In this essay, I offer tentative ruminations about the possibilities/challenges of theory and praxis in the field of disability studies. I begin the essay by thinking through my own positionality as a non-disabled woman of color scholar/ally in the field. Cautiously situating myself in a location of outsider-within (Hill-Collins,1998), I explore how disability studies is disruptive of any boundaries that claim to police distinctions between disabled/non-disabled subject positions. Noting the dangers of claiming that everyone is disabled at some historical moment, I propose instead a relational analysis to engage the materiality of disability at the intersections of race, class, gender, nation, and sexual identity within specific historical contexts and discuss the complicated impasses that continue to plague disability studies at these intersections. I conclude the essay by recognizing the labor of scholar/activists in the field who call for a committed politics of accountability and access via disability justice.
When I think about edges, I think about my limits, the places where I need to stop in order to take care of myself… There is memory there, mixed with blood and bone, cells and tissue. There is history that you cannot turn away from embedded in these veins. There is a telling of war and pain, division and separation, loneliness and longing, humiliation and violence, resiliency and returning. There are stories of a land, a family, a body, a heart, a life. Knowing my edge means… knowing inside and out that belonging does not have to be proven or earned or sacrificed for; it is for all of us. For all of us.
It is early morning…too early for a late riser like me to begin writing. And yet, I savor the calm even though it is difficult to be quietly contemplative about a field of study that exists at the jagged edges of the social, simultaneously defiant and celebratory in its insistence that disability is neither tragedy nor inspiration but a satisfying and enjoyable way of "being in the world" (Garland-Thompson, 1996; Titchkosky 2007)…if only the (ableist) world would not get in the way! The Facebook page "This is what disability looks like!" (Stevens, 2012) is testimony to this defiant celebration and radical assertion of disability pride and "crip politics" (McRuer, 2006) in the face of violent obliteration (e.g. eugenics, euthanasia), involuntary confinement (e.g. asylums, nursing homes), and marginalization (e.g. special classooms/sheltered workshops). It is for this reason I would argue that disability studies epitomizes disruptive vulnerability that refuses to disappear.
Just like the unforeseen possibilities of a new day, reflecting on the field of disability studies is also rife with mystery. Quite honestly, when I was invited by the editors, Michelle Jarman and Alison Kafer, to write an essay on how I conceived of the field of disability studies, I tentatively accepted it with immense trepidation coupled with a sense of flattered delight. As a non-disabled South Asian woman of color, my own location in the field is complicated because it raises vexing yet important questions: What is my relationship to disability? With what authority can I speak about disability? And why? Am I speaking with disabled people or about them? How does the validation of certain forms of speech/language that I adhere to include some and exclude others? How does my speaking in the field exclude others from speaking out? There are no easy answers to these incessant questions of identity and belonging; no easy way of drawing boundaries between who should be in and who should be out; no easy litany of who gets to be recognized as members of diverse disability communities (Linton, 1998; Samuels, 2003). Thus, while my own speaking about the field from a dubious position within the field is itself mired in controversial assertions of belonging and identity, it is not just my positionality that is implicated in the politics of location. Disability studies' eternally changeable borderlands make these questions relevant to everyone, whether they identify as disabled or not at any given time. And just in case someone argues to the contrary, belonging and identity are not idle insertions into political discourse; rather they have critical implications for how the field of disability studies continues to expand and thrive within a future that is, as yet, tentatively unimaginable and tantalizingly possible.
Just as the day presses on impervious to its unpredictability, the field of disability studies also presses on buoyed by a similar capriciousness. It would appear that my own location as alternately "outsider within" (Hill-Collins, 1998) and/or just "outsider" is made possible by the very nature of disability studies. According to Hill-Collins (1998), "outsider-within" describes "the location of people who no longer belong to any one group" (5), as well as the "social locations or border spaces occupied by groups of unequal power" (5). This nomadic existence at the borders produces a tentative non-authoritarian knowledge that is simultaneously marginal and perceptive, "embrac[ing] multiplicity yet remain[ing] cognizant of power" (8). I argue that similar ambiguities frame the field of disability studies providing several manifestos for life at the borderlands. These manifestos are replete not with directives but with the most radical re-imagining of possibilities. They thrive on the unthinkable of ableist discourses. They produce few answers but rather embrace the infuriating practice of constantly troubling the questions. They make even the radical seem quite conservative. Take any radical theory—radical humanism, marxism, post structuralism, critical race theory, feminist theory, queer theory, etc. Place a disruptive disability studies in its midst. Tentatively pose questions. Trouble their assumptions undergirding their alternative/radical conceptions of the normal. What is autonomy? When exactly is life not worth living? Why does rationality have to be the sole determinant of our humanity? How do we define limit? Listen carefully to their answers.
As the morning advances dappled by sunshine and shadow, I reflect on a field that entices me with its fickle variability. I use these adjectives because the very legitimacy of disability studies depends on our commitment to trouble its limits. Who really is disabled? What are the (non)relations between Deaf and disability communities? Are people with chronic illness disabled? How does mental illness trouble disability? Where do people with learning disabilities place themselves within this pantheon of difference? What about those with invisible disabilities? Is "passing" as non-disabled an unearned privilege (Samuels, 2003)? Given its hyper-(in)visibility, should the disability closet be viewed as an inhospitable location for transformative politics? What are the costs and benefits of "coming out crip" (McRuer, 2006)? Is it even a choice? And why should any of these questions matter in the first place at all?
Even though I raise these questions, my complicated status as outsider/outsider-within makes me thoughtfully cautious of any attempts to make definite sense of these borderlands. As Simi Linton (1998) has insightfully remarked, almost all those who exist outside the indeterminate boundaries of normativity/disability have only a temporary status and she adds the acronym TAB to our ever-expanding vocabulary to refer to them as "temporary able-bodied." Linton's observation casts the dragnet of disabled identity broadly pointing to the other conflicting notion that disability is both nowhere and yet everywhere at once. Linton's perceptive argument also calls into question our traditional notions of social identities as stable over a person's lifetime. We know now that this also does not hold true for gender, queer, and even racial identities any longer (Butler, 1990; Halberstam, 2005; Chen, 2012; Kafer, 2013). Disability also offers the tantalizing possibility that social identity is temporary, fleeting, and insecure. One can cross the road and be hit by a car; one can dive into a swimming pool and break a vertebra; one can have an imperceptible tumor grow unexpectedly in one's spine and in a blink of an eye one can become disabled. And if one manages to remain staunchly within the non-disabled realm, one's kinfolk can become disabled such that one's interdependence via the dyad of care-giver/care recipient muddies the borderlands of disability once again. And then of course, there are those individuals who "desire" disability (devotees) and/or choose to become disabled (transability) who enable paradoxical nuances for claiming disability identity (Stevens, 2011; Kafer 2012).
But these promising ruminations that open up radical possibilities for social identities come up against some more serious reckonings in the clear light of a maturing day. Even while I am eager to celebrate these instances where outlaw subjectivities flout the ineffectual disciplinary practices of compulsory able-bodiedness (McRuer 2006), I hesitate, afraid to rain on this parade of possibility by foregrounding the historical and the material constraints of the social. Conscious that I may be blunting the transgressive edges where a feisty discursive aesthetic (Garland-Thompson, 2007) meets a resourceful non-compliant theoretic, my own commitment to a transnational feminist class politics makes it difficult for me to locate these conditions of possibility outside the political and economic structures and social relations emerging from the historical conditions of an exploitative transnational capitalism. Here, there is no respite from the harsh living conditions of poverty nor from the exploitative social relations of production and consumption or from the historical continuities of (neo) colonial wars and a (neo)imperialist political economy—all of which produce, propagate, and proliferate disability while simultaneously rendering disabled people completely invisible. Will the field of disability studies look away from these borders that limit the conditions of endless possibility? And what will be the implications if it does?
In posing these last set of questions, I do not mean to imply that re-imagining transgressive possibilities is necessarily disconnected from the historical and the material constraints of the social. Nor do I want to suggest that scholarship that enables such imaginings is incompatible with historical materialist analyses. Rather, I highlight the potential tensions that can arise when disability studies scholarship is confronted by relational analyses where the emancipation of some bodies is related to the disposability of other bodies within historical contexts that nurture such disjunctions. Thus, in the next few sections of this essay, I underscore a relational analysis replete with a plethora of tense moments that continue to trouble disability studies scholarship.
Disability justice activists are engaged in building an understanding of disability that is more complex, whole and interconnected than what we have previously found. We are disabled people who are people of color; women, genderqueer and transgender; poor and working class; youth; immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer; and more…. We are trying to understand how we can build organizing and community spaces that are mixed-ability, cultivating solidarity between people with different disabilities. We are working to move together, as disabled people, through a world that wants to divide us and keep us separate.
Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence, Feb 2011
As I pause in the writing of this essay and pay attention to the larger world that extends both within and beyond the boundaries of the United States of America, I am confronted by the unrelenting production of disability on a daily basis. The historical legacy of the actual act of colonizing an inhabited continent, slavery, indentured labor, Jim Crow laws and the involuntary commitment of indigenous people to boarding schools and reservations has produced physical and mental trauma that has persisted over multiple generations (Spillers, 1982; Smith, 2005; Erevelles, 2011). In contemporary contexts similar practices prevail. In public schools all over the U.S., low income students of color (most notably males), are indiscriminately labeled behaviorally disabled, language disabled, mildly mentally retarded, and emotionally disturbed and are then confined to segregated special education classrooms/alternative schools; often medicated; and punished more harshly than their white counterparts (Artiles et al, 2010) In some inner-city schools, entire classrooms of students (sometimes entire schools) labeled cognitively and behaviorally disabled are quite literally ushered via the school-to-prison pipeline to a lifetime of involuntary institutionalization in the prison industrial complex (Erevelles, in press). Undocumented workers cross the U.S./Mexico border dodging vigilantes, enduring dehydration and other heat-related diseases, and risking rape and sexual molestation to end up as laborers in fruit and vegetable farms, cattle ranches, chicken factories, and formal/informal service work for the lowest wages, unsafe working conditions, and little to no medical care. Toxic industrial and nuclear waste is dumped in rivers and/or buried underground in landfills in low-income rural areas where local residents acquire illnesses and disabilities that persist intergenerationally. Lack of access to affordable healthy food in inner-city neighborhoods, high employment, run-down housing, high crime rates, and inadequate access to medical care has also led to the proliferation of preventable illnesses that result in disabilities. And lest we forget, the everyday indignities of racial profiling, bullying, job discrimination, police brutality, homophobia in the school and in the workplace, domestic violence, and sexual abuse, among so many others also contribute to mental and physical health conditions that can bring one into the disability community.
Colonial occupation and its more contemporary manifestation of neocolonialism have also resulted in the proliferation of disability. The material conditions of colonial rule supported a violent police state to subdue its colonial subjects who rebelled against the oppressive conditions within which they lived. Even after colonial rule was overthrown, interventions by the former colonists in the internal affairs of the new postcolonial states continued to produce disability using the excuse of stemming the tide of communism to orchestrate assassinations, coups, and civil unrest (Erevelles, 2011). Additionally, the now well-established transnational capitalist exploitative machine has enabled capital to flow freely across international borders while at the same time ensuring that labor be confined within the nation states themselves, maintained as a cheap and docile force in obeisance to the dictates of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Many of their mandated economic policies have required the dismantling of the already skeletal economic safety nets in these nation states resulting in large shortages of food, inadequate access to health care, and deplorable living conditions that have continued the proliferation of disability. Global investment in the so-called 'Third World' has resulted in the relocation of multi-national factories from the neo-imperialist north where "third world" laborers in the global south work under sweat shop conditions to produce cheap and affordable goods for consumption by world markets. Just recently, a garment factory burned down in Bangladesh and while the newspaper reporters rushed to count the dead, very little was said about the under-paid women laborers who have undergone amputations, suffered burns, and who are working through post-traumatic stress. As if this kind of human exploitation is not enough, on a regular basis, the United States military deploys drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan that kill and injure civilian populations, the continuation of the U.S. dubbed "War on Terror" initiated via Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003 that has generated its own class of casualties of war (dead as well as disabled) that even today have resisted accurate calculation.
This incomplete litany of the global proliferation of disability tentatively signals high noon in disability theorizing. I now sit uneasily amidst questions that lead to seemingly conflicting impasses. What does it mean to come to terms with the transgressive vagaries of queer/crip identity as assemblage—precarious/partial/body-without-organs/liminal/ affective/ molecular—within political economic contexts imbricated in colonial/neocolonial practices of unrelenting social, economic, and militarized violence? Can "lines of flight" (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987) intent on discombobulating the dreary stolidness of the normative subject serve as an effective means of deterritorializing subjectivity from its political-economic constraints? More importantly, what are the political implications of such discursive maneuvers in articulating the shifting bonds of queer/crip communities in global space? What happens if these bonds timidly marshaling transitory notions of community are animated by unequal relations of production and consumption in aid of transnational capitalist accumulation? How do such "toxic animacies" (Chen, 2011) complicate utopian notions of community where the enablement of some bodies is based on the oppressive dis-enablement of other bodies separated and yet connected by the material social relations of transnational capitalism? And most significantly, how would a disability-affirming queer/crip politic (McRuer, 2006; Stevens, 2011; Kafer, 2013) engage the material violence enacted in "becoming disabled?"
In the late afternoon, I watch as a passing shower forces the burning concrete to release a steamy haze and feel the torpid air ready to explode into a strangling humidity. This torpor is at odds with my own apprehension. Is my own work of theorizing disability as a historical materialist construct actually dangerous to a critical disability studies? How does the disability community engage with this rapid (almost incessant) proliferation of disability? Is it impossible to desire disability in these contexts? What are the ethical implications of preventing this proliferation of disability? What does it mean to say "no more disability" for those "becoming" disabled via violence and then compelled to live in deplorable social conditions? And what do these negations mean for disabled people who have struggled valiantly to convince the world at large that living with a disability "is an ingenious way to live" (Marcus, 1993) only to be told, "Enough!"? How does the disability community build alliances with those groups (located at the complex intersections of race, gender, and queer politics) who have historically tried to shake off the "stigma" of ableist notions of disability that have been used to justify their continued marginalization in capitalist economies? As a result, what allegiances do disabled people located at these crossroads of shifting identities have with a largely white middle/upper class disability rights movement in the Global North? When do our passions cohere in our collective struggle against oppressive practices that ultimately discount many of us in terms of our unique as well as collective humanity? And when does the complicated intertwining of our disparate yet collective histories become so frustratingly dense and depressing that we shrug off these material bonds impatiently to theorize in discursive spaces that celebrate (queer/crip) "desire" unmediated by the social?
All of our waste which we dumped on her and which she absorbed. And all of our beauty, which was hers first and which she gave to us. All of us—all who knew her—felt so wholesome after we cleaned ourselves on her. We were so beautiful when we stood astride her ugliness, her simplicity decorated us, her guilt sanctified us, her pain made us glow with health, her awkwardness made us think we has a sense of humor. Her inarticulateness made us believe we were eloquent. Her poverty kept us generous. Even her waking dreams we used—to silence our own nightmares. And she let us, and thereby deserved our contempt. We honed our egos on her, padded our characters with her frailty, and yawned in the fantasy of our strength.
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye
In a lull from writing I am distracted by this "made-for-television" trial of a real life tragedy that is streaming live on my laptop. Twenty-something biracial neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman is on trial for the murder of seventeen-year-old unarmed African American high school student, Trayvon Martin, who was returning to his father's home with skittles and iced tea purchased from the neighborhood store in a small town in Florida. I start watching the trial because several of my Facebook friends are posting intriguing commentaries on one of the prosecution's most important witnesses, nineteen year old Rachel Jeantel, the last person that the young Martin spoke to before he was shot and killed two years ago. I watch her seated behind the witness stand—a lonesome figure, half terrified, half defiant—her restless lips undecided between smile and grimace, her dark veiled eyes flitting nervously as if to shut out the roar of emotion bubbling within her. It is a courtroom teeming with faces, cameras, curiosity, and threat and yet it feels as if she is all alone—her dark chocolate skin taut over round cheeks; her full face gleaming under neatly piled shiny black hair. I watch her fidget uneasily as the tall bald-headed white defense lawyer played back her taped interview replete with the unique intonations and street lingo of the urban ghetto she calls home. Her words are a little hard to follow unless you listen closely because she speaks in a low, hesitant, non-standard-hybridized-English flavored by the lilting accents of her Haitian and Dominican heritage intermingled with urban black street slang. But even I, just like her, get impatient at almost all the officers in the court who seem unable to understand anything she says. And even I, just like her, struggle to stifle an angry impatience as the defense attorneys attempt to discredit her testimony through (deliberate?) misunderstanding and recurrent requests to repeat herself more clearly hoping to enable a public shaming of her non-standard diction and speech usage. My eyes follow in silent awe as she forces her hooded eyes to rise up occasionally to meet the disdainful puzzlement in the defense attorney's mocking gaze and I cheer at her occasional audacious retorts ("You. Got. To. Un. Der. Stand" and "Are you listening?"), in response to his condescension—these flashes of resistance daring to overshadow her reluctant yet dignified admission that she did not read cursive. And then at one point when he sought to scramble her testimony to suggest that it was perhaps Martin rather than Zimmerman who was the pursuer rather than the pursued, she cut in with a loud, clear, and curt, "That's real retarded, sir."
As I settle down for the evening, I decide to include a reflection on Rachel Jeantel in this essay and the way in which identities clatter against each other in oppressive spaces. On the internet, I observe social media explode with both censure and support in a manner that brings forth disability/race/gender/desire in a complicated entangled analysis. Responding to Jeantel's sullen "I done told you, I don't watch no news" when the defense lawyer attempted to portray her as uncaring about the tragedy that had befallen her friend, one post read "Is it just me, or does Rachel Jeantel remind you of Precious, just a little bit." Here the reference is to the book Push (transformed into a film, Precious) whose lead character, Clarice "Precious" Jones is an overweight, "illiterate" African American sixteen-year old living with her abusive mother and pregnant with her second child, both children born as a result of being raped by her father. While Jeantel's life experience does not resemble the character Precious in any way, other posts on the social media site Twitter continued to draw on problematic stereotypes of overweight dark-skinned black girls/women who do not adhere to normative notions of (white) femininity. For example, one tweet described Jeantel as "hideous in every sense of the word." In a similar vein another wrote, "Rachel Jeantel got bout[sic] 5 chins an[sic] a little peanut head." Equating her appearance and her manner of speech with a lack of intelligence, one post described her as being "dumber than a box of rocks." Another particularly brutal post drawing on racist and ableist imagery to mockingly situate her outside the boundaries of humanity wrote, "Guess why all the black animals [sic] think Rachel Jeantel is a Rhodes scholar with veracity offered credible testimony." And finally most cruel of all was the post "Trayvons[sic] parents were like damn our son was hitting that!?!?!? #pussyfail #nastybitch [sic] Rachel Jeantel"
It is at that moment that it dawns on me that I am witnessing how vividly race, desire, gender, and disability coalesce in this trial mediated by the social relations of a brutal transnational capitalism to construct this vulnerable young black woman as dehumanized even as they construct her murdered friend as complicit in his own death. At several points troubled by my own seething emotions I turn off the streaming video, only to find myself turning it back on; not out of curiosity at this televised spectacle, but in fervent solidarity as well as painful recognition that what was unfolding before me is what I have written about and am writing about in this essay—the historical materialist analysis of be-coming black AND be-coming disabled simultaneously (Erevelles, 2011). It is the very same logic of ableism intersecting with racism and sexism rooted in a dismissive heteronormative desire and enabled by the violence of class relations (segregated housing/inadequate education/ extreme social privileges/ income gaps/transnational exploitative migrant labor). It is at this moment that the materiality of my own work hits home.
I am also haunted by how the term "retarded" ricochets like a pinball within/outside that courtroom, deployed/implied as explanation/insult/resistance to uphold racist/gendered/ heteronormative assumptions rooted in oppressive class relations that place the subject referred to as "retarded" outside the frames of normative intelligibility. Jeantel's black feminine working class roots as manifested in her "unrefined" language easily earns her the ableist association with "retarded" at exactly the same moment that racist and gendered ideologies of black womanhood construct "an eerily perfect diagram of a cultural [racist] grammar that determines how black folks move through the world, always already cast as the aggressors, always necessarily on the defensive, all too often victimized, all too rarely vindicated" (Cooper, 2013). It is the simultaneity of how disability is all tangled up with racialized notions of (un)desire-able gendered subjectivities that is significant here such that it appears as if not only "black womanhood, black manhood and urban adolescence [but also (black) disabled subjects are]…always on trial in the American imaginary" (Cooper, 2013). I want to be clear here that my recognition of disability in this discussion does not imply that Rachel Jeantel has either an "actual" intellectual disability or has ever been formally assigned the "official" medical label of "mental retardation." Rather, I foreground how the derogatory remarks directed at Jeantel already assume that being dark-skinned, plus-sized, and overweight, along with her nervous mumbling "idiosyncratic black girl idiom" (Cooper, 2013), is taken as ample proof that she has intellectual disabilities. And even more problematically, that being intellectually disabled is undeserving of any respect for one's humanity.
And then, in a curious sleight of hand, Jeantel unwittingly absorbing the violence that has engulfed her humanity (perhaps even before her unwilling national debut on prime-time TV), spews out the very same ableist rhetoric that has been used to dehumanize her. Here though, the irony lies in that Jeantel, in order to "fight for the integrity of her own words" (Cooper, 2013), uses the term "retarded" to defend not only the integrity of her friend, Trayvon, but also the integrity of her testimony that extends beyond the "gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, ugly truth" (Cooper, 2013) to also assert "the right of black people to be seen and heard, for our testimony about our traumas to be believed, no matter how inelegantly stated" (Cooper, 2013). Thus, even though it would easy to categorize Jeantel's usage of the term "retarded" only as internalized ableism, I argue that that it may be more appropriate to locate this analysis within the intersectional politics of race/disability/gender/desire that exist in convoluted tensions with each other.
The evening shadows promise little repose as I realize that I am treading treacherously on the edge of possible betrayal as a disability ally. Well aware of the violence behind the "R" word, I have signed several petitions, interrupted many conversations, posted many rants in solidarity with the political movement of self-advocates with intellectual disabilities and the fight to "Spread the word, to End the Word." Their Facebook page explains that this "is an on-going effort to raise the consciousness of society about the dehumanizing and hurtful effects of the word "retard(ed)" and encourage people to pledge to stop using the R-word….[and] to help create communities of inclusion and acceptance for all people." What the Facebook page does not explicitly say is that "retarded" is more than just a painful word. It is a deadly word with sometimes deadly consequences for those to whom it is applied with consequences like incarceration; physical, emotional, and sexual abuse; forced sterilization; and even murder at the hands of the very people who were supposed to care for them. The recent murder of the 27 year old Robert Ethan Saylor at the hands of the police in Baltimore, Maryland, in January, 2013 is only one reminder of too many victims of such violence (Huffington Post, July, 15, 2013). Add race to the equation and the danger triples as powerfully delineated in the work of disability activist and artist, Leroy Moore (2013). On one hand, Rachel Jeantel, treated as if she is intellectually impaired, can all too well understand this humiliation and dehumanization. And yet the "ugliness" of the word "retarded," rather than initiating the possibility of solidarity becomes the line in the sand between race and disability, marking out in painful ways the distances that lock each other out despite the many interconnections that bind them together. How then does one respond to the angry static that ensues when identities brush up against each other in hostile intimacy?
My mind is humming impatiently in tune with the cicadas in the muggy night as I try to make sense of this problematic impasse. I pause to read some sharp commentary on Rachel Jeantel by African American feminist bloggers (Bradley 2013; Cooper 2013; Lewis, 2013) when I come across this term "ratchet" that is used to describe low income, poor girls/young women like Rachel Jeantel. To be ratchet is assumed to be "unintelligent, loud, classless, tacky, and hypersexual, among other things" (Lewis, 2013). However, hip hop feminists like Cooper, Bradley, and Lewis have sought to complicate the negativity inherent in this notion of "ratchetness." For example, Cooper (2013) writes:
Ratchet acts are meant to be so over-the-top and outrageous that they catch your attention and exceed the bounds of acceptable….At the same time, we have to think about how the embrace of ratchetness is simultaneously a dismissal of respectability, a kind of intuitive understanding of all the ways that respectability as a political project has failed Black women and continues to disallow the access that we have been taught to think it will give.
Thoughtfully contemplating Coopers' argument, I reflect on how both the R words—"ratchet" and "retarded" (sometimes used interchangeably) flout the bounds of normativity/respectability in their mutual association with each other. Following Bradley (2013), I think of how Jeantel's "ratchety brilliance" (conceived of as "retarded") "complicated if not contradicted the normative discourse[s] policing black women's bodies" (Bradley, 2013). Her muttered responses, her sullen yet clearly articulated "sirs," her curt admonishments of "Are you listening?," and her non-compliant discomfiting body language—all of which situated her as "retarded"—were so disruptive that they exposed the vulnerability of white middle class privilege taken for granted in US courtrooms. More importantly, her "rachetness" shows out the demographics of the jury who when they (mis)heard her speech, unwittingly underscored a social context where certain minds/bodies are seen as unfit, inappropriate, and/or incompetent to even serve on a jury. And yet at that very moment when her own testimony was being dismissed as unbelievable and intellectually deficient, Jeantel, in "ratchet" mode hurled the very word that was being used to describe her on social media—"retarded"—as the means to disrupt a racist discourse that constructed the murdered victim as aggressor. Regarded together as pariahs in the heavily policed spaces of normative society, collectively conceived of as deficient, and mutually hostile in their painful co-existence, is it even possible, then, to imagine a tentative alliance between "ratchet" and "retarded" in order to "out" heteronormative ableist patriarchal white supremacy?
I remind myself that words themselves cannot build alliances. Neither can just language. Moreover, words cannot be made to disappear or change meaning easily and even if they do, new words generally come up to mark difference as deviant. I will acknowledge though that words like "ratchet" and "retard" arise specifically in the context of painful and often dangerous class antagonisms both within and between races. Moreover, these class antagonisms propagate ideologies to shore up normative practices and justify social and economic exclusion and exploitation by utilizing appellations like "ratchet" and "retarded" that bounce off each other and set in motion both big and little acts of violence that serve to de-humanize all involved. That very thing did happen in that very courtroom where Rachel Jeantell sat. In there, words like "nigga," "creepy ass cracker," "retarded," "fucking punks" and "assholes" were tossed haphazardly about, fuel for many political agendas, worthy or not. Some would argue that getting rid of such words would clear the air and let the truth be spoken without embellishment. But I disagree. Rather than willing them to disappear, I want to clutch tightly to these words with my tongue, try to taste their agonizing pain in its myriad crevices so that I can vividly trace their origins to the awful material relations within which they were conceived/deployed/disciplined so that I can journey with them all the way through to bear witness to/leave evidence of the violent material outcomes that they enable. What political economic conditions of exclusion/appropriation/ exploitation/segregation/incarceration/deprivation nurtured such words into existence? And what political economic conditions enabled the exclusion/appropriation/exploitation/segregation/ incarceration/deprivation/ sterilization of those against whom such words are leveled? Conceived of and then deployed in the very same oppressive crucible that forced these two "R" words into a reluctant recognition of each other, how does one think with disability studies to foreground the relational nature of seemingly oppositional identities that enable painful class antagonisms arising out of exploitative capitalist economies?
We must leave evidence. Evidence that we were here, that we existed, that we survived and loved and ached. Evidence of the wholeness we never felt and the immense sense of fullness we gave to each other. Evidence of who we were, who we thought we were, who we never should have been. Evidence for each other that there are other ways to live—past survival; past isolation.
Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence, 2009
It is that time of the day when darkness is more soothing than terrifying. Its lulling silence opens up an opportunity to take stock of what the day has yielded — insights, hurdles, impasses, possibilities. It is the twilight hour when thoughts need to be to put to rest so that the harsh realities of the day give way to the enticing possibility of dreaming. My journey of thinking with disability as delineated in this essay threatens to be bleak and yet it is brimming with potential. I describe this journey as bleak because the complexities of identity often lead us to difficult impasses where the simple foregrounding of a master status seems inimical to a transformative politics. I dream about potential because these impasses have not put a damper on the struggle for transformation if I look outside the sometimes narrow confines of academia. As an academic, I have to stifle the seemingly "natural" tendency to find a more complex way to theorize identity at the intersections, delving even deeper into clever abstractions that may help us fight our way via obscurity towards discursive possibilities. I have to remind myself that this radical thinking can also already occur outside academia in radical collectives who understand the complexity of intersectionality because they already live it individually and collectively on a daily basis.
I observe this radical thinking in the tenacity and radical visions of grassroots communities such as ADAPT, Krips Occupy Wall Street; Sins Invalid; Society for Disability Studies People of Color Collective; Krip-Hop, Neurodiversity Network, etc., to name only a few. I read it in the radical writing of disability activists, who are not formally recognized as disability studies scholars but whose very life experiences are constitutive of the material realities of life at the intersections of difference. I am gratefully conscious of how my own work is informed by the intellectual labor and material struggles of activist-scholars like the late Chris Bell, Lydia Brown, the late Carlos Drazen, Elizabeth Hassler, Angel Miles, Stacy Milburn, Mia Mingus, Leroy Moore, Eddie Ndobu, Akemi Nishida, Corbett O' Toole, Zach Richter, Bethany Stevens, Emily Titon, and so many others. It is not possible to think with disability studies and not be accountable to the actual material realties that are foregrounded in their powerful and passionate writing on desire, struggle, pride, resistance, revolution, and pain. It is their work that has taught me to think with disabilities and it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge the generosity of their labor that is sometimes appropriated by credentialed academics with little acknowledgement or recognition of the conditions within which this knowledge was produced.
It is in this fraught context that perhaps the time has come for disability studies scholarship to locate itself uneasily and yet hopefully at the apprehensive boundaries between academia and activism. Perhaps the time has come for us to disrupt the lazy assumptions we make about what we value as critical scholarship and what we imagine as passionate activism. Consciously aware of both intellectual and economic privilege accorded to be me as a tenured academic, I sometimes wallow in academic guilt. I realize in this essay that buoyed by a guilty reflexivity I have inadvertently set up the problematic binary of academia v. activism. I realize that I tentatively suggest that disability studies scholars whom I so passionately admire pursue dazzling, edgy questions of endless possibility that may have little significance for the gritty disability activists surviving at Ground Zero while writing intersectionally, materially, and justly. I freeze up at my guilty recognition that I too am responsible for scholarship that while edgy, clever, abstruse can be both irrelevant and exclusionary for the vast majority of disabled people who live under the most destitute of social and economic conditions.
And yet, all of us who have experienced oppression at some point in our lives know that guilt is an inadequate tool of transformation forcing us into knee-jerk creations of useless binaries and immobilizing (mis)readings of struggles that are not our own. My favorite scholar/activist/poet/feminist Audre Lorde (1981) wrote:
[G]uilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness…. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees (9)
To move past guilt necessitates a return to the relational analysis I have described throughout this essay. It is a relational analysis that engages the materiality of difference within specific historical contexts. It is an analysis that historicizes the fraught relationships between theory and activism; between disabled and non-disabled subjectivities; between imagined possibility and radical struggle. It is an analysis that seeks to foreground the material conditions that can enable academia and activism to work symbiotically in the struggle for unexpected and evocative possibilities of living productive and celebrated lives. And most importantly, it is an analysis that is always accountable to the reality that under the current historical conditions of transnational capitalism, the transgressive possibilities in some of our lives are often times realized through the exploited labor, oppressive representations, and/or painful exclusions of other lives. While I will be quick to argue that this is not the only analysis to be undertaken in disability studies, I tentatively venture to say that this is an example of an analysis that may enable us to push even more into this division between edgy/dazzling theorizing and transformative accountable praxis reveling in a partnership that is nevertheless tension- filled/complicated/tenuous. Perhaps, it is in these painful tensions between academia and activism that disability studies may ultimately move towards a more accountable praxis for transformative justice.
I want to end by dreaming. I want to end by dreaming not as an individual, but as a collective. I want to end by dreaming of disability justice in the way Mia Mingus (2012) describes in her blog—a notion of justice that has emerged from a diverse and intersectional community. I want to end by dreaming of disability justice that intertwines with racial justice/genderqueer justice/economic justice/sexual justice. I want to end by dreaming of how our different skeins are so intertwined that we become the rope dragging our heavy bones and bruised knees and slowly inching towards a future that will hopefully be gentler than right now. I do not want to dream of a future that is more edgy, more abstract, more dazzling. Instead, I want to end by dreaming about a future that is simply more accountable.
Dreaming, then, with a critical disability studies is dreaming about accountability. But why accountability in critical disability studies? Because to do disability studies is to "come-in" to accountable community. Here "membership" is not a noun but an active verb. Here "different" is not an adjective, but a noun. Here "community" swaps cohesiveness for disruption, swaps the romance of "homecoming" for the unpredictability of wanderings, swaps the satisfying embrace of safety for the risky promise of vulnerability. Why accountability in disability studies? Because a disability studies working at the intersections is committed to revolutionary and accountable praxis that can make for radical and exciting pedagogy at the borders. It forces students to think outside the edges while imagining precarious possibilities. Because it asks questions about the very practices of pedagogy that produce damaging and sometimes death- making effects for bodies deemed non-normal. Because it insists on recognitions that pedagogical practices would rather ignore. Why be accountable? Because a transnational materialist critical disability studies is not only about "theorizing life" but also about "living theory." To "leave evidence" (Mingus, 2009). To live with struggle. To imagine a hopeful future notwithstanding a painful yet revolutionary present. To think with disability studies and hold it accountable to the lives it purports to represent. All of us. Yes, all of us in all our difference(s).
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Michelle Jarman & Alison Kafer for their encouragement, their critical feedback, their patience, and their unconditional support offered me throughout the writing of this paper. Without them, this paper would not be written. I also want to thank the thriving Facebook community of scholars and activists to which I belong who have taught me so much about vulnerability, activism, courage, and most importantly accountability. So much of that online passionate discussion has found itself in this paper and so I dedicate this paper to our collective struggle for transformative possibilities. All errors and misunderstandings that may appear in the paper, however, are my own.
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