14 April 2015

Undoing Racism & Anti-Blackness in Disability Justice

Content/TW: Anti-Blackness, racism, police brutality, ableism, descriptions of violence

The post below the picture/fold appeared in shortened form as "Tackling Ableism and Racism in the Criminal Justice System" in the ENDependence Center of Northern Virginia's April 2015 newsletter for a special issue on intersectionality. In the wake of the unfolding catastrophe with Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an eleven-year-old Black Autistic student from Virginia convicted of virtually fabricated felony charges for an incident stemming from kicking a trash can and now facing potential time in juvenile detention, it seems especially relevant to share in its full, original version (with one small correction).

Not only Virginia, but nationally, we face a continued crisis of centuries of surveillance and policing of racialized bodies. Indigenous, Black, Latinx, and Brown people have always been the targets of state violence and the violence of structural racism. When combined with ableism, those at the intersections live in fear of constant violence without any hope of justice. It's long past time that our movements, our organizations, our activists in the disability community start addressing our replication of white-centric structures and start challenging racism -- and anti-blackness in particular.

Here's a start: Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu's petition for Kayleb & the ASAN statement on his case.

#BlackLivesMatter #JusticeForKayleb

Photo: Kayleb, a young Black kid with glasses, wearing a gray hoodie, standing outside in a snowy driveway.


In February 2010, a passerby saw a young Black man outside a middle school library in Virginia and called the police to report a suspicious black male, possibly armed. After police arrived, an officer approached him, demanding identification. The young man outside the library appeared obviously agitated and distressed, and attempted to walk away calmly several times. By the end of the encounter, eighteen year old Reginald "Neli" Latson and the officer had a violent altercation, and Neli was facing over ten years in prison for the crime of going to the library while Black and Autistic.

In 2009, two police officers approached a young South Asian man sleeping on the sidewalk. One officer claimed the young man pulled out a knife, which his partner later denied ever occurred. The officer fired four shots, murdering Mohammad Usman Chaudhry for the crime of sleeping outdoors while Brown and Autistic. The internal affairs review of the shooting found the use of lethal force had been within the scope of department policy.

Over the past six years, however, the largest autistic rights organizations led by autistic people have only occasionally addressed police brutality against disabled people. Only recently have our organizations issued public statements in such cases, demanding real justice for members of our community impacted by the violence of our criminal injustice system. It is no coincidence that most disability rights organizations, with relatively few exceptions, are led entirely or mostly by white people with disabilities. While police brutality certainly impacts white disabled people, such as eleven year old Emily Holcomb, arrested and removed from her school in handcuffs after defending herself against violent physical restraint, disabled people of color are particularly vulnerable to state violence.

Many activists within the autistic community will describe ignorance borne of ableism as the root cause for police violence against autistic and other disabled people. They will urge better outreach to police and prosecutors and training on developmental disabilities as the solutions. Yet they will rarely, if ever, acknowledge the equally insidious impact of structural racism not merely on which of us are most vulnerable but also on how our community responds. Police training is important and useful, but no amount of awareness training will erase unconscious ableism and racism. Outreach can lead to better outcomes for some, but those of us who experience multiple layers of marginality cannot rely on police as an institution to protect or serve us. Before they hear our presentation on respectful interaction with autistic people, they see Black and Brown faces and project racialized criminality onto neurodivergent bodies marked doubly by race and disability.

This is what intersectionality means: to practice social justice in ways that grapple with the complex impacts of multiple systems of structural oppression (or systemic injustice, if you will). For those of us who are non-Black autistic activists, that means recognizing that behavioral compliance, indistinguishability, and conditionally passing as neurotypical can be tools of survival for Black autistic people. Resistance to arbitrary norms of abled and neurotypical existence can take multiple forms. Survival and resilience can mean navigating complicated tensions between out and proud autistic existence and safety from racialized violence. Intersectionality demands complexity without easy answers or simple slogans, because the real lives of everyone in the movement are infinitely more complicated than single-issue politics can recognize. Intersectionality requires thoughtful organizing and intense labor if we truly seek to build more just and equitable communities.


  1. Intersectionality is indeed complex and there are no simple solutions. I am concerned, however, with the way you addressed passing. It is unfortunately true that passing is sometimes necessary as a means of survival; but this truth is regardless of race and its applicability is limited by the fact that many people cannot pass, even temporarily. Furthermore, the implication seems to be that it is somehow inappropriate for white autistics to use passing in this manner. Perhaps this is a misunderstanding.

    Beyond that, the difficulty with intersectionality is that there's only so much any of us can do. When it takes everything you have just to get through the day, any advocacy is an "extra." We make the time and scrounge up the energy because there is a real need for change and this need impacts our own lives. Some people just don't have any thing left to give causes that are not their "own."

    It can be challenging enough to get advocates to look beyond their own experiences enough to see that the advocacy work they're doing covers people with different needs. When the needs are, as is often the case with interracial groups, unfathomable, the challenge may be beyond us.

    That being said, I'm all for groups to gather together and pool their strengths in order to turn the tide of oppression in all its forms. Making life better for people with neurological disabilities would be a fabulous step forward, but it's not enough if their skin color keeps them back regardless of the advancements. Nevertheless, racism and ableism are separate and distinct problems. The solutions are the same only in their simplest forms.

    1. Hey Stephanie! Thanks for commenting. I have a couple of quick responses --

      - I don't intend to imply that it is inappropriate for white autistics to either use the language of passing or to engage in the act of passing as neurotypical. I mean to point out that for Black autistics, the consequences of not being able to pass (whether because you can't at all or because you can't or choose not to in certain situations) are likely more dangerous than for white autistics, because of the racial difference. For example, a white autistic will most definitely also experience discrimination that could result in denial of employment, housing, or education if they don't or can't pass for neurotypical, just as an autistic POC might. But a white autistic whose stims are taken for concerning, disturbing, or inconvenient behavior is a lot less likely to be shot by police over them than an autistic who is Black. That's what I'm talking about.

      - On your note about the ability of people to engage or participate -- absolutely, yes. I by no means am attempting to claim that all people should be maximally engaged in all possible causes at all times. Rather, I'm extending an invitation to consider more nuanced activism or advocacy. Especially for sick and disabled people, especially for no or low-income people, there can be so many different barriers to being able to participate or engage. And we absolutely shouldn't be shaming anyone for choosing to value self-care or for not being able to participate or engage at all times, in all ways, or to all extents. BUT, what I'm talking about here is not about individual people needing to somehow do everything but rather, how we approach the things that we *are* able to do, and the movements or causes with which we *are* able to engage.

      - Intersectionality is complicated. Racism and ableism are complicated. I absolutely do not mean that "oh the answers are the same" or "oh all struggles are just the same struggle." The very specific ways autistics are oppressed (for example, through ABA, by Autism Speaks, etc.) are different from the very specific ways transwomen are oppressed (for example, denial of entrance to women's only spaces, profiling as sex workers for existing in public, etc.). BUT what I'm asking for is to consider the impact of multiple forms of oppression on anyone who lives at the intersection of multiple margins. White transwomen don't experience transmisogyny in the same way as transwomen of color. Queer autistics don't experience ableism in the same way as heterosexual autistics. Systems of oppression are absolutely *distinct* but they are most definitely not *separate*. They depend on each other to thrive and perpetuate.

      I hope I'm making sense, but feel free to let me know if I need to clarify any further.

    2. Lydia,

      Thank you for your thoughtful and thought-provoking response! You do definitely make sense.

      I definitely agree that there are more dangers for POC, especially when their differences are compounded with autism (or anything else that impacts socialization). I have had the pleasure of experiencing a wide variety of people with very diverse backgrounds, particularly through my education opportunities. While the people I associated with were among those determined to rise above their circumstances, they carried with them their friends and family members who were not so determined. The social nuances necessary for survival--often taken for granted by the people relating their stories--were almost unfathomable to me and I'm more adjacent to, rather than definitively on, the autistic spectrum. Imagining my boys (who are on the spectrum) in those situations terrifies me, because they could not cope with them.

      My interest is primarily in creating an organization that is both an advocacy organization and a solution provider (versus service provider). I'm still working on the design of the organization and I'm studying in order to fill in the gaps of my knowledge. But one thing experience has taught me is that an organization needs to consist of people who are like the people they serve in order to truly understand the complexities of their experiences. Thus, an organization that serves people with neurological differences needs people with neurological differences at all levels of the organization. This is becoming common knowledge and common practice in the DRM movement. On the other hand, there also have to be people who exist and operate effectively in the "normal world," whether they are indeed "normal" or whether they pass effectively, because those people act as the bridge between. This is further complicated by intersectionality, because all aspects of the intersection need to be represented and operationalized.

      It's not a complete solution, of course. It requires open minds and open hearts, and they seem few and far between so much of the time. A lot of people assume they understand, so they never really question the authenticity of their sources. Beyond that, so few act as effective translators, it's hard to bridge the gaps between our different experiences. I believe the gaps must be bridged before solutions will emerge, because the solutions that will create real change will be just as complex and just as intersected as the problems that require them. It's almost as if oppression itself needs to be tackled altogether, since tackling oppression based on the traits or reasons given for the oppression has not made much of a dent.


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