by ChrisTiana ObeySumner
After more than a decade advocating for Intersectional Disability Justice, I received the honor of being voted the first Co-Chair of the Seattle Disabilities Commission who identifies as Black, Indigenous, or a Person of Color. Ever since, I have turbo-charged my advocacy and study of intersectional disability and fought for the amplification of voices and lived experiences of people whose intersectionality included one or more disability, a non-White racial identity, and other socially marginalized intersections. This work has also brought to light the horrendous lack of awareness or representation of intersectionally disabled people — especially Black Autistic folks like myself.
When I’ve shared my various, intersecting disabilities with others, I’ve predominantly been slammed with some doozies of stereotypes — when they are not overwhelmed by the laundry list of disabilities itself. One of the most frequent remarks I hear is, “Well, you don’t look autistic.” And then some follow up with, “Well, I didn’t know there were Black autistic folks.” Both of these statements are forms of microaggressions based on the intersectionality of race and disability — or Racialized Ableism.
Intersectionality is an interesting term, at least its genesis and evolution over time. I am the owner of a social equity consultancy called Epiphanies of Equity, and I have spent the last decade of my life studying social- and neuro-psychologies, social anthropology, and critical sociopolitical philosophy. A foundational story to know in the world of social equity is Kimberlé Crenshaw’s work, and her invention of the term “intersectionality.”
“Am I really asking for too much? To see affirmation, narratives, and research about what it means to be Autistic, (let alone, in addition to chronic neurological and psychiatric disability,) Femme, and Black?”
“Intersectionality” was specifically created to describe the social dynamic of marginalization and oppression as it is uniquely experienced by those who are living as both Black and a woman. Crenshaw shares the story of a Black woman she met seeking advice about discrimination in hiring. When Crenshaw started investigating, she noticed a pattern of not hiring Black women in a manufacturing plant. It boiled down to implicit bias along lines of misogyny and racism, and who was hired, where they were placed for work, and in what capacity.
The Black woman faced a specific sort of implicit bias also known as misogynoir. Even though there was a misogynistic tendency to hire predominantly women, the women hired were all White. And even though there was a racist tendency to hire predominantly Black people for the laborious, warehouse jobs in the back, they were all men. When Crenshaw appealed to the company and tried to bring awareness to this dynamic, they argued that consideration of the Black woman’s double jeopardy would give them an unfair advantage over others. She dedicated her life to externalizing and developing social awareness of this dynamic.
Kimberlé Crenshaw was not the first person to name misogynoir as violent and oppressive. Black women across our sociocultural/political history and contemporary discourses have acknowledged this lived experience as an impeding factor of their freedom.
One of the pioneers of Black feminism, Sojourner Truth, called it out during the Women’s Liberation Movements at the turn of the 20th century, which were predominantly, if not exclusively, for the benefit of White women. Truth showed up unwelcome to a gathering of White women, opened her shirt to expose her breasts, and famously asked after thoroughly calling out the group on their misogynoir, “Ain’t I a woman?”
The term intersectionality is used more broadly today to describe the cumulative effect within one’s lived experience of being in the world with two or more socially constructed identities; and the world’s perception, storying, and interaction with them. I knew this as I began a rabbit-hole Google search to find more narratives and research that discuss being Black and Autistic — or an autistic person of color, at least.
When I started searching the internet and Seattle University’s libraries for anything I could find about the intersectionality of race and autism, I noticed a disturbing pattern: There were a significantly miniscule number of articles, books, or blogs about people who share my intersections. I was livid. Am I really asking for too much? To see affirmation, narratives, and research about what it means to be Autistic, (let alone, in addition to chronic neurological and psychiatric disability,) Femme, and Black?
The even more infuriating piece of this is how much this sounds like I am asking to win Publishers Clearing House with the big check, the balloons, and Ed McMahon showing up on my doorstep. It’s beyond dismissive; it’s violent, isolating, and disaffirming. I feel left out, alone, erased from the sociopolitical discourses of what it means to be autistic/disabled, what it sociopolitically means to be femme and autistic/disabled, and what it sociopolitically means to be femme, autistic/disabled, and Black — and these are only three components of my intersectionality that I wear the most “out loud.”
It isn’t like I am asking for narratives or research exploring the lived experience of being an Autistic, Black, Indigenous, Afro-Latinx, femme-presenting, Queer, multiplicitous, chronically disabled, diagnosed with Western medicine’s constructs of mental illness, 32 years old, on SSDI, married, graduate student with a Master’s degree for which I have a lifetime of debt, with a Gandalf-esque walking stick. But there absolutely should be!
The search made me feel depressed and othered, pushed further into the margins of the margins of the margins. For the longest time, I didn’t know how to talk or write openly about being a Black, femme autistic. It was always a conversation shared with highly trusted family or chosen family. But this experience set before me a challenge I have chosen to accept: Submit for publication a piece that discusses the lack of progressive information and narratives on intersectional disability justice and the intersection of Race and Autism.
“When someone like me walks into the room, I don’t have the opportunity to negotiate with others which of my identities they intend to hyperfocus on or criticize. I am a package deal.”
The crux of intersectionality as a philosophy is that it does not allow for socially constructed identities to occur discreetly in the sociopolitical and sociocultural sphere. When someone like me walks into the room, I don’t have the opportunity to negotiate with others which of my identities they intend to hyperfocus on or criticize. I am a package deal. We all are. This is what I feel is so important when advocating for affirmation of intersectional autism. Just as we seek to discuss misogynoir, we need to bring in the complexity of these sorts of social dynamics into the autistic experience. Intersectionality can serve as a silencer of autism if the other seeks to home in on some other stereotype or archetype they find more threatening or — said with disgust — fascinating.
At a previous employer, my colleagues mercilessly bullied me. Luckily, I was union protected and my employer intervened several times, but they did not intervene for the right reason. Their good-intentions were largely unsuccessful because they were trying to put together a puzzle with all the center pieces missing. My job placed me on the front lines of alleviating the effects of the homelessness crisis for our clients, but the horrific rental market and mounting anxiety about the health and safety of our most vulnerable people led my coworkers to project onto me their intense frustration for the administrative, systemic and political failures that led to delaying housing placements for nearly a year — and this blame cultivated a toxic and violent work environment.
My autistic body processed the trauma by dysregulating, which I began increasing more at work: Hiding under my desk and in single stall restrooms, staring into space, wandering the halls, or going nonverbal for minutes or hours at a time. Although I disclosed my neurodivergence to my team, and appealed to them to consider it in their microaggressions and criticism of me, the issue continued to be centered around the fact that I was a Black woman, and the various social constructs of “Black women do [blank.] Black women are [blank.] Black women always [blank.]”
The hyperfocus may have been due to a pattern of Black women in that office who had been bullied, ridiculed, and eventually dismissed. I was even connected with a former employee who sought to mentor me through the perpetual violence. While I didn’t seek to decenter or refuse empathy from those who knew this situation was oozing in misogynoir, no one was acknowledging me redirecting the conversation when I was insisting, “Hey! Hey Y’all! I’m autistic and most of what you are doing is misogynoir in collusion with ableism!”
I was both infantilized implicitly because of my autism while also expected to perform neurotypical perfectionism. Otherwise, I would experience the open misogynoir dubbing me an untrustworthy, lazy, Black femme organizing acts of public assistance fraud. Seriously.
I’ve experienced the incredulous grilling of acquaintances and strangers alike, indignant that an asexual and developmentally disabled person could be married to a another person who I love, and intimately; While also conflating a hypersexualization of my Black body to such a degree that I’ve received dress code violations for turtleneck sweaters. They expect me to be loud and boisterous, sassy and social to such an intensity that my small, carefully spoken, and dissociated voice fills them with anger and suspicion.
Everyone from the coworkers who organized to confront my supervisor about my “work ethic,” to the labor unions who continued to advocate for justice from misogynoir — neurotypical misogynoir — missed the mark when my final employee review came in, and a suggested item under “room for improvement” included my “tendency to operate as a non-linear thinker.” I knew then it was time to leave. This was a story of how, in this moment, my autism was silenced in order to hyperfocus on the overt antiblackness I was experiencing, yet greatly exaggerated via implicit ableist microaggressions.
“Autism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither do any aspects of our intersectionality.”
As much as autism can be silenced and race greatly exaggerated, Autism can be greatly exaggerated yet silenced all at once in favor of boilerplate racism. When I was in second grade, I joined the Girl Scouts. I don’t remember much about it. I don’t think I was there that long. But I do remember why I left.
One of my stimming activities is that I suck my thumb, and put my forearm to my face to both smell my natural scent and feel the soft hairs brush up against my nose. I have been doing this for 32 years, and even my husband has become captive to my arm grabbing, sniffing, and rubbing. For some reason, this rubbed my scout leader the wrong way when I was around 7 or 8 years old. She called all of the other children to circle around and hurl insults at me. It felt like an eternity. Luckily, my mom walked in on the act and immediately protested what was happening. The scout leader explained she felt I would be less likely to stim in public if I was shamed. I guess she was trying to use negative reinforcement. My mom promptly cursed the woman out, picked me up, and took me out of that situation and Girl Scouts altogether.
The damning evidence of racialized ableism in this situation were the names and insults the scout leader and other children were calling me. They had less to do with my stimming or social awkwardness; and more to do with my brown skin, kinky hair, button nose, and larger sized body. In this moment, my autism was exaggerated in the space, but silenced in favor of implicit racist microaggressions.
These dynamics of silencing or exaggerating my autism in relation to my holistic intersectionality causes existential whiplash. I am afraid every day planning my safety in public space: How safe will I be today? What if I dysregulate, or break down in a store, and — worst case — end up like Charleena Lyles. Autism doesn’t occur in a vacuum, and neither do any aspects of our intersectionality. They all happen at once, in the moment, and influence our being in the world, and how the world is with us at all times.
“As a Black, femme, Autistic, there is a lot of water to tread, a lot of barriers to overcome, and a lot of sociocultural and sociopolitical ammunition to oppress and marginalize.”
Late this summer, I spoke to an autistic self-advocate raving about an article they read empowering autistic people to “take their mask off.” Initially, the idea was liberating and compelling. “Oh my goodness,” I said. “How amazing would it be to be able to go around in this world, rocking back and forth at professional meetings, sniffing my arms as I think at my desk, sit under tables when overstimulated, hang out in closets when I need a quiet break, and introduce the world to my amazing friend Lawrence, the coolest branch I found about six months ago at the Columbia City Light Rail station.”
But as soon as I found myself daydreaming about this amazing world, I had a quick jolt back to reality. In the 2008 movie The Dark Knight, the Heath-Ledger-Joker one, there is a scene where The Joker was undercover and wearing a rubber clown mask. When he went to remove it, his face was still painted as a clown underneath.
That is the best way I can describe my experience of being a Black, femme Autistic. Within disability advocacy circles, I am strongly encouraged and affirmed to take off my Autistic, Neurotypical Construct Mask. But even when I do, I am still a Black, Indigenous, Afro-Latinx, femme-presenting, Queer, multiplicitous, chronically disabled, diagnosed with Western medicine’s constructs of mental illness, 32 years old, on SSDI, married, graduate student with a Master’s degree I am in a lifetime of debt over, with a Gandalf-esque stick — and the stigmas and biases that come with all of those identities and intersections still prevade even the most “progressive” and “diverse” collectives.
As a Black, femme, Autistic, there is a lot of water to tread, a lot of barriers to overcome, and a lot of sociocultural and sociopolitical ammunition to oppress and marginalize — both within and outside of non-intersectional disabled communities. And even if I were to reduce my focus to those identities I wear “out loud” — gender, race, and disability as it intertwines with my autism — there is still a complete absence of research on Autistics who share these lived experiences.
The lack of research and amplification of intersectional autism and racialized ableism is detrimental in nearly all aspects of sociocultural and sociopolitical lived experience. Intersectionality is not only arguing for factualizing these marginalized identities as inextricably intertwined, but also acknowledging that their accumulative interactions are absolutely inseparable. Our society operates on these principles of implicit, institutional, systemic, and historical biases — whether there is awareness or intentionality, or not. If there is little to no conception of what it means to be an intersectional autistic person, especially one who looks like me, the biases will manifest into the conflation of autism erasure or exaggeration within my intersectional body.
This may be the impetus for the extreme and persistent disparities in autism diagnoses among Black and Latinx folks, even when accounting for socioeconomic status and class. A 2017 public health study found that White children are 19% more likely than Black children, and 65% more likely than Latinx and Hispanic children, to be diagnosed with autism. The challenges of navigating through life without fully understanding the “whys” and “whats” of what is happening in my sociocultural and sociopolitical reality, also bleeds into the tendency for Black families to meet autism diagnoses and possibilities with skepticism, report fewer concerns about social problems repetitive behaviors, and other diagnostic features of autism less than White parents do, as discussed in a 2015 social medicine article.
When a person is interacting with me, they will be influenced by the social archetypes, narratives, stereotypes and assumptions that I am — from what they can see — Black, femme presenting, autistic, disabled, and neurodivergent; Not one, or a couple, but all at the same time. Whenever multiple marginalized identities are present, due to the systemic and unconscious nature of discrimination and prejudice, it will never only be just one thing.
Think Three Musketeers, not Highlander.
Someone like me must constantly be hypervigilant, even without my neurotypical performance mask, that the face paint underneath still puts me in danger if I am walking in a unfriendly neighborhood, shopping in a store, wearing a hoodie, or interacting with the police. It can mean the difference between freedom and institutionalization, life and death.
It is important to advocate for, acknowledge and represent intersectional disability with the intention to both deconstruct harmful stereotypes and miseducation, and increase awareness about the existence and lived experience of intersectional autistics and disabled folks. It is unjust to only think of intersectionality as a crossroads of one dependent and independent variable. Instead, we must grow to see intersectional disability as a radial: multiple streams of energy coalescing at one central point of consciousness and lived experience. The increase in complexity does not diminish it’s likelihood or it’s validity, but makes it more imperative to highlight and celebrate. I know we have a long road ahead, and there are so many barriers to the goal of increased research and representation. But the call to action still stands.
As I continue to advocate for intersectional autistics, I call for us all to provide accomplice and amplification to the fact that we exist. How grateful I am of the positional privilege I have been given to have a platform to fight and share these experiences. There are still a multitude of stories to be heard from those whose intersections differ from mine, who face different or harsher oppression, and who’s silencing is more insidious and severe. I call for a larger platform to not simply pull from the bottom and the margins so these voices are amplified in space, but that the gatekeepers of “dominant” cultural society dismantle their barriers so the margins are part of the whole.
To my fellow Black Autistics, as inspired by the amazing Audre Lorde: To live freely, unabashedly, and unashamedly as intersectionally autistic and/or disabled, to love yourself, to care for yourself, and to fight for your place in this world and it’s respect towards your very existence is not only a radical act, but one of political warfare. If even one of you out there are reading this have been helped or affirmed in your intersectional autism, then the Intersectional Disability Justice movement is that much stronger.
Featured Image by ChrisTiana ObeySumner
ChrisTiana ObeySumner is the disabled, Black, femme owner of Epiphanies of Equity, a social equity education and consulting firm. They are an intersectional disability, BIPOC and antiracism advocate who passionately loves books, MUSE, and WWE.