Five Lessons I’ve Learned About Intersectional Disability Activism

This November, I am celebrating my two-year anniversary of entering into the world of disability activism (I mark my “formal entry” as my first Huffington Post blog, when I disclosed to the internet forever my disability identity). In the past two years, so many things have changed. I have seen my own views grown and evolve as I learn from those who have been working in this sphere for decades. I managed to land my dream job as a disability vote organizer, and have the amazing privilege to wake up every day loving the job and organization for which I work. I have made connections and friendships with some of the most compassionate, dedicated, and intelligent activists and people I have ever met. And last week, I was referred to as “an emerging intersectional leader in the disability community.”

What I want to reflect on in is this last point. First, I want to make it explicitly clear that I am rarely the most intersectional or marginalized voice in the room, by far. While I may have marginalized identities as a woman and disabled person, I have a lot of privilege. I have not experienced racism, homophobia, transphobia, or religious persecution. I grew up in a loving and supportive middle-class family. Even in terms of ableism, I am now in a career where I do not have to fear discrimination for disclosing my disability, and can be fierce and loud about my passion for and opinion on disability rights. I sometimes have able-passing privilege, although that can also translate into discrimination when people do not believe that I am disabled.

I consider intersectionality to be perhaps the single most important value I hold in my life and work. Lately, this has felt more important than ever. With the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Congress, it feels like this country is at a crossroads and Americans have to choose. You may not “choose hate,” and you may not have voted for Trump. You may not support the white supremacy that has taken over this country, and make no mistake, white supremacy has been and continues to be a significant issue.

But what are you going to do about it? Are you going to try to convince yourself that maybe it won’t be so bad, maybe a Trump administration and policies won’t affect you? Are you going to hide behind your privilege or turn the other way while people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, LGBTQIA+, disabled people’s rights are stripped away, while they are systematically attacked by the Trump administration’s policies, while they suffer hate crimes in the streets?

I have felt a parallel of this crisis in the disability community as well over the past few months. Like society at large, the disability community has a history of racism and bigotry being built into the movement that continues today. White supremacy and elitism are present in the disability community as we not only continue to have leadership of disability organizations that is mostly white and male, but we even have problematic white “leadership” that has made racist and defended racist statements, such as the CEO of the disability organization RespectAbility, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who in October made the claim that only white voters who cared about people with disabilities would be able to elect Hillary Clinton, a statement which devalued the votes of disabled people of color. With this “leadership” at the helm of the disability movement, intersectional voices are being ignored, talked over, and pushed out. Representation of the true disability community is flawed, and our movement is far from being as inclusive and effective as we can be. Our own prejudice is one of our biggest roadblocks to progress.

As an apparent “intersectional leader,” I have been asked by others, namely older white male activists, to teach them “how to be intersectional.” This question puzzles me, because I feel like intersectionality, similar to values such as respect and decency, must be learned, not taught. It’s a personal journey that requires sensitivity, a willingness to put aside your defensiveness and listen, and a willingness to feel vulnerability and to be wrong.

However, as someone who is still learning, and will always consider herself a student of intersectionality, as opposed to a leader or teacher, I feel like I do have a few lessons to share from my own personal journey.

  1. Being a true leader means knowing when not to lead. Leadership doesn’t always mean being at the helm, but understanding that people with other perspectives and expertise should be centered in the conversation. Be there and listen, and be willing to play a supporting role. Be willing to step back let others lead, because leadership should be collaborative.
  2. Have the courage to stand up for what is right, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Examine that discomfort. It probably comes from having a position of privilege. If you’re privileged, you have the ability to ignore an issue and it won’t affect you. However, if you use your privilege to fight for change, it may put you in a vulnerable position.
  3. Examine your relationships. Do you have friends who are disabled, people of color, trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, Muslim, Jewish? Look at who you surround yourself with, and don’t just form friendships for tokenism and diversity, or just to learn from people who are marginalized. In the past year, some of the strongest relationships I have formed have been with people from these different identities. My social life is probably the most fulfilled it has ever been. Some of my most diverse relationships are the strongest, and because I genuinely care about these people as my friends, I care about fighting for their rights and their safety. I have a loyalty to my friends and want to support them, learn from them, and fight for them. Intersectionality is rooted in respect, friendship, and compassion.
  4. Learn the history of oppression in our country. As Americans, we are taught that the United States is “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We are taught to glorify the Founding Fathers as great men with enlightened ideas about equality and freedom. However, freedom was only guaranteed in the United States for rich, white, land-owning males, and for people who fell outside that identity, history took a different course. Learn about that history and absorb it. Read about the Underground Railroad, the Civil Rights movement, women’s suffrage, the fight for reproductive rights, the Stonewall Riots, the fight for the Americans with Disabilities Act, Japanese internment. Visit exhibits and museums and attend programs about the history of marginalized people in this country. Make a lifelong commitment to educating yourself on multiple perspectives of American history.
  5. Intersectionality has to, most of all, come from a place of authenticity. If you’re in this for brownie points, to be the good ally, to get validation, or because “intersectionality” is a trendy word, you aren’t in it. It needs to be a genuine, lifelong commitment to doing what is right because that’s the right thing to do. Intersectional activism may not benefit you directly, but it’s rooted in putting others first because you believe in equality, respect, and justice. Don’t make it about you.

As I said, we are at a crossroads. Things aren’t going to be easy for the next four years, and the reality is that people who are marginalized are going to be under attack from the Trump administration. Will you turn away, hide behind your privilege, and ignore this reality? Or will you show up, commit to intersectionality, justice, and the fight for the rights of the multiply marginalized people within our community?

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