Before I knew I was disabled, I always knew I was black. My race is as close to me as my quote on disability status. In lieu of the protesting going on around the nations,
it would behoove me not to speak out about the injustices of my own and people and how it so deeply affects my identity as a disabled person. To be honest it took me a while to come to a point where I felt comfortable writing this down. It’s not that I was at a loss for words, or did not know what to say, it was the complete opposite, I had so much to say on this topic and didn’t know where to start.
My emotions have been boiling over, and the range of my emotions have been consistently ranging from conflicted to sad, to hurt and rejected. Why do these identities seem to clash so much? I have silently asked myself this question hundreds of times. Yes, I am a black disabled woman, and I so closely identify with each of them on such an integrated level. It’s hard for me to separate the two. And up until recently, I’ve learned and even decided that I don’t have to separate the two and that is completely okay.
Before I decided to write this post, I decided to have a talk with close friends to try and decipher and understand the root of the conflict and anguish I was experiencing. I was between the space of needing to say something because this hadn’t been addressed and not wanting to stir the pot because, to be honest a lot of my “ different” friends simply could not relate. About 99.9% percent of my friends, colleagues, associates, loved ones who fall under the disability umbrella/spectrum are white and disabled. It is extremely rare for me when I meet someone who identifies as disabled and they are black or another minority.
In discussing this reality with my able-bodied friends, one quickly responded “ Yup, you’re right, I remember being taken aback the first time I saw a black person with a disability… it wasn’t a thing. If I saw a white person with Down Syndrome, it was no big deal, but if I saw a black person, I was shocked… and I had to check myself and say there are black disabled persons too.” Such a stark realization at that moment on my end and on my friend's end. She admitted that seeing a black disabled person was odd, and I had to accept the truth that in my day to day world, disabled black people simply did not exist.
You know aside from my ongoing inner conversation about the clashing of my dominant identities, I’m actually glad that in the midst of all the protesting and highlighting of black voices, these conversations are now beginning to unfold. I saw a post on Instagram that said “ conversations that we have been having for so long in private are now being made public.” And what an incredibly freeing feeling it is to let the cat out the bag. To let the bird crow. I’ve been having this conversation in private for time, about the burden of being black in white space that’s already considered a minority. There are 53 million disabled Americans and out of those 53 million, 5.6 million are black people. When you look at Ads about inclusion and disability rights, organizations for disabled people, etc. , none of those voices or platforms are black or even have black representatives. They don’t scream DIVERSITY. How odd is it to be a minority within a minority group. It’s almost like you feel twice as invisible.
Let’s be real and let's be honest, growing up there was no room to be both black and disabled. You were either one or the other. Even though I was functioning in both identities simultaneously, I found myself hiding one or another for a long time. At the hospital and doctor's appointments, I was never a different girl, I was the black girl. All of my doctors, nurses, speech pathologists, teachers, specialists, and dentists. All of them were white! Now think for a second, that is a lot. Not a single medical provider in my medical journey had ever been black. To be completely transparent, I developed a mindset that said “ I want a white doctor because white doctors were the best and black doctors were subpar.
At school I was never the student in special needs, I was the only black girl in my resource/ special education classroom. And then when I got to college, it wasn’t me taking advantage of disability services at my school because I had a medical condition and was considered disabled. I gravitated to the black kids in my all-white school. And this all changed when I became a professional, these identities began to conflict because I couldn’t understand why I got rejected from that job, I was black and educated, motivated, and driven. Why couldn’t they accept me? But then I realized when I got sick and had to go on disability, my disability was a huge factor in my professional experience. I’m not quite sure when it started to happen but I had eventually come to the conclusion that inhabiting two identities that society was not used to my blackness and my disability co-mingling.
I’ve heard it time and time again from my black peers who identify as disabled. They have shared similar sentiments, the experience of feeling like they were embraced more by their white peers for their disability and rejected by their black peers for their disability. And on the contrary, they’ve experienced rejection from their white peers on being black and disabled, but acceptance from their black peers for just being black and not disabled.
As you can see, this conversation is deep and will probably take layers to unfold the depths of the void. I don’t have a resolution today. However, what I can say is that I am glad we’re talking about it. I’m glad that we as a society are creating space where the two identities can cohabitate and not be in conflict with one another. Because I cannot deny one aspect of myself in order to protect another part of myself.
What I so deeply desire is that blackness and disability would be brought to the forefront. That even within my own community, I wouldn’t be treated like a leper that needed to hide or a problem that needed fixing. And I wish in the disability community that my skin color would be more than a token and my voice would be invited to the table. Again this is in no way close to this topic, but like I said it's a start to a much-needed conversation that would bring healing and true diversity to each community.