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Being a Black Disabled Woman Is An Act of Defiance: Remembering #KorrynGaines

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Remembering Korryn Gaines

Being a Black disabled woman in America is a sheer act of defiance.  

What brought me to this statement was the gross amounts of ableism, racism, and misogynoir I witnessed and read last week during the coverage surrounding Korryn Gaines’ encounter and death at the hands of the police.  

Korryn’s existence represents me – a Black disabled woman.  Korryn had a developmental disability due to lead exposure from living in housing that had toxic lead paint levels.  Korryn’s life and death made me think back to what I had written about Blackness and police brutality last month regarding Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.  

To be Black, disabled, and female means that you always have eyes on you.  You must be “on” at all times; must be willing to “perform” for White, Black, & non-disabled Americas.  You must be perfect and a good cripple, or be crucified at the cross, as we saw when Korryn’s story unfolded.  

There were two matters in particular that struck me profoundly about the coverage surrounding Korryn’s fatal police incident:  the way Black men discussed Korryn’s story on social media, and the Black community’s continued miseducation regarding disability.

Black Men, Your Misogynoir is Showing

When I see some Black men justify the violence and killings of Black women, it brings me back to the outrage response I shared on Tumblr last year when the Spring Valley High incident occurred:  

It really angers me when I see some* Black men not stand up & protect the personhood & girl/womanhood of Black girls & women when they have endured acts of violence.  

It angers me because throughout the history of this country, Black women have stood vehemently besides Black men, from when Black men were being hung from trees, to be shot in cold blood by the police.  

Black women have never hesitated to being front & center in protesting & advocating for the lives & rights of Black men because they knew that their actions would benefit them as well.  

It makes my blood boil over to see Black men not take a stand for Black girls & women in the same manner, & will instead, “justify” & remain silent when the rights of Black girls & women have been grossly violated, from within the Black community or due to white supremacy.  

All year long, I’ve seen Black women proclaim the following:  “No one will protect or save us but us.”  Every time I see acts of violence against Black girls & women, & Black men piss on the sidelines & not give a damn, that statement becomes realer each day.  

Black men, particularly those on social media, are the worst offenders of misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey (and explained in-depth by Trudy at Gradient Lair), which is the combined sexism and anti-Blackness Black women experience.  Black men expect (and demand) diehard loyalty from Black women when they experience police brutality and other dehumanizing crimes, but will unapologetically transform into being the judge, jury, and prosecutor in cases involving Black women.  

Black men treat the stories of Black women like Korryn’s in the same manner as White America treats Black men’s encounters with the police:  guilty until proven innocent (and found to have been the perfect victim).  The double standard is not lost on Black women; Black men do not display the same fervent support to and towards Black women as we do to and for them.  Black women wished Black men would learn how to be better allies, and recognize the privileges they possess that gives them the damning authority to disregard our experiences so carelessly and harmfully.  Steadfast loyalty is not a one-way street, Black men – when will you realize this?  

When I see these types of men proclaim their patriarchal and misogynoiristic views towards women like Korryn, it makes me think of why I focus on Black disabled girls and women within my advocacy work – we have to be our own heroes and fighters.  If we do not proclaim that we matter, we damn sure cannot depend on others to do it on our behalf.  Black women, regardless of ability, need to put ourselves and our sisterhood first and front and center – nobody has us BUT us.  

Black Community, Time to Get In Formation About the Social Model of Disability

The second injustice in the sharing and understanding of Korryn’s story is the Black community’s lack of knowledge about disability that fails to go beyond the medical model.  

There have been many who have made statements about Korryn’s supposed non-compliance and aggressive behavior towards the police that displayed their ignorance of disability, specifically how lead poisoning and exposure affects children.  According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), “Emotional and behavioral problems show up even with low exposure to lead, and as blood lead levels increase in children…”  Even with the smallest amounts of lead exposure, an individual’s IQ, attention span, and academic achievement can be severely impacted, and these circumstances are irreversible.  

Korryn was involved in a lawsuit that documented how being exposed to dust from lead paint and having a lifetime lead level of 12 mg/dL had caused her to endure “permanent brain damage, resulting in developmental and behavioral injuries.”  

Our inability to take disability into account when members of our community behave or react in ways that are considered socially non-compliant is blatant ableism.  We are severely uneducated as to how disability actually works that goes beyond the textbook definitions and prognoses.  

We are guilty as a community of victim-blaming and shaming:  we wag our fingers and cast judgments at people whose actions and behaviors are on the surface “defiant.”  However, if we were to dig deeper, we would have a better grasp of their existence and such incidents when we viewed the person holistically.  

To view Korryn holistically, we need to look beyond her actual actions of holding a shotgun when she encountered the police.  Instead, we should heavily consider how lead exposure had affected her ability to react in stressful situations that were threatening, and use that lens to better comprehend her actions at that moment.  Her disability cannot be dismissed because she acted in a way that was “uncooperative” – her disability impacted the way she viewed and responded to the world around her, and how the world reacted and regarded her.  

We as a community have to transcend from our very basic medical model of disability recognition to the social model of disability.  The social model of disability directs us to the fact that disability is caused by the way society is organized, rather than the medical conditions a person has.  We are disabled because we live in an ableist society.  An ableist society treats non-disabled members as the standard of “normal living,” and thus excludes those of us with disabilities from participating without barriers or discrimination.  

We as Black disabled people need our community to understand that when it fails to see us holistically and openly disregards our disabilities, it is committing ableism.  Our community ends up ostracizing us, stripping away a huge part of our identity from our personhood.  We cannot say that all Black experiences matter when we only view the experiences of non-disabled Black people as the “standard” of Blackness.  

Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning, to be a Black disabled woman is an act of defiance.  There is nowhere on this Earth where we can be ourselves without limits, fears, dangers, or judgments regarding our disability, Blackness, or womanness.  To be a Black disabled woman in America is a tiring existence; one where the need for Black disabled sisterhood is imperative to overcome ableism and misogynoir.  

I sit/stand in memory of my fallen disabled Sistas:  Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, Tanisha Anderson, and countless others whose names I will never know, but must continue to fight for our rights and ability to live in pure defiance of who we are.

(Featured headlining image:  Courtesy of Pixabay.)

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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