Why “This is just ableist; it’s not about race!” is bullshit.

I didn’t do the #NotBlackMirrors hashtag post thing in response to the New Yorker article mostly because I’d already written a thing, and because I have short arms and shitty fine motor skills/grip control, so I’m basically a one-woman selfie disaster. I’m not going to pretend like I instantly made a connection between (overwhelmingly white) autistic people taking pictures of their eyes and tagging them #NotBlackMirrors, on the one hand, and the various ways in which the “language” of ableism and autism stigma is historically rooted in the language of racism and colonialism. But when Neurodivergent K posted on Facebook and pointed out the issues with these attempts to talk back to the New Yorker article, her critique made complete sense to me.  I’ve done a lot of thinking and reading about the ways in which ableism, specifically the stigmatizing language used to describe and pathologize developmentally disabled people, is closely intertwined with (and often derived from) the language of racial hierarchy and scientific imperialism. And I think this is an important opportunity to talk about that stuff.

Obviously there’s a lot of positive work that can happen involving autistic people showing who they are, and how they live their daily lives, on the internet. But when someone says something gross about how they perceive autistic people, and your response is to say “But I’m autistic, and I’m not like that!” when there are autistic people who are, in the most basic/literal sense, “like that,” that’s not very constructive. When someone says that autistic kids have eyes “like black mirrors,” it’s not super helpful to be like “I’m autistic and I don’t look like that!” The issue in need of critique here isn’t that us autistic folks all actually have soulless eyes (like, obviously, we’re not fucking soulless). Instead, we should be asking ourselves and those around us “Why/how are certain faces, certain expressions, certain eyes, seen as inherently flat, reflective, incomprehensible, and inhuman?” Seriously though. Why the fuck is it a trope (and it is, really, a trope) for certain people to be described as having eyes “like mirrors,” and why is it that “mirror eyes,” specifically, are so often also described as black?

To try and answer some of that, I want to lay down some facts:

The first people in history to be described by Western European writers/intellectuals as “r******d” in their “human development” were people of color. Specifically, colonized and enslaved peoples. The language of development emerged as a language for describing racial and cultural difference during a time when disabled people’s disabilities were still primarily understood as the result of divine judgement, or supernatural influence.

The first people to have their sociality, their interpersonal interaction styles, and their language, described by those same Western European writers/intellectuals as inherently lacking, deficient, primitive, and impossible to understand were people of color. Mostly colonized and enslaved peoples.

I can provide ample evidence of this. Or you can take the time to find some yourself. I suggest searching for phrases like “black eyes” in GoogleBooks, or another database with extensive historical sources. I would also highly suggest that you take the time to possibly educate yourself on the history of anthropology as a colonial science. You will find that many of the tropes we are used to hearing in the context of “autism” rhetoric have their roots in scientific racism, and white supremacy.

The way people talk about autistic kids/adults (especially “savants”) displaying skills and expertise, but “lacking comprehension” or “true originality”? About how we might be good at certain kinds of “mimicry,” despite being obviously incapable of self-awareness or true knowledge? Yeah, white people have been using those arguments to discredit the abilities and achievements of people of color–and black people in particular–for centuries. When you see autistic people described as being “cold,” and “unfeeling,” socially alienated and lacking in basic human connection? That’s how explorers, colonizers, and their scientific brethren often described East Asian people, as well as North and South American indigenous peoples. As much as established scientists and psychologists (as well as the general public) work to convince us that the “social deficiencies” of autistic people are all inherently biological and pathological in nature…that’s simply not true. At the end of the day, autistic people may perceive other individuals differently than the supposedly “neurotypical” majority does, but any attempt to call our forms of sociality inherently defective is simply another example of cultural imperialism. The same cultural imperialism that has been primarily used to denigrate and forcibly erase the knowledges and cultures of people of color for centuries.

So like, if you’re white, you honestly shouldn’t go around telling people of color that they can’t get angry about the racist implications inherent in mainstream autism rhetoric. You especially can’t get angry when they tell you that by ignoring those racist implications in your critique of autism rhetoric, you are contributing to a disability culture that ignores and marginalizes disabled people of color. You’re not ever going to find some magical aspect/form of ableism that is completely uninflected by racism or colonialism, and that therefore you can claim as being directed solely at the “disability” aspects of someone’s identity, and not those “other” parts of their identity that have to do with race or culture. That’s not how it fucking works.



One thought on “Why “This is just ableist; it’s not about race!” is bullshit.

  1. THANK YOU. I’m quite new to this field and my mind is melting from this clear explanation of how labels like “retarded” or “lacking” are actually *only* about power and not at all about the people labeled, whether those happen to have a divergent skin color or sensory processing style or class or what have you.

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