I’m still processing this one — so there’s not much in the way of analysis here.
It has always been fun for me to experience the myriad ways disability “whitens” me as I go about life in the mainstream (i.e., white, non-disabled) world. Essentially, the way this works is that the cultural perception that disabled peeps are childlike, always in need of charity and/or help usually overcomes the threat posed by my race. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of “fuck you — your racism deserves to be subverted by my disability.” I’ve never had the experience where disability whitens me in/before an African-American eye.
I emerged from the whatever it is in Philadelphia — metro? subway? SEPTA? — and pushed past the bus stop. An older African-American woman reached out to me: “You white?” I was so shocked that I stopped and told her how rude that was. In so doing, I was, of course, rude myself. She got irate, because she thought she was giving me a compliment. [breathes.] This pissed me off. So, I stopped to tell her what I thought of that perspective. Bad idea, yes.
We got into it. I had put her on the defensive; that made the conversation less an exchange of ideas than a mutually exclusive, non-responsive run through of our own thoughts. My take on things was that lightness of skin colour shouldn’t be the defining marker of blackness. “Things have changed,” I said (so sure of my own rightness). “I hold my race as an essential part of myself. I am black,” I said firmly; I hope that I did not allow my inner angry voice to show. Said inner voice was bitterly noting that even if I wanted to be accepted as white, there was no bloody way. “Shut up,” I told my inner voice. “You want to give an positive argument for identification, here.”
My interlocutor poked me: “Your mama white?” All thoughts of positive interaction slipped beyond my grasp. I knew that we weren’t actually talking about race and yet. Yet, I answered her question literally. My English accent returning more strongly than usual, I talked about my white father and my Afro-Caribbean mother; I spoke bitterly about the loss of Spanish and Creole-speaking family members and English as the language of acceptance. I gave her the history full and square. “Now,” I demanded, “do you think of me as white?”
The woman shrugged: “Just thought, because of the ….” and pointed to my wheelchair.
On the face of it, a wheelchair cannot delineate race. The disability rights movement may not do an acceptable job of recognizing how white its culture and assumptions are, but it isn’t like people of colour don’t become disabled. In fact, statistically speaking, there is a higher incidence of disability among African Americans when compared with, say Asian (Americans?). And I know from walking the streets in my grandmother’s neighborhood in New Jersey that disability is so visible, that it seems like a norm. We’re not talking about the fact of disability here; we’re talking about the yawning class gap apparent in how I live it.
I see social class in my access to the kind of healthcare that allows me to have my current wheelchair. That’s a conversation that’s occurring all over the place; we don’t need to go there. I wonder though whether the kind of chair itself was enough to whiten me. It’s very functional, yet pretty and custom. It’s not the kind if thing you can buy in a pharmacy or off the floor in your local medical supply store. That kind of access is often, but not always aligned with socio-economic class.
More importantly, though, I see the effects of class ideology in access to ideas. I’ve always argued that to be able to call your disability an identity and not just live it as your medical condition is a sign of some kinds (but not all) of privilege, but I’ve never felt it as keenly as in that conversation. And I didn’t know what to do about it. I certainly wasn’t in a position to keep lecturing a woman of a generation that knows first more about race and civil rights in the US than I ever will. And a bus shelter isn’t the place to narrate the mostly white history of the usability rights movement as an attempt to bring someone into the fold.
So, I left. But I have worried about it ever since.