Just Who You Callin’ White

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.

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26 Responses

  1. FashionablyEvil
    FashionablyEvil August 10, 2010 at 11:33 pm |

    I find the idea that a wheelchair could be an indicator of race to be a stark reminder of how much inequality in health care there is due to income/race (as correlated factors, e.g., only rich white people can afford a wheelchair) and discrimination by medical professionals.

  2. Roschelle
    Roschelle August 10, 2010 at 11:49 pm |

    I can’t find the revelance of ascertaining what color you were or were not as she was reaching out to you.

    Would her desire to “assist” you have been swayed depending on your answer?

    Strange.

  3. konkonsn
    konkonsn August 11, 2010 at 12:41 am |

    It’s a good point, about owning your disability being a type of privilege in itself. As a queer woman, it’s fairly easy for me to be out to my friends and (immediate) family because I live in a college town (BIG, SUPER BIG plus on the friends and community side) and because my family is fairly liberal in their view despite living in a town that isn’t. When I lived in my hometown for a year after undergrad, I could not be out at all, and had I not been able to get out of there through a college scholarship, I would still be hiding myself from people like my co-workers.

    I think it’s a good thing to take your identity into your own hands, but I also think it’s important to recognize why some people won’t/can’t and what that means to our movement.

  4. blue milk
    blue milk August 11, 2010 at 3:46 am |

    An asolutely fascinating post – thanks for taking the time to reflect and write about it.

  5. Mickiet
    Mickiet August 11, 2010 at 5:59 am |

    Pardon my naïveté, but I don’t understand the connection. It sounds like the woman was just a nosy busybody. My mom is olive-skinned with kinky balack hair, and her students often try to guess her ethnicity/race. “Are you Puerto Rican? Arab? Mexican?” The way you handled it is enlightening, but the woman simply sounds like an idiot.

  6. Astrid
    Astrid August 11, 2010 at 10:05 am |

    FashionablyEvil: I find the idea that a wheelchair could be an indicator of race to be a stark reminder of how much inequality in health care there is due to income/race (as correlated factors, e.g., only rich white people can afford a wheelchair) and discrimination by medical professionals.  

    I never thoughabout it that way, being a white person in a country with socialized healthcare. I really do hope in my country there is less of a racial gap in access to needed mobility devices and other accessibility appliances, but I’m sure it is coming since mobility devices ar eno longer covered under basic insurance. Soon, those with walkers will be recognized as at least rich enough to afford complementary insurance. I am not knowledgeable enough about the class/race intersection in the Netherlands, but I’m inclined to think we’re heading towards such inequality here (and probably have it in part already, which I’m ignorant to due to my white privilege).

  7. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin August 11, 2010 at 11:23 am |

    I am aware of the fact that this comment could be taken wrongly, so if it doesn’t pass moderation, I understand.

    I once had an African-American fellow student ask me why white people kill themselves. A white visitor to a historically black college nearby had committed suicide and he was seeking answers of me. The implication, of course, was that black people did not.

    I wasn’t really sure what to tell him. Had I been more honest, I’d say that I’m sure that there were just as many black people with mental illness as white people, but the cultural stigma was much greater.

  8. Norah
    Norah August 11, 2010 at 11:48 am |

    Astrid:
    I know the divide is at least partially already there due to language gap and “common” knowledge gap, also not just for disability aid (in any form) but regarding knowledge like where and how to get repairs done to your house (if you rent) and stuff like that, where to get money if you’re entitled to it (not wages for working I mean) or even knowing that you’re entitled to it.

  9. baffled
    baffled August 11, 2010 at 1:05 pm |

    Just, huh? Just wtf? This is so weird and twisted I can’t even begin to untwist the strands or weirdness and twistedness. I mean, wow.

  10. Theresa
    Theresa August 11, 2010 at 2:08 pm |

    Mickiet: Pardon my naïveté, but I don’t understand the connection. It sounds like the woman was just a nosy busybody. My mom is olive-skinned with kinky balack hair, and her students often try to guess her ethnicity/race. “Are you Puerto Rican? Arab? Mexican?” The way you handled it is enlightening, but the woman simply sounds like an idiot.  

    I’m with you. I think we overthink a lot of these encounters, when there are always some people who will inevitably be stupid and rude.

  11. Erin
    Erin August 11, 2010 at 2:09 pm |

    konkonsn: It’s a good point, about owning your disability being a type of privilege in itself.As a queer woman, it’s fairly easy for me to be out to my friends and (immediate) family because I live in a college town (BIG, SUPER BIG plus on the friends and community side) and because my family is fairly liberal in their view despite living in a town that isn’t.When I lived in my hometown for a year after undergrad, I could not be out at all, and had I not been able to get out of there through a college scholarship, I would still be hiding myself from people like my co-workers.I think it’s a good thing to take your identity into your own hands, but I also think it’s important to recognize why some people won’t/can’t and what that means to our movement.  

    Um, some people don’t have the privilege to have the option not to claim disability as an identity.

    I am still trying to process this blog post. Maybe I will write a response in my blog. That will have to wait until later – must finish essay for class! :(

  12. Mandolin
    Mandolin August 11, 2010 at 2:31 pm |

    Thank you.

  13. Danny
    Danny August 11, 2010 at 3:25 pm |

    Thinking about this in my own experience it wasn’t a matter of owning a wheelchair or not that may have been the difference but rather the shape the wheelchair is in. To where I would notice that typically older white people seemed to have better conditioned (closer to new) wheelchairs than people of color (worn and apparent signs of it being a handme down).

    (Same thought just a slightly different metric.)

  14. Anna
    Anna August 11, 2010 at 4:14 pm |

    Astrid:
    I never thoughabout it that way, being a white person in a country with socialized healthcare. I really do hope in my country there is less of a racial gap in access to needed mobility devices and other accessibility appliances…

    I also live in a country with socialized health care, and I know for certain that access to mobility aids is racialized and related to class. I’ve had numerous talks with family members of people who need mobility aids but cannot afford them and/or navigate the complicated system of getting government assistance in affording them. I haven’t spoken to any of these people directly because they never leave their house because they can’t.

    The system here to even get charitable aid is arcane, and I can’t imagine trying to navigate it without a good education, an advocate, and an inherent trust in the system that would lead one to believe that there’s going to be a successful end.

  15. Miss S
    Miss S August 11, 2010 at 6:36 pm |

    Was it because of the wheelchair? I know a lot of people (myself included) who get asked those questions all the time. People really feel as though they need to know your race/ethnicity if they can’t figure it out. In fact, I’ve given an answer only to have the other person shake their head, or ask me “are you sure” or “no, you’re mixed with something People use your hair, complexion, eyes, lips, and figure and use these as race/ethnic indicators.

  16. lupinella
    lupinella August 11, 2010 at 7:21 pm |

    Loved this post due to all of the levels that occurred in the one encounter. Assumptions and the need to quantify in ticky boxes are always better handled as conversation.
    Great job, WCD in dealing with the whacky.

  17. calyx
    calyx August 11, 2010 at 9:50 pm |

    Wow, real food for thought, thankyou. I hadn’t considered/seen this issue/intersection before (I’m white, invisibly disabled).

  18. Indigo Jo
    Indigo Jo August 12, 2010 at 6:23 am |

    WCD, perhaps it’s more to do with the type of chair you use (a power-assisted one, do I remember right?) rather than being in a wheelchair, per se – given that a large proportion of African-Americans don’t have health insurance, most would surely not be able to afford anything more than a very basic chair given how expensive decent ones are.

  19. Bagelsan
    Bagelsan August 12, 2010 at 6:55 am |

    This post and comment #7 remind me of the women & heart attacks thing, where lots of men and women (wrongly) don’t think about cardiovascular health as being such a big deal for women as it is for men. Naturally, this can have really bad effects on if/when women take care of themselves, are diagnosed, get treated…

    When a population has a perception of itself as being a certain way (women being safe from heart problems, POC not having mental or physical disabilities, etc.) it can make it very dangerous for people in those groups who inevitably do deal with those issues. If you have a perception that “oh, X people don’t have Y problem” then it’s going to be hard for X friends and family to accommodate Y problem, for X doctors to recognize and recommend treatments for Y problem, for the X person themselves to identify as having Y problem or accept that they have Y problem… So I agree that conflation of race/gender/etc with health and disability is absolutely a public health issue along with being an interesting sociological question.

    But I can’t imagine what else the OP could’ve done in that particular situation — sounds like a good example of choosing your battles. Comprehensively educating a clueless stranger about disability from the ground up while on public transportation is not a realistic goal. :p

  20. GC
    GC August 12, 2010 at 3:56 pm |

    “Asian (Americans?)” yes because god forbid we Asians can be actually Americans.
    Asians not affected by disability as much as African Americans?. Maybe you should go into an Asian neighborhood and see for your self.

  21. Nikki
    Nikki August 14, 2010 at 10:31 pm |

    I am Black and invisibly disabled. In support groups, people often ask about my ethnicity. Most seem to assume that I’m biracial or other non-White-Other, which I am not. It never occurred to me that disability might be connected to this perception until I read this post. Perhaps because I have enough privilege to seek and attain treatment for my disorders people assume that I’m not Black? What a sad statement that is.

  22. Huey Newton Complexes « The Crunk Feminist Collective

    […] particularly emblematic of light skinned women being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It has always been fun for me to experience the myriad ways disability “whitens” me as I go abou…. Essentially, the way this works is that the cultural perception that disabled peeps are childlike, […]

  23. Christa
    Christa August 30, 2010 at 1:31 am |

    This is extremely embarrassing to admit and really highlights the fact that I am really fucking white, but until about two years ago my mind hadn’t really made the connection that Black people have developmental/cognitive disabilities, down syndrome in particular. I grew up in a rural midwest town that was majority white. When I moved to Philly a couple years ago I was walking down the street and saw a Black person with down syndrome and I did a double take. Obliviously I KNEW that people with down syndrome fell across racial lines but I had never met a black person with down syndrome and I had never seen a black person with down syndrome depicted in the media.

    I felt incredibly stupid but rather relieved that this was a revelation that took place completely inside my head. Even more importantly it made me analyze how disability is portrayed in media

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