ableism is the crucial point everyone is missing in the blerds, bullying & anti-blackness conversation

April 3, 2017

Last week, I wrote a controversial piece about how those who recall being bullied by other Black people for being “alternative” or because they were considered a nerd sometimes don’t engage with the possibility that they are viewing their past experiences through a lens shaded by anti-Blackness. Not wanting to associate with Black people who yearn for and embrace the violence accompanying whiteness is, I believe, a very valid response that is often misidentified as tribalism.

Our editorial team followed up with a piece about how, my earlier point being said, Black people are not immune from tribalism, and it can sometimes be an expression of internalized anti-Blackness itself. Though it’s important to understand how being rewarded for being “different” from them contributes to the abuse of those who more recognizably embody Blackness to the world, there is still no excuse for bullying.

A crucial component being lost on both sides, I believe, is an understanding of ableism, and how those who aren’t neurotypical get caught in the crossfire of this debate. As my colleague Kirk Mead explained, “There isn’t an excuse for anti-Blackness anywhere, but ASD (autism spectrum disorder) is a complex sort of thing and manifests uniquely from person to person… ‘Quirkiness’ or the social awkwardness that often accompanies ASD can be read as snobbishness, indifference or arrogance… even anti-Blackness.”

In arguing that some of us who have felt othered by groups of Black people might not have acknowledged the anti-Blackness we have embraced in othering ourselves as “alternative” in the first place, what I did not mean to do is obscure the truth that Black people have internalized all types of ideas rooted in oppression, including queerantagonism, transantagonism, classism or, especially, ableism, that unjustifiably cause us to be violent to one another. A lot of the violence we experienced that we blame on being “different” that is not rooted in our own internalized anti-Blackness can be traced back to those systems of oppression, and we do ourselves a huge disservice to conflate all of these realities.

For kids who aren’t neurotypical, sometimes an inability to socialize in the same way as others can be read as thinking themselves “better than.” Because thinking oneself better than other Black people is a real issue encouraged by the media and school systems, as I tried to highlight in the first piece, resistance to people who act in this way can affect non-neurotypical people who might share behaviors with those who think they are “special snowflakes” but not intent. If we are going to get to the bottom of this conversation, it is crucial to acknowledge the role of ableism, or we will continue talking in circles about all of this very real violence. (Eventually, too, we have a conversation about how ableism plays a role in how we pathologize Black aggression and violence).

Black people internalizing anti-Blackness is real. Black people being tribalistic is real. Without tackling the specifics of how those two things can be true at the same time, the violence Black kids of all stripes experience will continue unabated. I did not want to feed the already over-told narrative that Black people have a pathological form of resistance to difference. Even outside of my experience, you can find plenty examples of Black people being more accepting than anyone (oftentimes in ways that are self-harming, when you think about the Black people we protect and allow into our communities rather than turn them over to prison or other state institutions). When we commit to acknowledging and unlearning our own internalizations of anti-Blackness and ableism (or other isms), without conflating those things with a pathological form of tribalism, we can better do the necessary job of protecting all Black children.

*Hari Ziyad is a New York based storyteller and writer for AFROPUNK. They are also the editor-in-chief of RaceBaitR, deputy editor of Black Youth Project, and assistant editor of Vinyl Poetry & Prose. You can follow them on Twitter @hariziyad.