Floyd and Brianna Taylor, but Black trans people who were killed around the same time such as Iyanna Dior are largely missing from the conversation and protests. For this reason, separate protests were organized to remember the lives of Iyanna Dior, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and other Black trans people killed. As journalist Imara Jones, a Black trans woman, said in a recent episode of the podcast Nancy, “We can’t prioritize the death of Black men and at the same time ignore — and even encourage — the death of Black trans women, and somehow believe that we’re going to build a just society for everyone.”

History of Oppression

Thomas Wentworth Higginson - Wikipedia
Thomas Wentworth Higginson
(photo source)

So why this othering? Why were many Black activists in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even 90s dismissive of the experiences of disabled people? Lukin helps make sense of it: “Simply put, from the beginnings of the United States, the claim that ‘Blackness is like disability’ was not used as an expression of how black Americans suffered but as a tool of their oppression” (311). During the American Revolution, blackness was treated as a deformity; “lunatics, idiots, and Negroes” were said to have mental deficiencies making them unfit for war. 1860s abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who commanded the first African American regiment of the Civil War, submitted a progress report about his black subordinates: They “were growing more like white men—less grotesque” (312).

Nursing Clio Stop Rape: A WWII Chaplain’s Advice
African American soldiers, WWII
(photo source)

Jennifer James, a literary scholar at George Washington University, helps tie this together: In “post-Civil War African American literature particularly, it was imperative that the black body and the black mind be portrayed as uninjured . . . in order to disprove one of the main anti-black arguments that surfaced after emancipation—that slavery had made blacks ‘unfit’ for citizenship.” This attitude persisted for decades; in World War II black soldiers got to fight, but those with war-derived physical and mental disabilities were often denied discharge, and “the pressure to convey the public message that ‘The Negro is just like you,’ with ‘you’ being an imagined able-bodied, empowered, white audience who could aid in the liberation struggle, led to strange silences and distortions on the subject of disabled black veterans” (312). To integrate into society, black bodies had to prove their sameness to white ones.

Disability Essentialism

Given the ways in which the history of advocacy for marginalized groups has progressed, it is no surprise that the majority of scholarship on disability is produced by and about (and for?) white people. It is critical to avoid “disability essentialism,” recognizing that the experiences, needs, desires, and aims of disabled people are not uniform. Disabled people of color navigate oppression-tainted layers of identities that white disabled people do not, and their voices and perspectives need to be considered and amplified in order for disability studies to be truly inclusive.

Introducing White Disability Studies

Lukin’s historical perspective is a great segue to Chris Bell’s “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Bell is straightforward: “I would like to concede the failure of Disability Studies to engage issues of race and ethnicity in a substantive capacity, thereby entrenching whiteness as its constitutive underpinning” (275). He suggests the name of White Disability Studies:

In contradistinction to Disability Studies, White Disability Studies recognizes its tendency to whitewash disability history, ontology and phenomenology. White Disability Studies, while not wholeheartedly excluding people of color from its critique, by and large focuses on the work of white individuals and is itself largely produced by a corps of white scholars and activists. White Disability Studies envisions nothing ill-advised with this leaning because it is innocently done and far too difficult to remedy. (275)

Bell’s most poignant critiques of Disability Studies are in line with what Lukin’s piece: Disability scholars often fail to recognize that experiences with disability are not uniform and can be informed by other factors such as race, ethnicity, etc. Bell cites a number of well-respected publications from Disability Studies that he calls out for disability essentialism, then offers a snarky ten-point scheme to “keep White Disability Studies in vogue.” His reasoning for framing it this way:

Given the fact that well-intentioned individuals are inclined to ask what can be done to ‘make things more diverse,’ I have purposely crafted the following as a series of “do nots.” By doing so, I hope to shore up how presumptuous it is to position the subaltern as the all-knowing savant insofar as issues of diversity; requesting definitive answers from that person when the answers might best come from within, following an extended period of rumination” (278).

In other words, stop asking Black people what can be done to support diversity – do your own research!

Here are the points, with excerpts from each point’s description:

  1. Do not change a thing: Continue to fetishize and exoticize people of color as subalterns by constantly focusing on their race and ethnicity, but not that of the white subject.
  2. Do not address ethnicity, rather continually focus on race. Race and ethnicity are two distinct concepts.
  3. Do not consider that, as Stuart Hall has explained, “Cultural identity is not an essence but a positioning” (229). It does not matter that whiteness is not an essentialist prerequisite for a disability identity. We can just pretend that it is.
  4. Pay no attention to Ann duCille’s recognition that “[O]ne of the dangers of standing at an intersection . . . is the likelihood of being run over” (593). When you come across a non-white disabled person, focus on the disability, eliding the race and ethnicity, letting them be run over, forgotten. Do not consider how the intersection in which this subject lives influences her actions and the way she is seen. Choose not to see that intersection and quickly move on down the road of disability, away from the “perpendicular” roads of race and ethnicity.
  5. Disregard Evelynn Hammonds’s idea that “visibility in and of itself does not erase a history of silence nor does it challenge the structure of power and domination, symbolic and material, that determines what can and cannot be seen” (141). Do not forgot to revel in the idea that as more and more disabled people enter the mainstream, all disabled people, irrespective of their racial and ethnic subjectivity, occupy the same place at the table. Equate visibility with inclusivity. Sit back and be satisfied, and do not allow yourself to be troubled by those who carp about their invisibility within disability communities.
  6. Ignore Horkheimer and Adorno’s augury that failure to conform to the culture industry results in the individual being “left behind” (37). The two theorists warn of the perils of living in a culture industry whereby one must subscribe to the right magazines and watch the correct films in order to be accepted in the culture…if you enter a room that purports to gather together those interested and engaged in Disability Studies and see not a single person of color present, those people have been left behind or otherwise disinvited.
  7. Make no allowances for liminality and hybridity. Instead, continue the pretence of normality, the idea that everything’s just fine and that the disability community is one happy family with no diversity, no multivalence, only a collective sameness.Do not conceive of the concerted efforts to counter those silences, to advocate for liminality and hybridity, as described, in a different context.
  8. Do whatever you can not to discuss those texts rife with possibilities insofar as parsing out intersections between disability, race, and ethnicity, namely: The Souls of Black Folk (Du Bois), Up From Slavery (Washington), Invisible Man (Ellison), Roots (Kinte), Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is The Self (Walker), The Cure (Kamani), “The Adventures of Felix” (???), “Birth of a Nation, or The Clansmen” (???).
  9. Do not note how odd “White Disability Studies” looks on this page, how much effort it requires (or does it?) to contort one’s tongue in order to articulate it. Do not take into account how foreign a phrase it seems (although just because something is foreign doesn’t necessarily mean that it is incomprehensible…).
  10. Do not change a thing. Keep doing what you’re doing. Do so because what you’re doing is fine, more than enough to keep White Disability Studies firmly instantiated as the norm. Make no effort to be more inclusive in your scholarship. Do not start today, do not start tomorrow. Wait for someone else to do inclusive work. Wait for however long it takes.

Bell’s approach to this list of “do-nots” is certainly snarky, but he chooses this tone with intention. Other scholars have supported his re-labeling of disability studies and expanded on his work. In 2017 for instance, Miles et. al. published an open letter in Disability Studies Quarterly challenging higher education institutions to address the interests of a full range of people with disabilities, not just the experience of those in the white majority. They call for a “critical intersectional disability studies” that strives for social change, informs and empowers marginalized people with disability about DS, etc. (Miles et. al., 2017). Sounds reasonable to me!

I will let Bell close out this blog today with his own words:

I want to stress that Disability Studies is not the only field of inquiry wherein individuals of color are treated as second-class citizens. If anything, Disability Studies is merely aping the ideology of the vast majority of academic disciplines and ways of thinking that preceded it and which it now sits alongside of…
White Disability Studies, even in the form of a tongue-in-cheek modest proposal, is bound to unnerve many of the individuals who consider themselves engaged in Disability Studies. White Disability Studies will most likely strike these individuals as a hyperbolic and counterintuitive claim. Perhaps my actions might be deemed impolitic and offensive. That is the point. I think it is tactless to dismiss a message solely because of its ostensible unpopularity or because the individual bearing the message seems undesirable. Such a process is itself counterintuitive, intended to draw attention away from a message that, while perhaps unpopular, might contain more than a modicum of validity. Because Disability Studies in its current incarnation is White Disability Studies, proposing we honor that creates no crisis of conscience for me. If anything, I take heart in remembering what Bubba Gump declared to Dorian Gray on “Check, Please!”: “If it looks like a shrimp, and it smells and tastes like a shrimp, it’s a shrimp.”

Bell 2006: 281
Shrimp marketing - Wikipedia
“If it looks like a shrimp, and it smells and tastes like a shrimp, it’s a shrimp.”
(photo source)

Works Cited

Bell, Chris. 2006. “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” In The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard J. Davis, 275–82. New York: Routledge.

Lukin, Josh. 2006. “Disability and Blackness.” In The Disability Studies Reader, 2nd ed., edited by Lennard J. Davis, 275–82. New York: Routledge.

Miles et. al. 2017. “An open letter to White disability studies and ableist institutions of higher education.” Disability Studies Quarterly. Vol 37, No. 3.

Nancy. 2020. “Black Trans Lives Matter.” Nancy. WNYC Studios.

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