I thought a lot about the ways I could present this interview. I really wanted to capture the words of a person of color in the wake of all of the tragedies we’ve recently seen happening to the black community. I wanted to post an article about what has been going on, but I did not feel my words were the words that anyone needed to hear. I am white, and I will never understand what people of color go through. I wanted this to be a time for me to listen. How can I be a better ally as a privileged white person?
I also recall how upset I feel when able-bodied people do not listen to me when I talk about issues pertaining to having a disability or cisgender/straight people when I talk about LGBT issues. I live in both communities whether I am accepted there or not, and when people attempt to erase the feelings I have towards the discrimination I experience, they are essentially erasing or invalidating my experience. Why would I want anyone to feel that way?
It is true that many of the communities Anita is in overlap with my own. Still, as a person with white privilege it was really important that I not invalidate her experiences as a woman of color. It was time for me to shut my mouth and listen. Anita knows her experiences better than anyone else, so no one should ever attempt to silence her or invalidate what she has gone through, what she had seen, and how that has shaped her as a person.
With that in mind, rather than speak between what she says, I feel it best to leave it completely in her words, as they were presented to me.
So without further ado meet Anita – a smart, beautiful, wonderful soul, my crip sister, and a person I am very proud to call my friend. Anita constantly challenges me to think, to question, and to want a better world where anyone different from me is treated with respect, dignity and honor.
Anita is a powerhouse in the activist community, having protested actively with the disability organization, ADAPT, for many years. In her nearly three decades of protesting she has been arrested over 100 times. Most of the protests involve aspects of civil disobedience, which has led to many great strides forward in the quest for equality for the disability community.
Thank you for letting me interview you, Anita.
Dominick: When it comes to oppression, what do you wish white people understood about being a black, lesbian woman (corrected from female) with a disability?
Anita: I want White people to know that I am proud of each of my identities.
Let’s get rid of the term female when discussing a human being. Animals are females, humans are women. In past history, Black women were referred to as females because we weren’t seen as human.
Being a Black woman doesn’t make me less than you. It does not mean that I am less intelligent or less able than you. It doesn’t mean that I am all those stereotypes that you want to put on me – angry, bitch, sexual, dumb, lazy, criminal, etc. The same goes for being a lesbian. I’m not those stereotypes.
Just because I have disabilities doesn’t mean that my life has less value than yours. My being disabled doesn’t give you the right to pity, other, or oppress me, nor does it give me a pass on being held accountable for my actions or being a responsible adult. My having a disability doesn’t negate the fact that I have skills, gifts and talents to offer.
Dominick: How do you define oppression? Is it something on a scale, where one aspect of your identity is oppressed more than another or do the systems of oppression intersect and build upon one another?
Anita: I believe that the systems of oppression intersect and build upon one another. Because I present as a Black woman, those oppressions are the most obvious. Unless I’m in my wheelchair or on my walker, or someone sees me looking closely at something or sees me rocking or flapping, no one will know that I have disabilities. Unless I tell you I’m a lesbian, no one will know. It’s bad enough being oppressed for what I present as, but when I’m oppressed for all, which happens more often than I’d like to deal with, it can become very overwhelming.
Dominick: You have talked about how you always have to be afraid of the police, and that this has gone on forever, but white people are just waking up to realize it’s happening. Can you elaborate on this a little bit more?
Anita: Cops killing Black folks didn’t start with Mike Brown in Ferguson. Cops have been killing Black folks since the police were established in this country. The police and law enforcement were used to oppress Black folks from slavery and the Reconstruction, forward. From racially motivated riots to the murders of Black civil and voting rights workers and activists, the police were either directly involved or gave tacit approval.
So, the killing of Black folks by cops have been going on for quite some time. Heinous killings have also been going on for a long, long time, but Mike’s murder touched off something. It was the last straw. People rose up. Only then, it seems, did White people start noticing. When the killings continued, and cops were caught in lie after lie and protests spread around the nation, some White folks started getting it.
Still, most White people don’t understand that the reason that protests and uprisings are happening is that Black folks have been dealing with this for centuries and we are tired! Despite the whole Officer Friendly farce, we knew better. Good cops were rare then, and even more rare today. We noticed how we were treated differently. We noticed that our neighborhoods were being policed by mostly White cops who didn’t live there, hated the neighborhood and hated us. We took note, even if White folks didn’t. We tried to tell you, but you refused to believe us because White folks experience police in a vastly different way than Blacks. You are not seen as criminals beyond redemption. You were brought up to trust the police and to go to them if you had problems. It was rare that a White person was mistreated, let alone murdered by a cop, so you didn’t understand why Black folks had and have, more than ever, a deep mistrust and fear of police. If you’re Black, coming into contact with a police officer can result in your death and the defamation of your character!
So when I say that I don’t go out of my house unless I really have to, because I’m afraid of dying at the hands of the police for living while Black, I mean it in the most literal sense of the words. Cops will kill a Black woman just as fast as a Black man; people just aren’t talking about it as much. Our deaths don’t make the papers and other media like the deaths of Black men. Black women are rising up, though, and demanding that our deaths by cops are not being erased.
Dominick: Whenever we see young black men getting murdered, there is a lot of backlash from the white community. What would be the ideal outcome and response? I guess essentially what I’m asking is, how can white allies help the situation? Should we stay out of things…or do we need to be actively participating to eradicate the discrimination the black community faces?
Anita: White folks need to be schooling other Whites about this. Learn the facts, then, educate other White folks. When you see White people making racist comments about police killings or Black uprisings, put a stop to it. Call them out! Don’t just be on the sidelines scared and wringing your hands. Further, if they keep it up, keep on calling them out! Take some of the pressure off of Black people to be in this all by ourselves.
Dominick: What parts of your story as a black, lesbian woman with a disability would you like to share? I want to give your voice a chance to be heard, and I want people to listen.
Anita: You may share it all.
I came from an upper middle class Black family. My birth parents were older when I was born and my birth dad was an immigrant born in Cuba, whose family immigrated to Jamaica when he was seven years old. That had a lot to do with how I was reared, as well as my world view. They were Catholic. I loved the Church until I realized how homophobic and ableist it is. I have no association with organized religion, indeed, I’m an agnostic.
I grew up during the height of the Black Power movement and attended an elementary school named for Countee Cullen, a Black poet of the Harlem Renaissance. I also share a birthday with Paul Laurence Dunbar, another Black poet. Needless to say, I grew up steeped in my history!
For a person with disabilities growing up during that time, I was lucky. Even though we had no rights to an education, I was mainstreamed from preschool through university. I was in gifted classes, which was unusual for Black and disabled students. I still had to overcome people’s perceptions about Black and disabled people’s intelligence and abilities. Both children and adults hurled the R word at me, even though I was considered gifted.
From an early age, I knew that I was different from other girls. I knew that I liked girls and planned to marry a girl when I grew up. I was smart enough not to tell my birth parents about this because I knew how homophobic they were. I came out on my 21st birthday. Oh, and I did marry a woman, as planned. At the time, there was no marriage equality in our state, so we went to Canada to get married. We recently celebrated our 6th anniversary.
Dominick: What kind of discrimination have you faced within the communities you’re supposed to be a part of…so how have you been oppressed in the black community for being a woman, a lesbian and disabled, how have you been oppressed in the disability community for being a woman, black, and a lesbian, etc.?
Anita: I have been discriminated against in every way possible. I have experienced racism and homophobia in the disability community, anti-woman, ableism and homophobia in the Black community and ableism and racism in the LGBTQ community. Every community that I belong to has made me feel as if I don’t belong.
Dominick: How have societal views on race changed, if at all, since you were a kid?
Anita: Actually, they haven’t changed much, to
be honest. Racists have been emboldened to make their views known publicly. Having a Black president has not changed this; in fact, it’s gotten worse since he came to office.
Dominick: In your dreams, what does the world look like? Is there a dream, or is it possible?
Anita: I don’t have a dream because I know that as long as humans exist, there will always be hatred and intolerance in the world.
I have been enriched every day that I have known Anita. I have a dream that all my friends will be treated with equal respect, love, kindness, understanding, empathy, and compassion. I am too stubborn to think the world cannot change or maybe I just think I can run people over in my wheelchair, until they start believing in equality. Either way, I am so grateful for this interview.
I urge you all to listen to people of color when they speak about how they have been affected, how they have been oppressed, and ask yourselves if you are truly okay with other human beings being treated this way. What can we do to be better as a society? We can listen to black people about their experiences, we can not try to minimize what they say, and we can be good allies by listening to their words, and letting their community speak for themselves.