Disability and Representation » Racism http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com Changing the Cultural Conversation Sat, 21 Sep 2013 04:28:56 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.6.1 Why So Many Fail to Understand Systemic Oppression http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/09/systemic-oppression/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/09/09/systemic-oppression/#comments Mon, 09 Sep 2013 07:00:33 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=3232 I was recently in a discussion about the ways in which people of color are disproportionately targeted by the police (think: stop-and-frisk, among other rights violations), disproportionately incarcerated, and disproportionately imprisoned for long stretches. As is often the case in these kinds of discussions, someone came blundering in with a “solution” — the “solution” being that people of color just need to be compliant with police officers and not do anything at all that could possibly be construed as suspicious or alarming. In other words, people of color simply had to act “normal” and all would be well.

I kept reading those words over and over, because I found them so shocking. It wasn’t just that the ideas were wrong — that they evinced an ignorance of racism and an idealized sense of control. It’s that they were based on an outlook that I once believed was grounded in fact: that society is “just” and that all I had to do to be safe was to do everything “right.”

That was a lifetime ago. At some point, I realized that there was no way to do it “right” because, in the eyes of the society in which I live, I am already seen as “wrong.” This assumption of wrongness is why marginalized people get the attention of the police, not to mention other authority figures,  for driving while black, for walking while trans, for standing while disabled. We’re already considered “wrong” in the first place.

Some people’s bodies are themselves considered provoking. Not our intentions. Not our attitudes. Not our actions. OUR BODIES. To understand this very basic fact goes against the whole notion that the society one lives in is just — that the good are rewarded and that the guilty are punished. It’s deeply terrifying to realize how truly irrational people are when it comes to the arbitrary meanings they place on human bodies. It means that entire systems are based on completely arbitrary and irrational standards. It goes against the whole Western notion that humans are rational and enlightened beings.

It’s a very hard thing to wrap your mind around until it comes your way. And even when it does come your way, it’s still something that is difficult to face. This is one of the reasons that even people inside marginalized groups can fail to grasp the systemic injustices directed against their bodies. Or if they do grasp it, they can fail to understand the irrationality of the hatred directed toward other people’s bodies. So you find gay and lesbian people who are racist and transphobic, and you find people of color who are homophobic and ableist, and you find transgender people who are ageist and fatphobic, and you find disabled people who are misogynist and classist. Depending on who you talk to, you’ll find a multitude of permutations of all of these bigotries, including the horrifying specter of internalized hatred against one’s own body.

To realize that these valuations are simply arbitrary — that there is no good reason at all to suspect a body just for being a body — means to recognize that we are all at risk.  Stigma is a moveable feast. It is mercilessly easy to move from a privileged category to a stigmatized category. Just ask anyone who has ever been diagnosed with a disability after living with the privileges of able-bodiedness, or anyone who has ever become fat after being thin, or anyone who has become old after a lifetime of looking youthful. The whole notion that the society is constructed along rational lines comes crashing down. And then you have to reconstruct your sense of how it works, piece by piece.

You’ll find other people who have woken up and found a new way of seeing. But you’ll never really believe again that the world you live in is just.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Getting Beyond Etc. — A Short Response to Andrea Smith’s The Problem with “Privilege” http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/08/29/getting-beyond-etc/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/08/29/getting-beyond-etc/#comments Fri, 30 Aug 2013 00:47:14 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=3015 There are many good things to say about Andrea Smith’s piece The Problem with “Privilege.” She is absolutely right that to effect systemic change, we must get past the point of self-reflection on privilege, confessions of privilege, and ranking of privilege. She is right that we have to start working to dismantle privilege in all of the spaces we create and in all of the systems in which we are complicit.

But I have a serious problem with an otherwise excellent intersectional analysis: It mentions disability precisely once.

I begin articles like this one with great hope that disability will be integrated into the analysis — only to find, with great disappointment, that disability seems to merit a mere mention (if that). It’s a depressingly recurrent pattern. It often leaves me wondering whether to engage the author’s other arguments, or to simply leave the discussion, secure in the knowledge that, once again, I have not really been invited in.

One of the early warning signs of trouble ahead is Smith’s listing of oppressions under the “gender/race/sexuality/class/etc.” heading (Smith 2013). I cannot exaggerate how much I detest listing oppressions in this way. My friends and I are not an “etc.” My friends and I are disabled. When Smith does not explicitly incorporate this category into an analysis of the colonized subject, she has just done the very same thing that she is arguing against: constituting herself against an imagined Other.

The subject of which she speaks is not disabled. Like the White subject who has to be “educated” about race, the subjects of Smith’s piece have to “educate ourselves on issues in which our politics and praxis were particularly problematic: disability, anti-Black racism, settler colonialism, Zionism and anti-Arab racism, transphobia, and many others” (Smith 2013). But to whom does the word “ourselves” refer? Who is inside that group? Who is outside? By implication, most of the people on the outside are the ones consigned to a handy category called “etc.” about whom we have to “educate ourselves.”

Despite the us/them division thus evoked, we folks in the “etc.” category are already here, hidden in plain sight.

Please start talking about us as though we are you. Because we are.

Please start talking about us as though we have struggled for generations inside of our own civil rights movements. Because we have.

Please start talking about us as though our oppression winds its way through every other oppression under which people labor. Because it does.

And please start talking about us as though we merit the same attention as any other group of dehumanized, Othered folk. Because we do.


Smith, Andrea. “The Problem with “Privilege.” Andrea 366. August 14, 2013. Accessed August 29, 2013. http://andrea366.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/the-problem-with-privilege-by-andrea-smith/.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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Why This Disabled Woman No Longer Identifies as a Feminist http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/30/why-this-disabled-woman/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/30/why-this-disabled-woman/#comments Wed, 31 Jul 2013 01:54:00 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2944 I became a feminist in 1972. Back then, it was still called “Women’s Lib,” sometimes by other feminists (cringe), and sometimes by anti-feminists (usually with a dismissive sneer). My father described me as being on “a Women’s Lib kick” for wanting to stay unmarried into my 20s, go away to college, and work. Judging by my aims at the time, you can see how early this feminism was.

It pains me to say that I no longer identify as a feminist.

It’s not that I’ve left behind the principles of feminism. Not at all. I’m not dismissing feminism or the feminist movement. I’m not anti-feminist. I’m deeply supportive of the principles of feminism and I will continue to work on behalf of them. But it’s not going to happen inside the movement.

Inside feminism, I’m marginalized at best. Usually, I’m invisible. I can’t stay, because staying is painful.

It took me awhile to figure this out. I was involved in a lot of different kinds of feminist work: agitating and getting in the trenches against rape and domestic violence, doing work in support of women of color and homeless women, campaigning for reproductive choice… you get the idea. I raised my genderqueer kid, who identified as female in childhood, in an all-women’s and girls’ dojo and taught that kid to kick the ass of anyone who messed with them.

But all along, something was missing. Some of it was obvious from the beginning: lots of foregrounding of whiteness, lots of talk about middle-class educated women, lots of talk about being competitive and ambitious and accomplished. I could never understand it. Down at the local Safeway, I’d talk with homeless women panhandling with their kids (sometimes white women and sometimes women of color), and when I’d get home, I’d find letters in the mail from feminist organizations about how middle-class educated white women just couldn’t seem to find their ways into the executive suite. I found it, well, obnoxious, and I used to send off letters telling people so. And much of the time, the response was along the lines of, “What you have to say is SO important. We’re getting there! Just you wait and see!”

The last time I wrote one of those letters was around 1993. For some sense of how far we haven’t come, take a look at Syreeta’s What we don’t talk about when we talk about Mommy Wars and Jessie-Lane Metz’s Ally-Phobia: On the Trayvon Martin Ruling, White Feminism, and the Worst of Best Intentions, both published this month.

So many feminists are still having trouble talking about racism. But truthfully, I’d settle for feminists talking about disability really, really poorly because, at this point, so few feminists consider disability at all.

Now before you jump in and say, “Oh, no, no, Rachel. I’m a feminist and I’M NOT LIKE THAT,” rest assured that I’m aware of feminists who are taking intersectionality seriously. I see you there. I do. But unfortunately, you are way too few and far between.

I spend a lot of time reading intersectional analyses. I used to go into them with a certain amount of glee, thinking, “All right! Finally! Disability is on the table!” I am no longer so naive. When feminism was just about gender, it was bad enough. Single-issue politics have never made a lot of sense to me. How can an experience of gender be divorced from an experience of anything else that comes with being in a human body? I understand the need to focus on gender issues, but that has to be reflected through a number of other prisms. Otherwise, you default to the culturally invisible prism: cis-gendered, able-bodied, normatively sized, middle-class, white Anglo-Saxon Protestant women. I am so done with that.

But what really, really drives me to bitter tears and raging inside my head is when people are all INTERSECTIONALITY FOREVER and WE’RE NOT SINGLE ISSUE FEMINISTS and WE’RE INCLUSIVE OF EVERYBODY and they chronically leave out disability from the analysis. And then when I mention the omission, I am met with silence (on a good day) and hostility (on a needlessly crappy one). The result is only more bitter tears and more raging inside my head.

It’s not that we have to all talk about all oppressions all the time. That would make it impossible to write an article or have a conversation and stay on point. But so often, I see the following pattern:

1. Writer composes an intersectional analysis that brings together race, class, and gender.

Okay. We’re good, though I’m still wishing that the analysis will be expanded.

2. Writer mentions that she is aware of multiple other forms of oppression but simply can’t speak to them all without losing the focus of the piece.

Fine. I respect any writer’s need to stay on point.

3. Writer mentions those multiple other forms of oppression, just to show that she is not ignoring other oppressed people. This is how so many of these lists go:

They almost always include sexual orientation.

On a good day, they include transgender people, people of non-normative sizes, and ethnic and religious minorities.

Once in a blue moon, the word genderqueer or non-binary or intersex appears.

If I’m really lucky, I’ll see the word disability. Usually, it disappears into the mist of phrases like “and all other oppressions.”

I get why this is happening. Feminism doesn’t know WTF to do with disability, because disability throws a huge monkey wrench into the gears of the feminist notion that we’re supposed to be strong, independent, and accomplished beings, healthy and full of power. Great! What about the women with disabilities for whom going to the grocery store takes a profound amount of energy? What about women whose bodies are weak? What about women who rely upon others for assistance with basic tasks? What about women in constant pain? What about women incarcerated in nursing homes and mental institutions? Where do they fit into your dream of the strong, independent, accomplished woman?

They don’t. WE DON’T.

What so many able-bodied feminists don’t get is how profound an experience disability is. I’m not just talking about a profound physical experience. I’m talking about a profound social and political experience. I venture out and I feel like I’m in a separate world, divided from “normal” people by a thin but unmistakeable membrane. In my very friendly and diverse city, I look out and see people of different races and ethnicities walking together on the sidewalk, or shopping, or having lunch. But when I see disabled people, they are usually walking or rolling alone. And if they’re not alone, they’re with a support person or a family member. I rarely see wheelchair users chatting it up with people who walk on two legs. I rarely see cognitively or intellectually disabled people integrated into social settings with nondisabled people. I’m painfully aware of how many people are fine with me as long as I can keep up with their able-bodied standards, and much less fine with me when I actually need something.

So many of you really have no idea of how rampant the discrimination is. You have no idea that disabled women are routinely denied fertility treatments and can be sterilized without their consent. You have no idea that disabled people are at very high risk of losing custody of their children. You have no idea that women with disabilities experience a much higher rate of domestic violence than nondisabled women or that the assault rate for adults with developmental disabilities is 4 to 10 times higher than for people without developmental disabilities. You have no idea that over 25% of people with disabilities live in poverty. You have no idea that the ADA hasn’t solved everything and that disabled people are still kept out of public places, still face discrimination in employment, and are still treated like second-class citizens undeserving of rights.

So many of you aren’t even thinking about disabled people when you casually throw words into your social justice rhetoric like crazy, insane, moronic, idiotic, and lame to describe ideas you do not like.

So many of you have no idea that the civil rights of disabled people are being violated every damned day only because they are disabled.

So many of you have no idea that disability is a civil rights issue AT ALL.

I’ve had people tell me that I should stay inside feminism and fight the good fight. I’ve been told that nothing will change if I leave. I’ve been told that I’m just giving up too soon (although I have trouble believing that 40 years is too soon). But this kind of logic makes no sense to me. The message is, “Stay in a movement in which you’re invisible, and keep talking about how you’re invisible, so that maybe someday, you won’t be invisible.” But that just turns the entire issue on its head. It becomes all about me and what I’m doing, and not about feminism and what it’s doing.

I don’t need to solve the ableism in the movement. It’s not my job. It’s the job of my nondisabled sisters who haven’t begun to address their own their own fears and their own omissions.

I shouldn’t have to remain inside a movement in which I’m nearly invisible as the price of getting people to listen to me. I’m still writing. I’m still speaking up. I haven’t gone anywhere. 

The disability rights movement is decades old. Educate yourselves. Talk to us. Think about us as your audience. Stop ignoring us. That’s all I ask.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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A Rant to My Fellow Activists Who Do Anti-Oppression Work and Ignore Disability http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/25/a-rant/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/25/a-rant/#comments Thu, 25 Jul 2013 18:00:39 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2838 Dear Activists Who Wax Eloquently About The Importance Of Intersectionality In Anti-Oppression Work:

I need to make a request. I’ll try to keep it brief and I’ll do my best to be clear about exactly what I mean.


I’ve noticed that many of you complain loudly and vehemently that feminism doesn’t do intersectionality right because it leaves out race, class, LGBT issues, genderqueer issues, religion, ethnicity, and body size. I agree. I completely agree. It’s why I left feminism in disgust some time ago. So imagine my utter fucking surprise when I notice that, oh hell, there is no room for me to agree at all because, as a disabled woman, I haven’t even been invited into the discussion.

I mean, really. It’s provoking to watch you call out feminists for not doing intersectionality right while you leave disabled people out of it altogether. While you keep chanting “race, class, gender” over and over, congratulating yourselves on how inclusive you’re being, you’re leaving out one-fifth of the population.

Disability winds through every other form of oppression. There are disabled people of color, disabled working class people, disabled poor people (lots), disabled LGBT people, disabled genderqueer people, disabled fat people, disabled religious people, disabled people of every ethnicity, and disabled people who experience every form of oppression that human beings can perpetrate. I know the thought that you could become one of us in a millisecond scares the absolute living fuck out of you, but seriously, deal with your fears already because they are not helping us. Start grokking the fact that disabled people are being assaulted, killed, institutionalized, and otherwise having their civil rights violated every goddamned day.

Because in case you haven’t gotten the memo, disability is a civil rights issue.

When people have their children taken away because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are refused entrance into a restaurant or a theatre or a public park, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are counseled to die rather than live, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are consigned to poverty because of the ways their bodies look and function, it’s a civil rights issue. When people are assaulted, spit on, and killed because they’re disabled, it’s a civil rights issue. When people live in isolation even within communities that talk about oppression and social justice, it’s a civil rights issue.

Every time you fail to acknowledge our presence, it only increase our invisibility. So really, how the hell are we disabled people supposed to join you in doing anti-oppression work if you keep treating us like the embarrassing relative no one talks about?

Allies have one another’s backs. No way in hell am I saying, “I’m your ally, but when it comes time for you to fight for me, I’m on my own.”

Fair is fair.

Reciprocity forever.

In solidarity,

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-racism/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/20/how-not-to-have-a-conversation-about-racism/#comments Sat, 20 Jul 2013 19:27:48 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2778 conversations about racism bingo

[The graphic is a Bingo card with 25 squares.

Title: How Not to Have a Conversation about Racism

Top row: You can never know what is really in another person's mind.
You're always playing the race card.
You're just prejudiced against white people.
The black community needs to address [fill in the blank].
I never have any racist thoughts.

Second row: You’re being so divisive.
We’re all equal in America.
Why don’t you get this upset at black-on-black crime?
I don’t see color.
Slavery is over. Stop living in the past.

Third row: The system works.
Free space: What was he doing there?
I think that black people should fix racism by [fill in the blank].
Black people can be racist too, you know.

Fourth row: Everything is about race to you people.
I hope they don’t riot.
Could people stop talking about this now?
I don’t care if you’re black or white or green or purple…
The jury has SPOKEN.

Last row: Are you calling me a racist just because I’m white?
The killer was just scared.
You’re always crying racism.
I can’t be racist. I’m a liberal.
How can I be an ally when you’re so angry all the time?

The text below the graphic reads www.facebook.com/DisabilityAndRepresentation.]

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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To My White Brothers and Sisters: Fess Up. You Know What Zimmerman Was Thinking. Of Course You Do. http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/16/to-my-white-brothers-and-sisters-fess-up-you-know-what-zimmerman-was-thinking-of-course-you-do/ http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/2013/07/16/to-my-white-brothers-and-sisters-fess-up-you-know-what-zimmerman-was-thinking-of-course-you-do/#comments Tue, 16 Jul 2013 18:27:52 +0000 Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg http://www.disabilityandrepresentation.com/?p=2763 This piece is not explicitly disability related, but because all oppressions work along similar lines, many of the issues raised by the death of Trayvon Martin resonate in my experience as a disabled woman — particularly the whole question of who gets to occupy space and who gets treated with hostility for trying to do so. More and more, as I watch how people occupy space together, I see the outlines of how our society and its hierarchies are constructed. Racism is part of that. Ableism is part of that. All forms of bigotry are part of that. They intersect and they support one another, and they all rely on nearly full-scale denial that any of it is happening at all. This post is my attempt to break through one part of that denial.

The Department of Justice is opening an investigation into whether to indict George Zimmerman on civil rights charges in the death of Trayvon Martin. The bar for such prosecutions is high; the government must prove Zimmerman’s state of mind on the night that Trayvon was killed. In other words, they must prove that he followed and killed Trayvon because he was black.

This standard has been echoed on Internet comment forums in the words of people who keep repeating the same questions over, and over, and over: How do you know what was in George Zimmerman’s mind? How do you know that he was acting out of racist motives? Over and over, I hear people say that we shouldn’t judge the man, that we don’t know what was in his mind and heart, that we should be charitable and exercise caution in jumping to conclusions.

I have just one thing to say to that:


Listen up, my white brothers and sisters. I’m white. You’re white. We can talk freely here, yes?

We all know very well what was in George Zimmerman’s mind, because the same thing is in our minds when we see a young black man in a hoodie walking down the street at night. Our shoulders tense up. We feel suspicion. We start thinking “danger.”

Most of us have the good sense to be ashamed that we feel that way. Most of us have the good sense not to follow the man.

But maybe we walk a little faster. Maybe we lock our car doors. Maybe we cross the street. Or maybe we take a deep breath, suck up the fear, and walk by that young black man in a hoodie hoping against hope that nothing bad happens.

You know it’s true.

I feel all of these fears. All of them. They go through my mind and body before I’m even aware of it happening. I keep myself from crossing the street and locking my car doors because I ‘ll be damned if I’m going to disrespect a man for using a public road.

But it’s horrifying to me that after several decades of knowing full well how racism works and how it demeans and how it kills that all of these suspicions course through me in a millisecond, before my head even has a chance to catch up. It’s as though something from the outside has come in without my consent — something that doesn’t originate in me but lives in me nonetheless.

I used to wonder how this could be. I was raised in an anti-racist household. My parents would never have forgiven me if a racial slur had ever come out of my mouth. They made me understand that my cozy little white corner of the world was an accident of fate, and that it was my responsibility to take my privilege and be the ally of people without that privilege. I’ve been working for peace and justice my whole life.

I was raised to know better. That’s the constant refrain I hear from my white brothers and sisters: How could I be racist? My parents raised me to treat everyone equally.

I’m here to tell you what you don’t want to hear: It doesn’t matter. When it comes to the impact of full-scale systemic racism, being well-raised doesn’t provide a force-field that protects anyone. At best, being well-raised provides a set of values and a mode of critique for the racism we carry and its dire consequences. But when it comes to protecting us from the indoctrination of an entire culture, the teachings of our individual upbringings cannot possibly compete with the constant, unrelenting, and merciless messages we’ve heard from the day we were born.

We were born into a cultural narrative that says that black men are aggressive, dangerous, and not to be trusted.

We were born into a cultural narrative in which the black man is always the aggressor, always at fault, always suspect.

We were born into a culture that speaks this narrative so often and with such force that there is nowhere to go to get away from it.

We were born into a culture in which fear and loathing and indoctrination into racism have been going on for centuries and will continue to go on after we’re gone. All we can do is fight them in the here and now so that maybe someday, they’ll be gone forever.

Now, if it makes your well-intentioned soul feel any better, I can tell you that the world you inherited is not your fault. It’s not your fault we’re all neck deep in this shit.

It’s not your fault that you were born into this world, but it’s your responsibility to admit to its hold on you and to stop pretending that oppressed people are over-reacting to the bigotry that swirls around them every damned day. It’s not your fault that all of this crap is in your head, but it’s your responsibility to acknowledge it and to root out as much of it as you can. It’s not your fault that you’ve been conditioned to feel fear, but it’s your responsibility to admit to the feeling in your gut when you see young black men walking down the street at night.

It’s not your fault that you feel all of these things, but it’s your responsibility to not let your shame keep you from being an ally of the people fighting them.

Yeah, it’s hard work. Yeah, no one wants to admit that they carry racism or ableism or homophobia or any other kind of bigotry. But guess what? We all do. Who can possibly escape these things when our entire culture is saturated with them?

I know it’s hard to hear someone suggest that maybe you’re not as neutral and as color-blind as you think you are. It’s painful. But while you’re feeling how hard it all is, please remember this: In the country in which you live, black men are taking their lives in their hands just to go out to get their groceries. Black men have to live with suspicion every time they try to occupy space. Black men have to live with white people pretending that none of this is happening.

Admitting to what’s in your mind and heart cannot possibly be as difficult as that. So go ahead and do it. Because it’s the secret that everyone already knows.

© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg


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