Estimated Reading Time: 90-150mins
This essay was not written to be read in one sitting (unless you feel up to it), but to be read at one’s leisure. Read it like a book (unless you’re a speed-reader, then by all means).
While I understand some autistics to consider autism not to be disability, in this essay I do talk about autism within my experience as a disability as that is my truth. I have also chosen to use identity-first language. i.e autistic person, rather than person with autism.
CW/TW. Mentions: ableism, white supremacy, sexual assault/rape, male violence, racism.
When I was interviewed by The Guardian in June, 2020, to talk about my experience of Black Lives Matter in the UK, despite seeing lots of euphoria (particularly from white people), I saw little movement to discuss intersectional Blacknesses particularly in regards to being disabled while Black.
In this regard, while I support the Black Lives Matter chants, I still struggle to feel included. When we consider the number of Black victims of police that have been disabled, it makes me wonder how disability continues to be at the fringes of ‘polite discussion’ about anti-racism — a conversation that has largely been held on state terms (at least in a UK context).
In my experience, ‘autism while Black,’ like Black Lives Matter and autism in the mainstream, is a discussion that has largely centered the United States. However, for me in the UK, the intersectionality of autism and disability while Black must also cater to voices outside of a US context.
In this autobiographical long-essay, I will talk about my relationship to autism while Black in the UK via intersectionality. This is by no means a quick read, but I hope it is useful. It is an introduction to a topic that has yet to reach the breadth of discussion of say racial gendered violence (i.e misogynoir) or even discussions about race/immigration (no less than in a UK context).
Lots of the discussion about autism from Black British perspectives have been from content creators on social media (great work), but as a creative writing graduate, I am also interested in those that manage to reach mainstream publication.
Sara Gibbs’ Drama Queen and Hannah Gadsby’s Ten Steps to Nanette may be trojan horses for Black British autistics to be published in memoir and autobiography on their experience (big fans of Gibbs and Gadbsy, but white people had to do it first, as nothing exists until a white person does it). Nonetheless, the main title for this piece comes from the #WhileBlack tag which can be traced back to at least the 1990s with DWB [Driving While Black] and the racial profiling of Black motorists.
Since then, it has been revived amid the resurgance of Black Lives Matter for ‘[INSERT ACTIVITY HERE] while Black’, from walking and birdwatching to sitting and a good deal else. In the lives of Elijah McClain and Troy Canales, simply being a ‘mood Gemini while Black‘ or an ‘Autistic while Black’ was enough to make them targets.
The second part of the title is what I’ll be discussing, and the “(non)fictions” is simply just to assert the fact Black people do exist in Britain, including autistic Black people as much of the ‘representation’ is American and white! The US-focus is fine, but it is often presented as the universal Black experience (not that there is any one way to be Black) as “While being [B]lack can be a shared experience, not all [B]lack experiences are the same” (Varaidzo, 2016: 20).
Even going as far as Black Lives Matter, the United States envelopes the world stage. From overpolicing Black communities to racial disparities in prisons, health and education, Britain and America have lots in common (but also many differences). So, if you’re now ready … this will be part autobiography, part ‘academic’ analysis (academic in a loose framing), and part invitation to the streams of consciousness living rent-free in my head!
I have tried to structure it into digestible sections so readers can dip in and out at their leisure. I understand how difficult reading large articles can be for many of us (nope-brain unlocked), so please do not feel compelled to do it in one sitting.
In this essay, you will find a mixture of academic and autobiography. So, this is really a snapshot of my life of being autistic while Black in the UK, including my thoughts and reflections.
To understand the need for more perspectives on ‘autism while Black’ from autistic writers, we must have some knowledge of intersectionality’s history. As this analytical framework is an entry point into grasping how elements of people’s social-political identities (politicised by contemporary and historical state-sanctioned violence) compound themselves to create systems of privilege and dis/advantage.
Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, histories of writing and expression of this nature, however, have a more extensive lineage, dating as far back to at least The History of Mary Prince (1831), an enslaved West Indian who wrote her own story of being disabled while Black under British colonial oppression.
Writing by racialised women not only shows that those on the faultlines of many identities are both empowered and oppressed by how others see/treat them (especially institutions), but also how they relate to themselves on a day-to-day. As both oppression and pride are two sides of the same coin. In Ain’t I a Woman? (1981), the late bell hooks critiques Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) for its exclusion of racially minoritised women, working-class women, etc … wherein intersectional feminism seeks to challenge the whiteness of [white] feminism. It is not by coincidence that bell hooks used the phrase “from margin to center” for the subtitle of her 1984 book, Feminist Theory.
Beginning in American Legal Studies, intersectionality has developed under other disciplines including sociology, education, childhood studies and others, now being used by activists to push agendas outside of the ivory towers of academia as well. It essentially critiques practices that treats each axis of oppression as individual.
For example, the adultification of Black girls cannot be donned as racism or misogyny alone, but “misogynoir” (Bailey, 2010), otherwise termed as anti-Black misogyny where anti-Blackness and misogyny work together in partnership as a double threat.
Mary Prince’s 1831 autobiography may act as an early example of intersectionality in print being used to talk about Black disability. Concurrently, Sojourner Truth’s 1851 ‘Ain’t I a Woman?‘ as well, from the perspective a formerly enslaved Black woman. Author-sociologist Anna Cooper also reminds us in her essay, “The Colored Woman’s Office” (1892) that Black women are vital to social justice movements due to their experiences on multiple margins of discrimination.
Though Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us a language for the concept, ‘intersectionality’ also claims its origins with other intersectional feminist movements centering Black and Brown women in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, including Latina and Chicane (Hill Collins, 2015), as Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider, Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, and Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class also act as predecessor texts to Crenshaw’s 1989 treatise.
This short articulation is necessary for our understandings of the fact that, there would be no modern feminism for white women without the work of Black and Brown women. As the blurb of Mikki Kendall’s Hood Feminism states, “All too often the focus of mainstream [white] feminism is not on basic survival for the many, but on increasing privilege for the few.” Thus contemporary discourses to intersectionality build on a longer history of ideas that Black and Brown thinkers and revolutionaries created for us to follow, and the politics of citation and recogntion is so vital in this space. I beg white people to remember that!
As Tao Leigh Goffe tweeted,
So, for us autistics, though Black/Brown feminist theorising of intersectionality did not directly address race/disability with the same bite as it has race/gender for example, it does lay a foundation to plot our own experiences. And ableism has a long history intertwined with misogyny, eugenics, white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism (Lewis, 2021).
Building on the work of intersectional feminist thinkers, this autobiographical essay will be a Black male response to autism while Black in the UK via discussions of masking, codeswitching, and other “(non)fictions.” Acknowledging intersectionality’s origins in the lives of Black and Brown women, this concept is also relevant in the lives of Black men on the fault lines.
Masking and codeswitching are common in many autistic lives. Yet, narratives about being autistic while Black are scarce in popular media. As one of the core tentets of critical race theory, this essay via the Black-white binary will use ‘intersectionality’ (Crenshaw, 1989; 1991; Hill Collins and Blige, 2016; Hill Collins, 2019) to plot my relationship to autism while Black, including masking and codeswitching.
Masking while Black
The act of ‘masking’ was originally used to describe the process of concealing distaste, horror, or repugnance to a scenario (Ekman and Friesen, 1969; Ekman, 1972) reportedly starting as early as nursery-age while becoming less noticeable as children got older (Cole, 1986). So, masking is frequently used to hide negative emotions with positive emotions (De Gere, 2008) but more recently, conversations lead by autistic people on Twitter paint a further picture of Applied Behavioural Analysis [ABA Therapy] where ABA forces autistic people to conceal traits which can lead to harm, and in some cases masking causes death.
We ultimately hide our feelings and moods; we copy facial expressions; we bottle up anxiety and many other things to ‘appear neurotypical.’ All these things plus others can lead to burnout and sensory hangover.
Masking while Black to me is having two customer service voices: one for white neurotypicals and another for Black neurotypicals.
My earliest memories of being policed in this nature was during school photograph season. During childhood, I was not a smiler unless I had a reason, and photos were my worst day of the year. Adults would say, “You need to smile more, Tré” as if my life depended on grinning all the time like some creepy Hannibal Lecter-type – hello Clarice, you got that liver and fava beans for me?
Today, I have few male friends, and because of this I have listened to true-life accounts time and time again from women about creepy men telling them they need to smile. In her poem ‘Smile’, Rhiannan McGavin says “… a grown man, told me to, ‘Smile sweetheart!’ / Strange right? / Telling some stranger to look happy?”
As an autistic person, where in my experience, my face does not always represent how I feel, this policing of expression is an encounter I share with many women in my life. But as a child and even now, I sit thinking this is literally my face.
When I was a child, my father would joke, “Smile, Tré, smile!”, and now knowing I am autistic, I find this hilarious. Core memory unlocked. Now an adult, this ‘policing’ is more violent from white neurotypicals who see my “non-expressions” as hostile, particularly at open-mics in my vicinity which are so often in pubs around alcohol (a staple of white British culture).
‘White Tears, Brown Scars’
In 2019, I came across an article in The Guardian by British author Courttia Newland talking about his experiences of being at the receiving end of white-woman privilege in Britain. As a child of the private school system, I found my experience resonated with his, where in my school days white girls only need bat their eyelashes and change their voice slightly for white boys to come calling to their whim.
In my poetry and other work, you will find writings about patriarchy and ending violence against women in all its forms. Last November, I featured in an online call on domestic violence run by H.O.P.E Training (based in Leicester, UK) where I read one of my poems on the history of patriarchy in the Global North.
The murders of Sarah Everard, Sabina Nessa and sisters Nicole Smallman and Bibaa Henry here in the UK impacted me a great deal, acting as a further catalyst for me to continue to make spaces and platforms to propel women’s voices in my communities as opportunities arise.
I support the #MeToo movement and just because it’s not headlining anymore, that does not mean we should stop talking about it … as the deaths of Breonna Taylor (in the US) and Belly Mujinga (in the UK) in 2020 were a further reminder of how Black women’s lives are devalued under patriarchal white supremacy upheld by the state.
Over ten years ago, on holiday with my grandparents, I was sexually assaulted by a middle-aged white woman in a lift [elevator, for Americans] on my way to the hotel room. My grandparents were not in the lift with me at the time, and I did not know to call it sexual assault then.
This early experience of white women revisits Black male bodies in the white female gaze. And as a boy in that encounter, I was ‘felt up’ in a confined space. I must have only been twelve years old. White women using their privilege to dominate young Black men / boys is a commonality. And while my personal experiences are by no means comparable to women’s experiences of rape/sexual assault and domestic violence by male perpetrators, there does need to be a conversation about how white supremacy comes in heels to the detriment of Black boys and men.
Of course, I cannot and will not demonise an entire group based on one experience, yet there is a complex historical lineage of Black male bodies in the white female gaze that must be considered – from the plantation economies of the colonial era, all the way to now with sexual othernesses, fetishisation, sex clubs, and ‘beach boy’ holidays in the Caribbean and the African continent.
I cannot name the number of times I have been ‘stared at’ by white women of all ages in that way, revisiting the exoticisation of being ‘a bull’ for the night or to ‘annoy’ racist parents. Being autistic in this sphere just reminds me how autistic exploitation occurs and how many of us are exploited and abused by people we know (of course, this does not happen to all autistic people, but often enough for it to be an issue).
By the by, racism was a staple of my childhood, and I still have an cognate fear of white people, especially white girls / women. As James Baldwin said: “White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people, a tremendous uneasiness.” In her 1992 book Black Looks, bell hooks further writes “Returning to memories of growing up in the social circumstances created by racial apartheid, to all [B]lack spaces on the edges of town, I reinhabit a location where [B]lack folks associated whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing” (p170).
That terror I have experienced time and time again.
And while lots of my friends and colleagues are white women, as a collective mass – white people terrify me. Unbeknownst to me as a child in those school photographs, the fact I am autistic now makes a lot more sense. Black boys are stereotyped as being emotionless yet angry (as if anger isn’t an emotion), but back then I was also dissuaded from things like sadness.
The intersection here of my Blackness and autism speaks to how my ill-want to smile was compounded by stereotypes the world already has against Black males (Papi, 2016; Barnes, 2019; Rufai, 2020). I do not want to say autistic people do not smile, because we do, but due to stereotypes made by neurotypicals – this sits contrary to popular belief. As George Yancy (2017) states:
“Through the white imaginary … the Black body vis-à-vis the white body is a site of a peculiar paradox. [It] is both desirable and yet disgusting. Think … of white male enslavers and “slave masters” who raped Black women who were deemed subpersons, chattel, ugly, foul, … ungodly creatures. […] How does one rape enslaved Black women without falsifying one’s own assumptions about their status as “beasts of burden” or one’s own white status as “civilized”? In other words, think about the lynching of Black male bodies and how white males hovered over [them], making sure that the nooses were fitted correctly, touching Black genitalia while castrating those intimate parts that were said to be nasty and despicable. These cases constitute forms of violent, racially perverse intimacy that implicated white male desire, disgust, and hatred” (p7).
The racialised and sexualised dynamics of the days of the colonial-era, however, are largely seen as something that ended with the so-called “independence” of many of these colonised nations. Yet, while Britain isn’t a dominant colonial power anymore (supposedly … ahem), these colonisers won the war on race, and we are now living in the colonial legacy our ancestors started. As in Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th, historian Kevin Gannon states, “History is not just stuff that happens by accident. We are the product of the history that our ancestors chose, if we are white. If we are Black, we are products of the history our ancestors most likely did not choose.”
I am in zero doubt that the white woman in that lift knew what she was doing and was well aware that she would automatically be believed in a scenario of confrontation over a Black child. Thus white constructions of Black people are historically rooted in popular consciousness.
So, autistic while Black, you may see how masking is necessary to survive in this world. And growing up in Britain, I find myself having to learn the codes of both white and Black neurotypicals which are very different.
Yet, ultimately, failing at both.
Not Black (British) Enough
In his autoethnographic book The Souls of Black Folk, African-American sociologist and historian WEB DuBois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness … one ever feels his two-ness,– an American, a Negro …” (p8). Growing up and living in England, I have forever felt this rootlessness – as a Black person, as a Briton – as being autistic while Black in a country that still treats disabled Black people as second-class citizens.
Though DuBois wrote about being Black in the United States at the start of the twentieth century, his words hold weight today even in the UK. It is reminiscent of the question, “Where are you from?” regardless if you have called no other country home. England particularly has been my home for twenty-six years and counting, yet there is a feeling of being a ‘stranger in a familiar land’ (Hall, 2017).
This feeling of rootlessness pervades in many of my British Black and Brown friends and colleagues. Some grew to normalise it, while others understandably harbour anger and resentment for Britain, the country who colonised our familial homelands.
These feelings of otherness are underpinned by an ‘ideological’ racism that places people racialised as white into British/English “localness” (Nassy Brown, 2008: 5), while Blackness and Brownnesses are dehumanised as ‘Other’ … as foreigner; interloper; outlander; immigrant:
What Afua Hirsch writes threads through my life of relating to an English or even British identity. In March 2021, British MP David Lammy was criticised by a caller into his LBC Radio show when he challenged the absence of ‘Black English’ as an identity position on the UK census (Campbell, 2021).
However, whilst I saw many white people celebrating his riposte, Black British Twitter came for him! The numbers of Black people who took umbrage with ‘Black English’ was apparent. Even to some Black people in this country, it appears for a Black person to identify with English culture is to put not too fine a point on it – a big no-no. In the quote tweets, frequently ‘English’ was synonymous with white. Even talking to Black people who were born here, many have a problem with being called British as they have never felt welcome in this country. As the second generation of my family to have been born and raised in this country, I find my affinity to my family’s cultures (West Indian) is more superficial than emotional. I can appreciate the food and music, but I know I am not Caribbean. Yet, in the UK, my Britishness has qualifiers attached:
Extracted from his spoken word poem ‘Where You From?’, Riz Ahmed is discussing the ‘double consciousness’ (DuBois, 1903: 8) of being a British person of Pakistani heritage raised in the UK. In my own context of Black West Indians, the right to Britishness or a Caribbean identity is a contested line, and that Britishness is still argued as it was in the 1980s (Christian, 2008). It is in retrospect I am finding how much I struggled within this frame of my family. As a child I struggled with conversations and socialising (and still do). I remember back then going to the barbers with my father, only for me to not greet anybody. Now, I know that this embarrassed him. However, to be in a Black barbershop and not talk to anyone – at all – I understand now, this is considered disrespectful. My father presents as quite a stoic man and I have only ever seen him cry a few times. We have not really talked about my neurodivergence in full, and the things my mother calls my ‘quirks’, I think, created some friction in the family. What looked like rudeness to lookers-on in the barbershop I now know to be probably a mix of social anxiety and more than likely situational mutism. Compounded with my shyness and being an introvert, my very core flies in the face of the culture my parents and grandparents relate to more than I do.
This ‘mutism’ in-part (I think) came at the expense of poor self-esteem and confidence. I would monitor my own voice and body language to make others comfortable – trying not to speak too loudly or too quietly, I could never find the balance. Sometimes, I am told to stop being ‘too much’ (expressive), whilst concurrently if I am / was silent or too reserved, that was also a problem. The pressure to have the correct answers to all things was a big deal as well, motivated by my dyspraxia which I also later found in my case comes with difficulties in forming certain speech patterns. I really enjoyed family functions growing up, but this also came at the expense of burnout. The expectation to greet relatives and family friends with hugs, kisses, and / or even handshakes when too much ‘touching’ is overstimulating. However, culturally many West Indians love embrace, it’s part of their culture. To decline can be seen as disrespectful.
Though I know the many cultures of the Caribbean to be nuanced, and in some cases, there will be more low-key elements, I have not been exposed to these elements. So, my experiences to this culture through the Windrush Generation has been often been overstimulating. This culture has always been for me, visually busy, and I’m not sure the word subtle could be used to describe weddings, christenings or funerals. With that ‘busyness’, it heightens my inability to mask as I notice everything and find it challenging to concentrate on who I am speaking to. Am I making enough eye contact? Too much eye contact? Not making eye contact with many Black neurotypicals has been construed as rude.
During my childhood, I never knew when it was okay to speak and was too polite to interrupt people often finding myself more comfortable at friend’s houses, particularly those who had pets. At school, I remember connecting with a white boy whose name escapes me. We lost contact but his family unknowingly saved my life. When his dog died, I was heartbroken. A beautiful golden retriever – it shattered me. I remember feeling empty. I have always found it easier to connect to the natural world than the world humans covet so intently – where money, oil, and politics is sought after more than just human kindness. When I was younger, I would go on long walks in the country with my godmom and my godbrother. The quiet was good for my spirit and the people I get along with the most in this world are the introverts, the HSPs, and the neurodivergents – whether these people know they are or not!
However, amid white neurotypicals, I still have to learn codes. Yet, at least being quiet wasn’t always seen as a strange thing. I find introversion is much more accepted in white English culture, and I am not sure why that is. Yet, my introversion and thus my specific neurodivergent tendencies, are juxtaposed to my grandparents’ culture (the version of that culture I have been exposed to). Hence, full participation into my family’s cultures is severely limited. Full participation is not possible when I find much of the culture’s traditions subject to sensory overstimulation and being around people all the time.
Black and Brown people mask. Women also mask in a world built on patriarchy. However, autistic and other neurodivergent people also mask. What we all have in common (including where there’s intersections), is masking as safety. In the past I know I have lost friends and employment due to my ‘nope brain’. This comes into effect when: 1) I am asked to do something I know will not work, 2) is morally and ethically wrong, or 3) I do not believe in it.
I am not a fake person and many neurotypicals find this terrifying. There are things I can compromise on, but there are things I will not. Now working in higher education, this is an environment where students are used as cash-cows for universities. As a person who likes to build organic relationships, this aesthetic flies in the face of the cultures of many global northern universities. But I didn’t know I had autism when I was a child; the autism discussion only occurred when I started university in 2016. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, I stopped masking and the people that liked ‘fake Tré’ made themselves scarce, and I am the better for it.
Around Black people, I know my directness has been interpreted as rude. As I mentioned earlier, I did not like people touching me growing up. This is something I masked during my teen years (as I did not like it then either). While all my friends were getting into relationships, I avoided those things. Now closer to thirty than I am to twenty, ‘touch’ for me is also about consent. As far as this is concerned, the implementation of ‘physical distancing’ measures during the COVID19 lockdowns was one of the greatest things to happen to me! As I only had to engage with people in my bubble: my parents, my brother, and to varying degrees my grandparents. With the easing of restrictions I know many people wanted to be embraced and that is absolutely fine, but that is not really my thing (generally).
According to a 2012 psychological study, people that were raised by parents that liked to embrace are also likely to do it in adulthood: “hugging is an important element in a child’s emotional upbringing” (Forsell and Åström, 2012). My parents are separated now, but I do remember them embracing lots. Some people just do not like touch all the time and that is okay! In many instances, as a Black person you are required to hug relatives you do not actually know. However, for me, this dislike extends to holding hands, high-fives, and even familial kisses on the cheek. To hug someone you do not know is interlocked with my ‘nope brain’ (see above) where to decline a hug from a relative could be seen as a spurn. Whilst to insist on that may be tied up in ableism (as touching can be overstimulating), choosing to say no (even for neurotypicals) is just having healthy boundaries, and we need to do this more. Yet, because ’embrace’ is so common within ‘the culture’, my participation in that culture has modifiers. ‘Anti-touch’ is not exclusive to autism (many autistic people like touch) but this is a point of discussion within my specific experience.
Impoliteness within the nuclear Black family (in my experience) can often be seen as asserting what you want or like (which isn’t what your family want or like). Respectability politics. Radical psychologist Guilaine Kinouani writes about this in Living While Black. Though not directly talking about neurodivergence, she states:
“Although [respectability and assimilation] may provide temporary escape and possibly material gain and conditional access to structures of power, they produce white supremacy and such breed further shame and self-alienation. Self-contempt, disdain and scorn were not merely accidental by-products of colonialism – they were manufactured, deliberate colonial weapons to fortify whiteness and reduce resistance” (2021: 56)
That directness can in some cases pose a threat to the hierarchical structures that exist even within ‘The Family’. As a younger, I so often found my opinion silenced or dismissed by Black elders when it was too direct (rude) or was considered too radical (alternative perspective, from a child no less). Here, I found myself being frozen out of conversations with people that look exactly me. They’re your relatives and you’re supposed to love them, but looking back I was silenced a lot. Unless I consistently agreed, I felt invalidated – particularly when it came to social problems. In a higher educational context, Sara Ahmed talks about the extremities of this ideology in her 2021 book Complaint. The premise argues that those who highlight problems thus become the problem. However, the hierarchies of nuclear Black families come to the fore when we begin to think of neurodivergent Black people, especially Black children, who navigate the world different. In spite of colour, children’s rights are routinely dismissed in our society.
The 2021 Disney film Encanto brings this home where the nuclear family structure shows how trauma can become culture via an overbearing matriarch or patriarch. Of course, it is more complex and nuanced than this. Though, this film is centred around Latin American cultures, I saw some relatability in my story amid Caribbean people. Intergenerational trauma is a feature throughout this film. The children ultimately became vessels for which the trauma of the previous generations attaches itself to (like a host). As a grandchild and great-grandchild of the Windrush Generation, there are parallels across many marginalised groups.
Back to the point about children’s rights: activist-academic bell hooks (1999) states “Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love children, we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights [and] that we respect and uphold their rights” (p29). Her words hit home, especially for me when I was a Black child. I was not much of a talker in those days, and I remember my father telling me many times “If you don’t talk, others will make decisions for you.” I would rather watch than talk. Unless there was something I thought worth saying, why should I talk? I enjoyed sitting quietly and this was taken away from me. At school, I loved to sit inside at breaktimes, and this was taken away from me too, where ‘being social’ was seen as synonymous with success. Why should I want to integrate? The neurotypical metric for existing was projected and it has had adverse long-term effects. Some children just want to sit quietly and that is fine. Yet, the reality is as Zora Neale Hurston (1937) wrote, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
As a Black person and as an autistic person, existing and living under ableist white supremacy is dis-abling. Blackness and disability are “… at an intersection of recognised sites of oppression” (Delgado and Stefancic, 2001: 51). Talia Lewis provides a working definition of ableism writing it as:
“A system that places value on people’s bodies and minds based on societally constructed ideas of normality, intelligence, excellence, desirability, and productivity. These constructed ideas are deeply rooted in anti-Blackness, eugenics, misogyny, colonialism, imperialism and capitalism. This form of systemic oppression leads to people and society determining who is valuable and worth based on a person’s language, appearance, religion and / or their ability to satisfactorily [re]produce, excel and “behave. You do not have to be disabled to experience ableism.”
Following the murder of George Floyd where the UK saw conversations into public critiques of colonial statues, so much of the ‘colonial discourse’ revolved around race without talking about the categorisation of Black bodyminds. One such example of including disability into Black historical narratives lies in the story of Mary Prince, an enslaved West Indian who developed rheumatoid arthritis and chronic back pain as a result of her life in enslavement (Prince, 1831). Barbara Baumgartner (2001) further reads that Prince gains autonomy by downplaying her own disablement to suit her wants to escape. At the same time, Amanda Stuckey (2017) also argues “Historical and literary studies of disability within enslavement strive to deliver the enslaved body from slavery, viewing the body as a strategically deployed tool of resistance that has the power to re-establish agency and autonomy and to generate conditions of freedom.”
In Wretched of the Earth, psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (1961) analyses the psychological and psychiatric impact colonialism had on the colonised. The chapter entitled ‘Colonial Violence and Mental Disorders’ specifically looks at pathologies symptomatic of colonial repression. Fanon was influenced by writings from Négritude, psychoanalysis and others. Even in the time he was writing, Fanon saw that mental illness was a legitimate state of being that people experience, also seeing that it could be influenced by social and cultural experiences. This opened up the idea that ‘madness’ could be linked to (post)colonial societies. So, Fanon was looking at what we now know to be the facts of individual mental ill-health and structural discrimination and violence. Being autistic while Black, white supremacist ableism from institutions and individual encounters can provoke mental ill-health. However, ableism wasn’t a direct by-product of global colonial violence as it has a much subtler history.
As psychologist Guilaine Kinouani (2021) writes:
“Although colonial logics did not strictly speaking give birth to ableism since ableism clearly precedes colonial and imperial constructions of race (which in the main took hold the early to mid 17th century), their constructions of the body and its instrumentalisation in relation to capital acquisition, shaped ableist violence and vice-versa” (Race Reflections, 2021)
The stigmatisation of disability has a long precedent before race as we know it was invented. Under the Greek Empire concepts of beauty and intelligence were viewed as interlinked, and the Romans also saw disabled people as inferior (Kinouani, Race Reflections). During the Middle Ages disabled people were associated with terms like leprosy, blindness, deafness and what today we call mental illness (Historic England). Thus human beings can be born disabled or thus dis-abled by factors during the course of our lives. For example, the affects of Long COVID have been dis-abling for many. Additionally, poverty and overwork can dis-able. With the arrival of colonialism and thus capitalism, being disabled was seen as a person’s inability to work and hence ‘provide’ (Lewis, 2021). The twentieth century introduced eugenics, and histories of the Holocaust remind us that in addition to the murders of six million Jews, massacres of disabled people were committed, who The Nazis termed as “the unfit” (United States Holocaust MM).
Pioneered by people like Francis Galton, eugenics was used as a method for ‘improving’ the human race “… [as] the controversial idea that we can improve the quality of the human race by selecting who can and who can’t reproduce” (Saini and Pearson, 2019). It was largely discredited in the twentieth century, pertinently after its adoption into policy by the Nazis to justify their fascistic violence against Jews and other minority groups. As an ideology it has also been used against groups deemed as ‘unworthy’ by the state including working class, the disabled, and people of colour (Marius Turda, 2020). Though eugenics was publicly discredited during the last century, many autists state it pervades today in the ongoing tolerance of ABA Therapy which is frequently referred to as abuse. Concurrently, in March 2022 UK prime minister Boris Johnson was forced to U-Turn on a policy that was to keep gay conversion therapy legal in Britain. Though, Number 10 will now outlaw gay therapy, the equivalent for trans people is still legal.
In their article ‘Autism Speaks: Deception, Eugenics, and Abuse‘, Juliette Dunn states that ABA is “a therapy known for causing [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] in autistic people and teaching them total compliance.” This article continues to talk about how it recentres neurotypical privilege and ways of seeing the world projecting neurotypicalisms onto autistic bodyminds “whether that’s being forced to hold eye contact, say certain phrases, give hugs, or, as this can easily lead to, forced sexual activity and exploitation” (Dunn, 2020). In short ABA forces autistic people to act neurotypical and is endorsed by organisations like Autism Speaks, an organisation that has oft been referred to by autistic people as a hate group. However, “for more than a century, eugenics lead innocent people – the disabled, the poor, the non-white – to be segregated even sterilised in the name of science. It was a formative influence for Adolf Hitler and a driving force for the Nazi deathcamps” (Saini and Pearson, 2019).
Now, speaking to friends, colleagues, and even strangers who come from very different perspectives to me (as you might picture from my work), I have found the term ‘eugenics’ like ‘colonialism’ conjures up images of a bygone era. Yet, both ideologies never went away. They simply became normalised. The term has been used synonymously with the varied COVID-19 responses around the world (Berger, 2020; Laterza and Romer, 2020; Fox, 2021; Pring, 2021; Appleman, 2021; Bagenstos, 2021; Damon, 2022). However, the stigmatisation of the disabled as well as the elderly, is pervaisve through Britain’s COVID-19 strategy – made worse when considering 20% of Britain’s working population [8.4m] identifies as disabled (Powell, 2021) while we also know age and disability are at an intersection, especially later in life.
A Double Down News broadcast (2020) presented by Nadia Whittome MP for Nottingham East discusses how “the [UK] government’s response to this crisis is reflected in the decisions that they’ve made over the last decade and that has been devaluing elderly, disabled and poor people’s lives – valuing people as economic units only.” The UK government prioritised a herd immunity plan to protect the economy further reflecting its focus on maintaining neoliberal capitalism. Arguably starting with Margaret Thatcher’s government (1980s) – as the former-PM said there is no such thing as society but “there are individual men and women and there are families.” Neoliberals would claim the relationship between people is more economic than anything. The liberal in neoliberalism takes its meaning from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries denoting economic liberty. As the political ideology of neoliberalism claims society is exclusively driven on transactional human relationships (Tom Nicholas, 2019).
From my Black/autistic perspective, eugenics like colonialism is a site of historical trauma. In a world where Black/autistic people’s bodies are still devalued, masking and codeswitching are necessary where we are pressured to choose between happiness or survival. And for Black autists and / or neurodivergents especially, I know I do not need emphasise the severity of living on a multi-pronged axis of oppression.
#ActuallyAutistic on the Axis
Being autistic while Black, access to diagnosis is not open to me in a UK that gets more dystopian by the day. A Twitter thread by @GummiePies really puts this into perspective, and what can a (likely neurotypical) doctor tell me other than what I do not already know? Imagine thinking I need validation from neurotypicals. While I have been a bit flippant here, I do know some may need that diagnosis to access services. For me to not feel that need is privilege. Yet, possibly controversially, we must consider how terminology like ‘neurodivergent’ may not be apt for Black-racialised neurodivergents. As Ngwagwa (2022) writes “Despite their prominence within disability communities, “neurodivergence,”, “neurodiverse”, and “neurotypical” will never be able to accurately describe Black bodyminds because we have never been “neurotypical.” Neurodivergent (dis)abilities do not appear in the same way in Black people as they do in our white counterparts. For example, since March 2020 there has been an increase in people discovering they have undiagnosed ADHD or autism (sometimes both). And for Black women ADHDers, as Claire Sibonney writes for The Washington Post: “signs of inattentiveness or impulsivity, the two main features of [ADHD] could be mistaken for laziness or defiance.” However, as far as case studies of autistic Black males go, many that reach mainstream public attention are American, including Elijah McClain – a twenty-three-year-old autistic Black man killed during an altercation with police and paramedic services in Colorado.
In a UK context, I am more familiar with the story of Osime Brown victim of the hostile environment where UK immigration policy has frequently been tasked to keep Black/Brown people out and white people in (Costello, 2015; Olusoga, 2019; Crofts, 2020; Ventour, 2021), most recently with the government’s Nationality and Borders Bill. Amid many cases against other Black people born in the Caribbean but raised and / or living in the UK passing through British institutions, Osime Brown was issued a “removal notice” in August 2018 under the reasoning of crimes he allegedly committed as teenager. If it wasn’t for the commitment from his mother and public protest, he may well have been another statistic. Another victim of British anti-Blackness from the state. Thinking back to Talia Lewis’ definition of ableism, we might want to consider how Brown was a victim of intersectional violence of being Black (dis-abling under white supremacy) and autistic which can be dis-abling under neurotypical supremacy (which ultimately polices autistic/neurodivergent ways of ‘being’ in the world).
Though I am British-born, I know people view me differently to Black neurotypicals. For Black people that visibly stim, this may be interpreted as violent when considering how Black neurotypicals are also stereotyped as violent. Visibly stimming while Black compounds how we are seen. Nirmal Puwar’s Space Invaders acts as a good basis for discussing bodies and space. What happens when bodies that have been historically excluded occupy spaces they were excluded from? Black, woman, disabled, poor, gay, trans, mentally-ill … the list goes on. What happens when we start to occupy senior positions?
Nirmal Puwar writes:
“This is an encounter that causes disruption, necessitates negotiation and invites complicity. Here we have the paradox of the increasing proximity” of the outsider/insider – as “While they now exist on the inside, they still do not have an undisputed right to occupy the space.” Space is fluid and Puwar continues to say that it cannot be contained as “they remain dynamic and open to other possibilities …” (p1-2)
In education institutions, we may consider how Black autistic people are outsiders twice over by both being racialised and considered unable/disabled. Further, to how ableism like racism impacts educational outcomes. The fear of discrimination may lead some to hide their identity (thus mask). So, many may not seek reasonable adjustments. For autistic students who do stim or have fidget objects, script, wear noise-cancelling headphones, avoid bright lights, or even elope, they are reducing themselves to fit into a metric that was not designed for them. Prosody is often seen as strange too, and this can include talking in random accents. Doing this while Black, it can come with racist undertones too. At university, I learned to hide my stims but since I’ve become more open with that, the response in some cases has been violent.
So, it wasn’t until I went to university that I began to see how one of the core tenets of critical race theory – intersectionality – could be useful in thinking about my experiences of racism and ableism. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s 1989 treatise sits inside a longer history of Black writing about racialised and gendered violence (Anon, 1808; Prince, 1831; Truth, 1851; Jacobs, 1861; Hurston, 1926; Hansberry, 1968; Angelou, 1969; Giovanni, 1970; Gilroy, 1976; Emecheta, 1979; hooks, 1981; Walker, 1982; Davis, 1983; Lorde, 1984; Bryan and Colleagues, 1985; Hill Collins, 1986). Though the focus here is how Black women have been treated in what became known as ‘misogynoir’ (Bailey, 2010), my experience of Black male disability comes with certain stereotypes of Black men being intellectually ‘deficient’ and / or mentally ‘less than.’
In the UK, I am four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act. Moreover, the 1998 case of David ‘Rocky’ Bennett may also act as another way to talk about this. Bennett was a Black Rastafarian man killed while institutionalised, restrained on a psych ward. An independent inquiry found his death was symptomatic of the physical restraints used by five members of staff (for twenty-five minutes). There were numbers of failings including cultural and racial stereotyping further to the lack of attempts to engage “… with his family as part of the treatment of his ‘psychosis’ diagnosis during a period of almost [twenty] years.” He was overmedicated, and his needs were unconsidered (Kinouani, 2021: 31-34).
The devaluation of Black people’s bodyminds extends beyond mental health wards. As a child, I remember my schoolteacher (in reference to me and my ability to just avoid schoolwork), saying “even my daughter isn’t this thick.” For those of you reading this outside of a UK context, “thick” is (ableist) UK slang for someone who is considered less intellectually able. It was later found that I was dyspraxic, not that this changed how I was treated. Now twenty-six, I understand there needs to be a national conversation about neurodivergence while Black in the UK. As someone that talks for a living, I cannot count the number of times I have received “feedback” from neurotypicals (of all colours, creeds, and races) that they would not be giving my white counterparts. When I disclose my disabilities, I am told to stop making excuses.
Observing Black people on AuDHD Twitter, TikTok and Instagram has allowed me to see how much there needs to be conversation in the UK about neurodivergence (more generally) while Black. The experiences I see shared appear as an indicator that if more Black people were diagnosed (not from lack of trying), there would be fewer communication breakdowns in Black families (well at least that’s my experiences with Caribbeans). Many activists on these platforms give me hope, but this is not reflected in mainstream discussion on television and the like about Black Lives Matter and anti-racism. I try not to make this an ‘Oppression Olympics‘, however, my Blackness comes attached to disability so I must ask is UK Black Lives Matter as it stands made for people like me? I really question if it is. Whilst not all neurodivergent people will see their experiences within the frame of disability, I do identify as a disabled person. Don’t get me wrong, I am not anti-BLM, but that does not mean it is beyond critique. As author-feminist Audre Lorde (1984) stated “there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not lead single issue lives” (p113). Watching public discourse about anti-Blackness in Britain continues to efface disability, made worse as disabled people are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 (The Health Foundation, 2021).
Our stories are not shown on television or film, but you will find them pervading online social media platforms. Concurrently, I do not think UK Black Lives Matter is as far forward as it is in the US. Though the United States is not without its problems, I feel there are number of Black practitioners and “activists” in the UK that care more about ‘respectability’ than dismantling violent systems! There are numbers consciously invested in the empire project and will go to Buckingham Palace for their gong or life peerage when the Queen of Empire comes calling. The euphoria of the Black Lives Matter protests two summers ago (2020) in Britain impacted different people in different ways, but one of the things I struggled with is how social justice platforms are still so often taken by Black and Brown members of the establishment.
Kimberlé Crenshaw describes intersectionality as:
To grow up without the language to describe your experience is a daily ritual of lonely. It was not enough to identify with Blackness when I have so often felt excluded by Black people for being different. Whilst I have been excluded by Black people based on disability, the counter is that white people have excluded me for being not white. So, when asked ‘which parts of myself I feel most strongly drawn to?’, I don’t think it’s easy to claim one when all are part of how I interact with the world. My gaze is not just race, but also through disability. A neurodivergent Black male view which is attached to a longer individual and collective history where Black men have experienced ableism (see Lewis’ definition) whether they are disabled or not. My external appearance is moulded by my internal conflicts and biography. How did I become me, and you become you? Appearances are not always helpful when we are individuals first, and these traits second. Yet, those traits inform our gaze and how others gaze upon us.
Intersectionality gives me a way of interacting with my experience of the world in a language that I have never really had before. Discourses to being ‘pro-Black’ that I saw following the Murder of George I found did not extend to people like me. When highlighting I am disabled, I am told that I have ‘achieved’ so much in spite of my disability. This is an ableist take that claims disability is something to be ‘overcome’, absolving institutions of the responsibility to remove barriers. I think I have achieved everything I have because of my neurological differences, and that comes in spite of ableism and neurotypical supremacy.
As a child, it was not in my language to think about terms like ‘autism’ or ‘neurodiversity’ and now I feel elated to have found some community where loads of us feel an incompatibility with a world built on a differrent metric. Now, I have found more narratives about autism and neurodivergence (Gadsby, 2018; Gibbs, 2021; Mallipedi and VanDaalen, 2021; Hume and Burgess, 2021; Turnock and Colleagues, 2022; Gadbsy, 2022; Tyla Grant, 2022). Black AuDHD Twitter and TikTok has been a lifeline and has stopped me falling off the edge many times. I did not come to terms like autism or really the catch-all term ‘neurodivergent’ until I went to university, as I am one of many people whose families naively yet conveniently withheld this sort of information. As a child, I suffered internally thinking I was deficient.
Though I have somewhat talked about my neurodiergence with my parents now, I know I have experienced trauma in the anxiety of not knowing who I am. The fact that so many neurodivergent people I know have experienced trauma because of their families is of note. My mother was let down by services in the late 1990s when she wanted to get me screened (in what became CAMhs). There is the age-old trope that parents “know best”, but there is also the reality that many parents must confront, that in having an autistic child or a neurodivergent child – they may not know best, and have unknowingly and unintentionally caused their children trauma through raising us/them thinking ‘they know best.’
The fact I was policed growing up for being “too sensitive” carries over to being autistic while Black in the workplace or in society, where allistics or even just neurotypical people have this ability to turn their emotions off or ignore their feelings. As autistic twitterer @geminifay writes:
My parents’ seperation still moves me very deeply. There is a grieving process that I am still going through even now over a decade later. There was one point I did not speak to my father for nearly three years and now I understand this to be an elongated meltdown. The variable (my father) that had been a constant in my life from when I was a baby, was now still going to be part of my life but in a very different way. This was a rejection of my new reality where this just did not compute.
One Twitterer also says:
As an adolescent teenager, I saw not talking to my father as an antidote to my pain but what I didn’t know then (that I was autistic), was that the change in ‘variable’ upset my structure and pattern of existing that I had built around myself since birth. My parents’ seperation impacted my school life and thus I did not get good GCSEs or even A-Levels. However, that ‘failure’ in school lead to the person I am now and I suppose that isn’t such a bad thing. If we do not experience failure in our lives, we end up thinking we know everything and that ‘certainty’ sets a dangerous precedent. Whilst I was not considered academically talented even when I was at primary level, what I can say is that my parents’ seperation and by proxy the annexing of the family structure as I knew it, went on to impact my mental health.
In a 2018 Double Down News broadcast Johann Hari states:
Many autistic people feel the pain of the world around them so deeply. At sixteen years old, I had a very different temperment to now: volatile, quick-tempered, emotionally unpredictable … no clue where I was heading. My normal as I knew it had disintegrated and I did not feel like I belonged, nor did I feel there was meaning or purpose in my life. I could not see a future … and my structures were taken away. Just as bees need a hive, people need a community. I had to create new structures and that was terrifying.
When I flunked out on my GCSEs and A-Levels, there was a familial disappointment. There was a pressure to get good grades; and knowing that was an unreachable tenet, created a need for restlessness and busyness all the time. Often this has lead to burnout (quite predictably). In her poem ‘Explaining My Depression to My Mother: A Conversation‘ Sabrina Benaim writes:
Growing up on this lonely planet I now know to call autism, I’ve always known how to turn “lonely into busy” as Sabrina Benaim says (fab poet who I have seen perform live twice). Busy anxiety sees itself constructively channelled into my essays, public history work, and event organising. That it is not to say I do not enjoy those things (because I do), but these activities are simply made easier due to busy anxiety and my hyperfocus / autistic flow. Today, in the work I do I get lots of praise and that also comes with not knowing how to take compliments, really after a childhood of academic disappointment and the judgement that came with it. If I had known I was autistic when I was a child, I would not have half of the issues I have now (and probably would care less about things being perfect).
Kimberlé Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality’ gives me a vessel into talking about parts of who I am, and critical race theory has scarcely begun to analyse disability; but the writing and theorising of other scholars (particularly intersectional feminists) gives safety, including activists in this area. With Crenshaw at the nucleus, Talia Lewis’ definition of ableism brings me safety even if it is grim. Under a wider scope, bell hooks critiqued intersectional violence as ‘imperialist white supremacist heteropatriarchy’ where my experience of autism while Black is unfortunately aptly appropriate.
Depression and Other Autistic Magic Tricks
People say, “you have high-functioning autism.” I despise that term ‘high-functioning’ because it erases the hoops I jump through simply to ‘appear neurotypical’. For me to appear neurotypical, I have to guess the right things to do or say. Since March 2020 with the pandemic, I have found myself unmasking. Whilst prior, I acted in accordance with neurotypical standards, I must admit now – excuse my French – I do not give a fuck about making neurotypicals comfortable. In her stand-up show Nanette, Hannah Gadsby says that her autism feels like “being the only sober person in a room full of drunks” and I can tell you I have not related to a simile more in my life. But as a Black child masking to me appeared like pretending to have everything together because we know Black men get blasted when they are not perfect (both from white people and also other Black men … but that’s a whole rabbit hole I am not going down right now).
The numbers of (white) people in particular, talking about The Slap uncritically is of note. Furthermore, how Black men in the public eye with mental health issues get memed, when clearly they are experiencing mental ill-health. Recently, actor Will Smith comes to mind. However, Kanye West and Tyrese Gibson were also the subject of viral memes when at their most vulnerable. I love a good meme as much as the next person, but what does it say about society if this is how it treats Black people when we are down? It simply says that under white supremacy, Black people are not ‘allowed’ to be vulnerable. So, via that act dehumanising, whiteness claims its victims. Though considering our institutions, I suppose meme culture in this regard is symptomatic of the society that produced the white supremacy that pervades through our institutions. As Malcolm X said, “That’s not a chip on my shoulder, that’s your foot on my neck.”
This theme of mental ill-health pervades through the lives of not only white autistic people, but also Black autistic people who are discriminated against from multiple points. In my work, my intuitive demeanour is a good thing, but this also comes at the expense of feeling my feelings to an extent that seeing people in anguish pains me. For neurotypicals, many of whom can switch off to such things, these realities of conflict thrust me into a dark chasm. Ironically, I am emotionally invested in social justice so there is a trade-off and I have to work hard at protecting myself. These sorts of scenarios can provoke sensory overload when I am overstimulated. There are several factors that induce this in an individual such as noise, mass media, technology and too much information too quickly (North Shore Paediatric Therapy; Progressive Historians, 2007; Kramer, 2010). Many autists I know have auditory hypersensitivity where a noise does not have to be loud to cause a meltdown, but simply many different noises overlapping and interrupting each other can be equally painful. For example – a ringing phone, the grunting water cooler, the humming light, and chatting voices – at the same time. So, unsafe environments vary.
I would rather go to someone’s house or a nice restaurant for dinner (with just a few people), than a party full of crowds. My affinity for ‘pleasant’ (safe) environments has often been donned as snobby (and that I look down on people). By nice, I mean places that aren’t full of moving or standing crowds. Also, places that are not too visually busy. Even shopping centres are hard! One of my hobbies is films and I love the cinema, but would rather be at a 9am screening for the latest Marvel film than 8pm simply because of the crowds. I need to be able to process places and I cannot do that with crowds. As a Black man who is also softly spoken and considered “well-spoken” (whatever that means), I am frequently told “you sound white.” I do not talk like this because of white people (though going to white private schools did have an impact), I talk like this because I am autistic. TikTok influencer autisticallykofi states “the way we pick up accents and pronounce words is different for us” so the way many of us talk is joined to our autism. This idea tied to accent, dialect, and vernacular of speech has also seen people call me superior, particularly Black/white cishet men. When we consider this embedded in patriarchy, other (nearly always cishet) men find a way to demonise my non-compliance with me betraying their ‘male solidarity’.
Within Britain’s Black communities, many people have tried to envelop me into racialised gender roles of how I should behave as a Black man. However, their conceptualisation of this and how they arrived at this conclusion is rooted in neurotypicalisms. The person I am now is not the person I was as a child, where then I was bullied and in fights. And in many cases you could see I embodied stereotypes associated with Black boys. Though with other boys, this language of violence is the only code they understood.
Now, I couldn’t imagine hurting anybody. Even then, it did not feel good, but ‘violent Tré’ was simply another mask for someone who wanted to constructively feel his feeling. And it was when I turned to arts at fourteen, that the person many know now began to show. I respect many Black people’s ability to codeswitch and that is a skill I do not have. My inability to codeswitch causes problems with particularly cishet Black men, where stereotypically ‘Black ways’ of address (i.e knuckle touches or handshake-hugs) do not come naturally to me. I do not understand slang, nor do I want to make small talk. That is not to say all Black British men talk slang (because I know many don’t), but the one’s that do seem to have problems with me. And if I am making small talk, this is for neurotypical comfort, and if I am at a party, I will befriend the dog! My family always knew I was sensitive, but that term ‘sensitive’ through society in general has been used as an insult. i.e “he’s too sensitive.” For all of society’s critiques of toxic masculinity (rightly), there is little critique of how many boys learned these behaviours from women (i.e their moms).
I see this most accutely with white boys and their moms, where some moms couldn’t possibly compute their son is a bully. It was most obvious to me growing up playing rugby and cricket, where these white moms would violently heckle their sons from the the side of the pitch. Some of these boys looked actively scared. Unconditional toughness; physical aggression; fear of emotions; stoicism; hyper-independence and more – hypermasculine men have a lot of explaining, but the roles of moms in this arena appears taboo, but needs to be part of the conversation. Just as there are Black and Brown people that have internalised whiteness (Black/Brown Tories ahem), there are women that actively internalise misogyny and patriarchy. As philosopher Simone de Beauvoir (1947) wrote:
So, playing many sports fixtures between the ages of eight and fourteen, I saw the internal conflicts of these privileged white boys. Judith Butler’s 1990 book Gender Trouble was a useful text for me to understand how gender is performed. My experiences with these white boys reminded me how we take on roles in society, and lots of the time these “roles” are projected on to us by external factors, including mass media and family influence. More recently, their interview with The Guardian headlined with ‘We need to rethink the category of woman‘ is worth a look. It also got me to see how we need to rethink the category of man. As from my earlier discussion about men and my autism, I seemingly do not make the cut. It’s interesting my main influences growing up were Black Caribbean women. Aside from my father and my grandfathers, I was raised by women: my mother, godmom, grandmothers (and their friends), aunties, female cousins … and now, most of my friends are women. Simply that’s how it has worked out.
In Mike Mills’ film 20th Century Women, Julie (played by Elle Fanning) says “Don’t you need a man to raise a man?” A quote that has stayed with me. My role models have never really been men and I have often felt marginalised by men. Today, lots of the people I am proud to call my friends who I have met through art and activism are women, of all colours. I have known what misogynoir was since I was six years old because I couldn’t afford not to. But that does not mean I do not have unlearning to do like everybody else, it simply means I learned lots as I grew up. My autistic empathy is tied up in my essence and how I move through the world. As an autistic Black man, I find I have more in common with (autistic) women than I do with many of the neurotypical men that try to give me life advice! In spite of my experiences, I do find myself humanised more by many of the women I have engaged with, than many neurotypical men. And it is telling that men that have humanised me identify as neurodivergent and / or LGBT+.
Author and psychologist Guilaine Kinouani tweeted:
For Black boys / men that care, love, and feel “too much” – holding their emotions on their sleeve – in a world that expects you to be violent and stoic, loving loudly and publicly is a political act. I was a polite child, and this made other boys push, and even the kindest of people has limits. Many of us pour our hearts out and ‘overshare’ which makes neurotypicals uncomfortable. Doing this while Black within Black spaces, I was policed to no end. “Feelings are bad” is an apt translation. However, it wasn’t all feelings – simply things like empathy and sadness – I cannot point to a memory where I was told it was okay to cry, but I can say I was told to stop crying on numerous occasions. I’m not sure I knew what depression or anxiety was growing up, but I know my brother does now (12 years my younger). The social paradigms are different, but I know growing up I was depressed and anxious, leading me to the work I do now.
As Twitterer Autistic Callum writes:
Autistic empathy has lots of overlap with highly sensitive personalities [HSPs] where we are told we can feel things “too much.” Lots of highly sensitive people are also autistic and some would argue they are the same thing (but that’s another discussion). Visiting my grandparents in Lichfield City, I learned how to emulate neurotypical exhibitions of emotion from my abundant consumption of Disney films. Disney soundtracks would go on to be one of my special interests for several years. I saw myself in these films, and pretending to be someone or something else was more comfortable than existing in reality.
The 2016 documentary film Life, Animated changed me, reminding me how Disney helped me communicate better with others. Though it’s not like for like, I remember these films helping me better connect with my grandmother. Mimicking the accents of characters allowed me to mask to fit in at school and at home. I could fake small talk and hide my distress to complex sounds. Practicing facial expressions as I learned from cinema was a survival tactic I then applied to life. Fake interest, being overly polite, and be extra-emotive to mundane things made neurotypicals comfortable. I was comfortable reading in the library, alone, away from drama, but teachers always saw this as a problem. My obsession with Harry Potter was taken away from me (not that this is bad considering recent events with #RowlingGate) and I was told to ‘socialise’ as if socialising was a metric for success. Later in life, I forced myself to go to parties because I thought that’s what everyone did. I hid my stims to fit in and would stop chewing pens / sucking my thumb for comfort (I didn’t realise this was a sensory thing for a while, and that chew toys are common). Worst of all though, stemming my enthusiasm for my special interests. Everything I was, was conditioned out of me in order to survive a hostile society.
Codeswitching while Black
The earliest printed use of the word or phrase codeswitching is in Language of the Sierra Miwok (Freeland, 1951). In the twenty-first century the term is often used by Black and Brown people in the Global North to describe how we must police our language for the comfort of white people. One of the most potent examples I recall is the film The Hate U Give (2018) based on the book of the same name by Angie Thomas (2017). In novel and adaptation, Starr and her family codeswitch – changing inflections, word usage, and looks – based on if they are engaging with their neighbours, white people, or the police. Starr, going to private school (as I did), thinks she is two people where at school she tries not to use African American Vernacular English to appear “not too ghetto” (whatever that means) to her white peers.
While codeswitching is most associated with racialised minorities, autistic people also codeswitch to cater to the delicate sensibilities of neurotypicals. Most commonly, “… [neurodivergent] people are called to task for behaviours that are hardwired into our brains, or behaviours that are extremely helpful for us, yet others perceive as “abnormal”, “disruptive”, or “unprofessional” (Enright, 2021). For me, this includes losing out on work opportunities because my communication style is “too direct” and honest. To cater to neurotypical standards, I am compelled to make small talk even if that brings feelings of hurt.
My brain functions in a way that small talk brings me psychological pain. Like burning your hand on the oven. Blogger Synthia Stark (2021) writes “what is worrying about code-switching is the psychological stress and burden when you do exhibit conscious bouts of code-switching …” where one study shows you might lose cognitive resources (Hewlin, 2009). While I must adapt my existence to cater to white neurotypicals, I am required to codeswitch again (and I’m bad at it) to engage with neurotypical Black people. So, neurotypical while Black – brings more challenges altogether (where I find myself caught out).
Growing up I didn’t have loads of friends and even now I don’t, but some may consider me popular as the work I have done has seen me generate many contacts. With these different circles, be it: poetry/arts, academia, family, or others – I am required to be different versions of myself to different people. In a 2014 comedy sketch on Key & Peele, they imitate former-POTUS Barack Obama’s 2012 exchange with the USA Olympic basketball team. He changes how he greets people dependent on if they are racialised as white or racialised as Black. This take is often stated as codeswitching.
Since the latter half of the twentieth century, some scholars have used the phrase ‘codeswitching’ to describe aspects of multiple languages (Torres, 2007). In a UK context, the 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners written by Trinidadian author Sam Selvon comes to mind, as it is written in Trinidadian vernacular. British-Guyanese poet John Agard also uses this linguistic ‘codeswitching’ in his poetry, most pertinently ‘Half-Caste'(Southbank Centre, 2012), ‘Listen, Mr Oxford Don’ (Bloodaxe Books, 2009) and ‘Checking Out Me History’ (BBC Teach, 2016). However, across transcultural social codes, I have felt pressured into codeswitching out of fear of violence (even if I know I do it badly). Yet, while I codeswitch when I inhabit white spaces, I do so again when speaking and engaging with Black/white neurotypicals.
In the normalisation of neurotypical and white ways of existing, this expectation leaves little room for being autistic while Black. So, many autistic Black people are left to navigate racist and ableist cultures of violence. Aspiring to whiteness and presenting to be neurotypical is in effect repressing ourselves twice over, in our Black and autistic identities. For those of us whose heritages derive from different areas of the Global South (in my case those Caribbean islands as former colonies), I have lived a life in proximity to a people who have aspired to Britishness through the white imaginings of Britain being respectable.
As Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan writes:
Though I am not Muslim, I relate to her comments as I swear respectability politics will end Black and Brown communities! This is also pervasive through how autistic people are ‘expected’ to act and be in this world. Guilaine Kinouani further talks about this in Living while Black, and Frantz Fanon earlier discussed internalised whiteness in his 1952 book Black Skin White Masks. So, autistic masking while Black appears as being less direct and choosing my words for the comfort of (Black/white) neurotypicals. Being too direct can appear as rude or violent revisiting stereotypes of Black aggression. We know Black men lose their lives over less at the whims of white people, and in my line of work, where white women pervade through equality spaces – it would only take one Amy Cooper to get upset. One white damsel in distress to bat her lashes and shed crocodile tears for institutions to split our carcasses in her defense.
This internalisation of how white people see you, Karen D. Pyke (2010) further argues “has largely been ignored, reflecting a taboo on the subject.” Yet, scholarship addressing this internalisation has long existed before the conceptualisation of the term itself. As historian WEB DuBois (1903) wrote ‘double consciousness’ as “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (p3). When I was a child, I wanted to be like my white friends. I had the same white envy and body dysmorphia (@treventour) so many of my Black friends and colleagues also experienced as children in the ‘white supremacist education system’ (Gillborn, 2005). Concurrently, “pretending to be neurotypical is … constantly suppressing much of our authentic selves in order to fit in and to make the neurotypical majority feel comfortable … a form of societal ableism … [and] internalized ableism” (Enright, 2021).
In the English private school system, I learned how to mimic the whiteness of my colleagues via their cultural practices in a time where I was being bullied because of my race/culture and also what I later know to be neurodivergence. At a period of my life where I was learning to find myself, I was learning to hate myself. As Elisabetta Crocetti (2017) writes, “The biological, cognitive, and social changes that occur in adolescence stimulate young people to think about themselves, reflect on the kind of people they want to become, and find their place in society.” At fourteen years old I was also stopped and searched by a white police officer, leaving me with a severe distrust in the police. Much alike the overpolicing of Black communities in America (Alexander, 2010) and Canada (Maynard, 2018; McKay, 2021), the UK is also blighted by such terros in the legal system (Macpherson, 1999; Lammy, 2017; Andrews, 2018: xviii).
The recent Child Q case in the UK has been condemned, but that policing of Black people’s bodies is not uncommon. Children are still not seen as full human beings, let alone Black children. I didn’t know I was autistic at that stop and search encounter, but child me did exist in his own little world much in tune with the natural world around him. People on the other hand, not so much. The way that police officer interacted with me was as if he did not see me at all, like I was inanimate, or he saw me as a grown man and that adultification of Black boys (Dancy III, 2014: 49-55) is mainstream in society’s institutions.
In Black Looks, bell hooks discusses how she was punished as child for looking at adults, because ‘looks’ would be interpreted as “confrontational”, as gestures of resistance, as challenges to authority”(p115). She goes on to talk about the politics of looking. For me watching police officers on the street, is a politicised spectator sport as both a Black person and autistic person where Black/autistic encounters with the police have frequently been hostile. And the Black children who watched white enslavers learned “through repeated acts of punishments that one’s gaze can be dangerous” (hooks, 1992: 115). When disciplining us many of our parents tell us to look at them in the eyes. I have always struggled with eye contact, either my gaze being too intense or struggling to maintain it. The tethering of discipline to looking makes “the child afraid to … but fascinated by the gaze. There is power in looking” (ibid). I wonder how the intergenerational trauma of white enslavers punishing enslaved Black people for looking has been passed down for generations through racialised dynamics, where culture and trauma over time in some cases have become so entangled it’s hard to seperate them.
Unmasking Inna Lockdown
For me, my previous decisions to mask could be interpreted as a trauma response to a society that punishes autistic people for being autistic.
As Lauren Melissa Ellzey tweeted:
Masking autism prevents some autistics from being discriminated against in public places. During the lockdowns I began to unmask but I also began to be more vocal with my experiences of both autism and dyspraxia, further to talking about racism following the Black Lives Matter protests. In talking about these things, people’s neurotypicalsims and whiteness pervaded, and my “friendship” circle severely diminished.
Seemingly, many people were more comfortable with the version of Tré that masks – the person that forced eye contact, imitated gestures and had developed a series of responses to small talk-esque scenarios. The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests was a watershed moment for me in a time following a job role where I had experienced racism and institutional gaslighting. Now, I do not care what people think and I am glad to have people who accept me for who I am, not who I pretended to be. Not that I was any good at masking anyway … the number of times I am ‘spotted’ by other autistic people in public is beyond recognition! Unmasking in lockdown saw improvements in my cognitive/emotional health. Since the Coronavirus pandemic, I have been in the best cognitive shape. The pandemic has exasperated inequalities across the board, but on a personal level it also pushed me into making some difficult life choices that I would not have done prior. Unmasking and being a truer version of myself among them.
As a Black man, I have grown up knowing people see us a certain way, and unmasking my autism has only amplified my anxiety here. Asiatu Coach tweeted how they “unconsciously mask [their anxiety] which triggers [their] depression/burn out. Unmasking is nuanced, complex, difficult AF & lifelong” (@AsiatuCoach). Though we have different experiences, I also still relate. In navigating the world as a Black man, this anxiety shows itself more when around police and public service providers. The Amy Cooper case in New York also reminded me why I am anxious around white women, and how the social power they hold over Black men (even in interracial relationships) terrifies me.
In Beyond the Pale, Vron Ware (1992) discusses how the history of white women is entwined in the history of racism. Ware argues white women are central to this, and that feminism specifically in numerous ways has developed under white supremacy. Despite being victims of patriarchy, white women are not beyond criticism, in fact they are a core element of white supremacy’s success now and historically.
From Mayella Ewell in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird to UK white feminism’s crocodile tears to the white women that call the police on Black people minding their business, white women as instruments in ‘white terror’ (hooks, 1992) is pervasive. I have seen too many Black males (and Black people in general) as victims of white women’s emotions leading to metaphorical and real public hangings.
Being out with my autism while Black means I have chosen happiness over safety even in this theatre of whiteness I know as the United Kingdom. British history is a carnival of mirrors where white women have been portrayed as obelisks of racial purity using their white status to provoke the anxiety of Black men. While I do have white women friends today, they are shocked by these realities when I tell them. Their existence is not divorced from collective histories embeded in white supremacy. Long known to bat their lashes at white men, these women then use the muscle of white men to devastate Black lives. My white women colleagues have consistently labelled themselves as separate from white men, using their experiences of misogyny as a shield, but we know white supremacy comes with Dior and Versace.
As a Black man, my skin is attached to a historical leash where white women used their white husbands as tools to lynch Black men. We were lynched and castrated, hanged from trees … had our testicles cut off at the whims of white womanhood. Now, cue white women praying to Jesus. We have been exoticised as well – dating while Black needs its own essay … hmph. This space while Black and autistic I am sure needs its own space to breathe. Navigating autism while Black, the political “no” of my warcry will be seen as uncooperative, or even hostile. Openly stimming will be construed as Black masculinity out-of-controlness. You will be gaslit when you raise these issues. Ableism and anti-Blackness are intimately joined at the hip (Lewis, 2021) where we know Black neurotypicals are already viewed as disposable under the vice of neoliberal capitalism. What hope is there for us when we are disabled as well as Black? We will never be ‘just human’ unless we play into the ‘Black excellence’ narrative.
As Guilaine Kinouani also writes:
For white women who claim discrmination from misogynist white men but fail to see their role in racism, it could be as one scholar states how “whiteness […] asserts the obvious but consistently [overlooks] the fact that whites are racially interested and motivated. [It] both names and critiques hegemonic beliefs and practices that designate white people as “normal” and racially “unmarked” (Hartigan Jr, 2005: 1).
In this white supremacist society, toxic white femininity digs shallow graves for its Black victims as white tears drip like holy water on the dry earth. Though, I have yet to have a white woman call the police on me, I have been sexually assaulted, further to subject to white women’s tears/emotions as weapons (Hamad, 2019; Phipps, 2021), amid the white ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ (Cheng, 2000; Matias, 2016) they attempt to project when you hold them accountable. Concurrently, while white people have been more accommodating of my disability needs, from my earlier discussion they fail to see the racialised elements.
At the same time, my experience of Black people has been one where they are able to understand racism, but not ableism – in many cases reminding me that many Black people in my circles reproduce ideas of hyperproductivity as success playing into hypercapitalist ideas of living (thus ableism) showing they do not see the barriers that exist for many autistics in this cruel cruel world.
In closing, my experiences of autism while Black in the UK have been varied with violence coming from both white and Black people. It is a very lonely road without community.
In 2017, my best friend died to a terminal illness. Heather Luisa Ventour – my only auntie on my mom’s side by blood – died of complications relating to an autoimmune disease called Scleroderma. However, she was much more than that, including the sister I never had. Growing up, I used to spend time with her in her Colindale flat in North London. I didn’t really talk to anyone else about my feelings. She was the only person that understood how to talk to me, and understood my depression has largely come from not being able to normalise suffering in a sick society. For someone who is Black and autistic, under white neurotypical oppression, “feeling my feelings” is radical and juxtaposed to the stereotypes that exist.
When I was a child, I would smile and laugh, in the moment, but I have never been able to sustain joy, even in activities I like. Being depressed from a young age has impacted me a great deal because I never really had a childhood, simply I was always trying to find ways to be happy. Auntie Luisa died in January 2017 and due to my delayed processing, it is only now over five years later I am feeling things. I recall the day it happened like it was yesterday: my maternal grandmother’s paralytic screams, my grandfather’s silence, my mother’s voice changed. I can still hear that something in her voice. For many, when their best friend in the world dies they might withdraw. However, I just became work-busy off the back of the busy anxiety I have had since childhood where I was called lazy for being less academically able.
A whole childhood of not knowing you are fundamentally wired differently to most people has consequences. I was called rude, difficult, lazy, uptight, fussy and snobby by multitudes of people, when I was autistic and uncontroversially so. All these things while Black have racialised connotations. The September following Auntie Luisa’s death I watched a film called Goodbye Christopher Robin about author A.A Milne’s relationship with his son Christopher Robin and the origins of Winnie the Pooh. Looking back on my life now, it is upsetting to recall how much I saw my family struggle in trying to understand my ways of being in the world. I have wasted so many years of my life not understanding who I am and this certainly implicates my neurodivergence within the complex terrain of mental ill-heath.
My family thought they knew best, and they did most of the time. Yet those times my parents took away my books when I was “naughty”, they removed my safety measures and comfort bubbles. But they weren’t to know. As per my comment about Disney films further up, I always found make-believe safer than the physical world. My books were like Winnie the Pooh and his 100-Acre Wood in a world that had normalised suffering. However, I do not hold hate in my heart for that. They weren’t to know. Now, they know better so they do better. Sending me to a day school in the country might have been one of the best decisions they made for me. Compounded by the long walks with my godmother, and the family camping trips, those school fields gave me space to be.
Safety in the land of make-believe reminds me that when I had accomodations (though I didn’t know that then), I was happier. I never recieved a formal diagnosis, but I really question if I need one? The fact I am constantly “spotted” by autistics in public is diagnosis enough! I didn’t fit anywhere even within my family or school, other than in the fields. Those memories of camping trips, the long walks, and pastoral country greens, I want to put them in a box.
Being bullied on the grounds of race / culture, and introversion / being sensitive (what I now know to be autism), made my life miserable. These days of talking about autism with other autistic peope are the best days I have ever known (despite being depressed) after the worst days I have ever known. As an educator, this is a constant reminder how autistic people (much alike other historically excluded groups) are forced to make their own spaces when institutions refuse to make way. These overt microaggressions via ableist barriers are a slow death, and suicide is a bigger killer for us in comparison to the neurotypical population.
Today, myself and many other autistic people are paying the price for society’s arrogance. We should not have to mask or codeswitch, and the fact we are forced to is violence in of itself. I couldn’t have wished for more loving parents or family. They are not perfect but nobody is, not even us autistic people. Not knowing I was autistic resulted in a three-year meltdown when I decided to cut my father off after my parents seperated. I wasted so much time. My childhood was wonderful, it was growing up that was hard.