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Why I Can’t Breathe as a Black Disabled Woman in America

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Strong Language Advisory:  This article will contain strong language that may not be suitable for certain ages and audiences.  Though I have never used derogatory terms/slurs in any blog posts on here, I felt that I would make an exception for this one.  I will be spelling out the “N-word” in its entirety in this piece.  Why?  Because for 400+ years, those of African descent in this country did not have the “political correctness” privilege to hear or read a milked down version of a word that has been used to demonized, dehumanized, and established an inferiority complex towards them.  I am not, and have never been, a person to shy away from controversy; the use of the term is not for shock value – I am a great writer, and I do not need to use offensive terms to gain attention to anything I write.  I have chosen to spell out this small, yet powerful six-letter word to emphasize how devastating, disgusting, and disempowering it is to know that some individuals view your being and existence solely by the definition of that word, and to make those who have issues with the word uncomfortable.  I want you to be uncomfortable so that you will know what it is like to live in a world where that word exists.  It should anger and sicken you, and if it does when you read that word in this post, then I have completed my job as a writer for making you take the blinders off and see the world in full technicolor, and not through the rose-tinted glasses we like to wear in our erroneously dubbed “post-racial society.”

Of the 80-plus articles on the Ramp Your Voice! blog, “Why I Can’t Breathe as a Black Disabled Woman in America,” will be the rawest, reflective piece published on here.  I have written about my three prominent identities – being disabled, African American, and female – but I have never shared my candid thoughts about how possessing memberships in each group affects how I am treated in America.  I can only speak on my own experiences as a person born in the mid-1980s in a Southern state; proud member of Generation ADA; raised in poverty (and still in the thick of it) but somehow managed having more than those around me; and possessing three key privileges:  my education and professional career, being neurotypical, and being a cisgender, heteroromantic, heterosexual woman.  I am a stark advocate for those who “look like me,” and will be unapologetic in sharing my life experiences and views surrounding the identities I have.  It has taken me almost 30 years to be proud of the person who stares back at me in the mirror, and it is times like these when writing about what I see and have endured that displays the growth, strength, and resilience I have gained in my short lifespan.

Why My Heart Has Been Troubled Over the Past 3 Weeks

The non-indictment decision regarding Michael Brown’s death late November reopened a very tender wound in my heart as a Black disabled woman.  I felt the same anger, sadness, and horror I experienced during the reading of the not guilty verdict for Trayvon Martin’s death last year.  The thoughts that replayed in my mind were:  “this cannot be happening AGAIN;” “another day, another white man gets away with murdering an unarmed black teenager;” “what is wrong with our justice system?!?!?!;” “this cannot be real – I must be dreaming;” and “we have not overcome; we have overestimated our progress towards equality for all.”

I was numb – too shocked to cry or yell, but had an intense amount of emotions bottled up to not find a healthy release.  Social media (particularly Tumblr) became the “safe zone” where I could unleash the pain and revulsion I felt at the Brown verdict.  I could not express my thoughts safely on Facebook without being attacked by some whites (whom I thought had a clearer understanding of race relations in this country; boy, was I gravely mistaken) for sharing the hurt I felt in my heart for Michael Brown’s family, the city of Ferguson, and the overall Black community within and outside our borders.  I was told that my way of viewing the conclusion of the case was “wrong,” that I was racist/the one who brought race unfairly into the conversation, and that I should just “stick to the fact” and not let my feelings or race cloud my view of what really took place.  Being someone who does not bite her tongue when I know I am right (blame that on being a Virgo, an only child, and raised by “Big V,” my beloved Grandmother), I refused to be silenced by ignorant people, and stood firmly in my truth of the world I lived in.  I had bruised a few egos and deleted one particular person in the process, but I was not going to water down my perspective for anyone – I have a right to free speech, even if you did not agree.

Being a former African American Studies Minor (AAMS) in undergrad, the stories and images regarding the struggles of my people flashed in my mind like a horror film – West Africans snatched from the Motherland to yield profits for Colonialism; slaves sold like chattel; being counted as 3/5ths of a person and not having constitutional rights; Black women’s bodies raped and brutalized by the white men who own them, and never having justice served for such heinous acts; Black men being emasculated and lynched for appearing “threatening” and not “knowing their place” in a white man’s world; and present-day African Americans feeling robbed of knowing what tribe/native tongue they are a part of because of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade (TAST), and is still working hard to establish an identity in a country that forced us to drop our last name because having a last name makes your existence human, valuable.  400 years later, and Black lives and bodies are still subjected to inhumane acts of terror, American bred and led terrorism if I do be so bold to say so, inflicted unfairly on us, and we are casually told to “get over it” – protecting, valuing, and respecting Black lives is NOT the American way.

tumblr_ngdrdi3o9M1szz3gvo1_r2_1280My life, Michael Brown’s life, Eric Garner’s life, Trayvon Martin’s life, the lives of the millions of African slaves brought over during TAST, and then forced to work and turn this country from “nothing” (I use “nothing” loosely because this was a great nation before it was stolen from the Native Americans… never forget that) to the most powerful democracy on this planet MATTERS.  This country owes everything it has, and has ever accomplished, to the blood, sweat, tears, lashes, and deaths of African Americans.  To read and hear some whites say that Michael Brown, and later Eric Garner, “deserved to die” because they were big, black men made me want to vomit.  Such racist “proclamations” showed me, yet again, that we truly have not “arrived” when it comes to our views on race and racism, in particular to the lives of Black people, in this country.  To state confidently that these two men deserved to die by the hands of the police because their body sizes/builds played on the stereotypical “Mandingo”/”Big Black boy or man who can scare or hurt someone with their size” is detestable.  I honestly have no words for people who make that kind of argument, except that they are the kind of racists and bigots we need to be most fearful of.  I say this because it only takes a small group of these like-minded individuals to create a powerful following to their vile ideologies; history has shown us this example repeatedly.  It is emotionally-charged cases like these that displays how folks really feel about Blacks, and other groups, and I, like so many, have been surprised and disappointed to learn of those who hold such racial indiscretions as truth.

Why I Can’t Breathe

With all that being said, it brings me to the point for which I decided to write this piece:  I cannot breathe in this country as a Black disabled woman.  I know for a fact that my disability does not make me immune to police brutality, or experiencing racism.  I know that when some people see me, they see a disabled Nigger.  Let me write that again:  a disabled Nigger.  That is all I am to some people; they do not care about my personality; how smart, funny, or loved I am; or the dreams and goals I have for my life.  All they see is a Nigger girl in a wheelchair who is too outspoken and does not know her place.  An educated, vocal nigger is the worst kind of nigger there is, and the fact that I am also crippled is the icing on the cake for some.

I know that I am an easy target for some people to victimize, especially the police.  Though it does not get as much attention as it should, Black women experience police brutality at high rates as Black men.  Black women have never known safety in this country; why would I think of myself as being different just because I am disabled?  I know that there are some officers who would violate me, if the perfect crime opportunity afforded itself.  I know that I could be easily murdered, raped, and assaulted by those who wear blue.  This is my reality.  This is the America I live in.

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Last week, a grand jury failed to indict an officer for killing Robert Saylor, a man with Down Syndrome, who attended a movie with his health aide January 2013.  The officer, and others, used excessive force in restraining Saylor, and suffocated him to death.  Saylor’s death was not a freak accident or isolated incident – police harassment and deaths occur frequently in the disabled community.  Do not tell me that an officer could not do the same to me, and get away with it; disabled people are NOT immune to police brutality.  I know better than to believe such a lie.

Being disabled AND black AND female makes the target on your back even bigger.  I was born with three massive crosses to bear that I drag on the back of my wheelchair each day that I am alive.  Though I know that I am valuable, worthy, and equal to everyone else; my life, and the lives of those who look like me, are not viewed or treated in the same light.  Racism, sexism, and ableism are the “-isms” I battle each day as an individuals, and within the work I’m spearheading with RYV.  I fight for those who cannot, but I must be candid – it is tiring, and when you hear the failures of our justice system, it becomes discouraging.

How many more murders have to occur before we say, enough is truly enough?  When will the justice system protect the victims and their families, and not the murderers?  When will we get it right in America, and be the face of equality and justice for ALL, and not just for those who have white skin and/or wear blue?  When will we get tired of watching families bury their children, fathers, mothers?  When will we get tired of fighting for the rights we thought we had in this country?  When?  History repeats itself, and we do not seem to learn from the previous mistakes at all.  As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.  The United States cycle of insanity has to grind to a halt – now is the opportune time to begin fixing our broken justice system, prosecuting those who murder unarmed individuals, and stop blaming the victims for their deaths.

Final Thoughts

Writing this was both impassioned and therapeutic.  Expressing my thoughts and feelings through words is how I best handle emotionally-charged situations, whether it is personal matters or disturbing news developments that I witnessed over the past couple of weeks.  I can sit in front of the computer screen or notebook, and just let my mind flow, and whatever comes out is the truth I am experiencing at that moment.  The truth of this piece is that I am angry at the blatant mockery of our criminal system and the injustices minorities face, whether African Americans, the disabled, women, or those of us who have multiple identities within these groups.  We cannot continue turn a blind eye to situations just because the people affected we may not share common identities or associations with.  How can you call yourself a supporter of progress when you only seek to uplift and empower those with similar backgrounds as you?  Most individuals in my circle “get it;” they were just as heartbroken and irritated as I was.  Seeing so many people from various walks of life speak out on the importance of protecting black lives and that black lives matter, and ensuring that the plights of black women and disabled people are not forgotten in the fight for a better society, warms my heart so much.  This compassion cannot burn out like a candlelight in a dark room; the flame must grow substantially so that it can illuminate the world, and let it be known that an injustice against one person is a crime against us all.  It is imperative that we band together, and be our brother’s and sister’s keepers.  Though I may be emotionally drained at times, I will never be weary of fighting for what is right – what about you?

(Featured headlining images:  Courtesy of the RYV! Tumblr page.  Images:  Killed by Police & Black Women & Girls Killed by Law Enforcement.  Cover image was created by yours truly.)

About Vilissa Thompson, LMSW

Vilissa is the Founder & CEO of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization she created to establish herself as a Disability Rights Consultant & Advocate. Ramp Your Voice! is a prime example of how macro-minded Vilissa truly is, and her determination to leave a giant "tire track mark" on the world.

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