Word Count: 1,411
The Power of Ignorance
The understanding of people within most communities for persons with autism is not something to be commended. Autistic people of color face tremendous challenges detrimental to their well-being in all aspects of their lives—presented with prejudices of both their autism and race. When looking at Morénike Giwa Onaiwu’s “Preface: Autistic of Color: We Exist… We Matter.” and E. Ashkenazy’s “Foreword: On Autism and Race” share a critical component. The alienation of autistic people of color. This alienation is an effect of the ignorance held towards people of color and autistic people. Being both a person of color and autistic creates an ignorance-fueled environment that supports discrimination towards such people.
To fully understand the bias that autistic people of color face, one must recognize the influence of racism in society. There is a constant challenge from others, urging them to “choose” just one race. As Ashkenazy details, this creates barriers, an environment attempting to nullify both their voice and identity (Ashkenazy xxvi). This demand given to people of color is a microaggression, demanding someone to make life “simpler” for those who have no say in another’s identity. In asking a person of color to “choose,” or mislabeling and subjecting them to the convenience and opinions of another, they are actively stripping a portion of their identity away, and as Ashkenazy puts it, “cursed and left to die of exposure” (Ashkenazy xxvi). Comparatively, Onaiwu was monoracial and faced the expectation to live “black,” placing her in a singular scope that was assumed to encompass all people of color (Onaiwu xiv). The ignorance of her peers, unable to accept her as she was “too white” and “Americanized” in her speech and mannerisms for the African community, but not American enough due to her West African culture to be accepted by other communities (Onaiwu xiv). Both women were not deemed “enough” by the standards of those around them. Such negligent standards fabricated by others brings into question their belonging in society.
The acceptance of others is an innate desire of all humans. To belong and have a community of people whom one can view as their people, a place of understanding and welcomeness. For autistic people of color, not having such an acceptance creates a sense of isolation and loneliness, and the only reason for one to not have a sense of belonging is the feeling of otherness. This sense of otherness stems from people’s lack of understanding in a community. Not understanding the need to be a part of a group filled with love and acceptance only lowers the chance of survival, left to fend for oneself (Ashkenazy xxxiii). Throughout life, people are exposed to social conditioning, implicating the exclusion of autistic people of color; however, such conditions vary depending on the community one is raised in (Ashkenazy xxxiii). The acceptance of autistic people of color is low between white people and people of color, autistic or otherwise. This attribute is due to the lack of acceptance built around biases held within various communities (Onaiwu xi). Ingrained into the minds of all people, ableism and racism introduce negative messages about neurology, ethnicity, and expected behaviors that are often internalized (Onaiwu xi). This ignorance of the needs of others is preventative in building a community that accepts autistic people of color. Accepting oneself is critical in being accepted by others; however, the fight against the ignorance of others should not have to be as large as it is. Instead, adjustments in teaching children are necessary to prevent the stigmatization of others. This ingrained ignorance only harms others, and their treatment is unacceptable.
The power to influence the self-worth of autistic people of color that persons have is tremendous, and each flippant, derogatory and alienating action or word has an impact. Onaiwu discusses the media’s exploitation of autistic people of color to enlighten others about the burden that autistic people pose to society (xii). In this exploitation, autistic people of color are utilized by strangers, brought out of their comfort zone, depicted as defective and undesirable, and then cast aside. Such actions are inexcusable, and it is crucial to recognize the impact of actions on others; negatively depicting autistic people of color only further creates self-doubt in autistic minds. The accounts Ashkenazy shares from autistic people of color and their experiences with familial and societal ignorance are horrifying. With an aunt fearing for her niece’s safety due to her inability to “make the cut” of societal norms, a daughter whose family cannot accept her as they view disability as a taboo bringing shame to their family, and an autistic teenager whose family is unable to accept her and ridicules her behavior and for being “too white”- something she had to learn to attempt acceptance in her community (Ashkenazy xxxv-xxxvii). In these experiences, there is a critical component, the lack of understanding from others, creating a hostile and uninhabitable environment for autistic people of color.
Recognizing a problem is crucial to enacting change and creating a safe community for autistic people of color. To do this, one must recognize their privilege in life. When pondering if race impacts autism, it is crucial to understand who is asking this. It is not the autistic person of color who is affected by the ignorant actions of others every day. It is the privileged white, non-disabled person who can go about their lives freely, never having to think about race until it is brought to their attention (Ashkenazy xxx). It is the privileged person who is non-disabled and faces no questions to challenge their actions. It is the person who does not listen to the insights of those affected by the actions of people of privilege. There is irreparable damage to autistic people of color who are lumped into groups, attempting to separate their autism from their race, and in “Preface: Autistic of Color: We Exist… We Matter.” there are two poems that are crucial to understanding such damage. One of which belongs to Jen Meunier (Gzhibaeassigaekwe), “we autistics, we villages, we humanoids.” This poem is about neurodiversity and the need to surpass the social models of disability disillusioned by white colonial privilege; the importance of their voices being heard across the movements (Onaiwu xx). The fact that there is an exclusion within movements advocating for the voices of autistic persons is baffling. For minorities to exclude people with additional minorities reinforces the prejudice present in society. The poem “My Experience” by Stephan B. is powerful in reclaiming one’s identity. The rebellion against labels thrust upon them, taking away the “boxes” others try to put them in, and refusing to be defined by a diagnosis (Onaiwu xx). This is powerful in the sense that despite the ignorance and discrimination they have faced, they refuse to alienate themselves from a community by giving the words of others power. Reclaiming power over one’s identity and refusing the labels placed on autistic people of color is one step towards changing societal standards and constructs.
Negative implications surrounding autistic people of color are existent in all communities. The ramifications for such implications have tremendous power over the way both society and autistic individuals view autistic people of color. Racism is something that has been influencing the minds of society for generations, an unwillingness to accept that which is different from the “accepted.” There is no human being who does not need a community or safe environment, and the negligence to recognize that autistic people of color need these things is absurd. As autistic people of color face both the prejudices of ableism and racism, the need to find a community that is accepting and understanding of them is imperative. Creating an environment that removes prejudices that harm autistic people of color is necessary; not recognizing this only furthers the ignorance of humankind.
“I hereby declare upon my word of honor that I have neither given nor received unauthorized help on this work.” – Lauren Lemon
Ashkenazy, E. “Foreword: On Autism and Race.” All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, edited by Lydia X. Z. Brown, and E. Ashkenazy, and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, DragonBee Press, 2017, pg. xxiii-xxxix.
Onaiwu, Morénike Giwa. “Preface: Austics of Color: We Exist… We Matter.” All the Weight of Our Dreams: On Living Racialized Autism, edited by Lydia X. Z. Brown, and E. Ashkenazy, and Morénike Giwa Onaiwu, DragonBee Press, 2017, pg. x-xxii.