Panel 3: "Historical reflections on knowledge (production) of disability and race"

Flipped webinar (9/Jul/21): 'Intersectional Approaches to Disability and Race' (here)

Exemplary spaces of (dis)ablement?

Dr Eric Olund

Lecturer in Geography, University of Sheffield

The ways human differences are produced and experienced are often understood in spatial terms. Think about ‘the closet’ for LGBT+ people, or ‘domestic space’ for women. These are both material spaces and spatial images or metaphors that shape how we both experience and think about difference. An underlying theme of this webinar on disability and race underscores this point. ‘Intersectionality’ calls our attention to the multiple social forces that produce oppression at particular points in space and time. Kimberlé Crenshaw’s metaphor of diagramming a car accident at an intersection spatializes systemic aspects of Black women’s oppression that results when the system of white supremacy is critiqued in masculinist terms, and the system of patriarchy is critiqued in white terms. It prompts us to analyse these systems’ relationships and possible collective remedies.


So, intersectionality is an exemplary spatiality that that is both a figure of thought and the actual experience of multiple power relations materializing in particular places and times, as racializing and gendering processes (among others) converge. But intersectionality per se has no particular concrete, historical spaces that exemplify its logic. That is to say, Black women’s oppression isn’t historically tied to car crashes at intersections. Other Black and Latinx feminist activist scholars have explored such actual, exemplary spaces, ranging from the intimate scale of the kitchen to the vastness of the Mexico/US Borderlands. I focus here on the Middle Passage, the plantation and the prison—spaces shaping diasporic Blackness in North America—which will be familiar to many readers of this blog post. But what I want to emphasize in recounting their anti-Black violence here is that their spatial logics are essential to understanding the continuities in strategies of white supremacy that have otherwise changed form over five centuries, and to understanding how Black people have responded through resistance, as well as through affirmation of Black life as Black life.


I do acknowledge there are a lot of important critiques of what Michelle Wright has called the ‘MPE’ (Middle Passage epistemology) for obscuring diasporic experiences of Blackness different from the USA’s, such as those of Black people in South America, where most enslaved people actually wound up after surviving the Middle Passage, to say nothing of Blackness in Africa itself. Yet I stay within the MPE for now precisely for its general familiarity to anglophone readers, and more importantly and hopefully a bit less problematically, for the link I will make with disablement below.


In brief, the Middle Passage referred to the transportation of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic. This exemplary space included the route following the trade winds to the Caribbean, the ships that followed the route, and the bodies of the enslaved persons packed in the ships as cargo. It was by way of the Middle Passage that people from dozens of ethnic groups in West and Central Africa became ‘Black’. On the one hand, the Middle Passage deindividualized people by physically removing them from everything that made them who they were, separating them from their families and community members. But scholars have also shown how the hold of the slave ship could also be the site of new connections and solidarities. My point isn’t to embrace a false neutrality by presenting ‘both sides’ of the slave trade. It is that the particular spatiality of the Middle Passage set the stage for producing the particular practices and relations of oppression, agency and resistance that would come to characterize Blackness in North America.


The destination of these enslaved people was the plantation, and this exemplary space also played a key role in producing the particular ways Blackness is positioned, articulated and lived in North America. The plantation was a space of containment in which Black bodies were kept as the chattel property of their White masters—a spatiality that made Black people into objects with no rights to their bodies, their mobility, their relationships, their children, and of course the products of their labor. The plantation instituted a spatial logic of segregation, control and appropriation that has continued to contribute to white supremacist positioning of Black people into the present in different ways. Segregation through ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the South, informal segregation in the North, structural discrimination everywhere, the police and the courts, extrajudicial punishment such as lynching—all these literally kept Black people in their place on their side of what W.E.B. DuBois called ‘the color line’.


The Civil Rights Movement engaged in a counter-spatiality of crossing the color line and occupying public space in order to change the place of Blackness in the USA. The white supremacist counter-reaction involved the creation of a prison-industrial complex that attempted to put Black people back in their place and undermine their collective capacity as subjects with agency. For white supremacy, the prison had succeeded the plantation as the exemplary space for producing its version of Blackness.


This MPE of Blackness connects to disablement in overlapping ways. The carceral logic explored by scholars of US Blackness connects with the work of Michel Foucault on madness, criminality, sexuality and (very briefly) racism. He analysed these as categories created for disciplining and normalizing individuals, governing populations and determining whose lives had value. That is, in his famous words, whom ‘to make live and let die’. The latter included the racialized and/or those deemed disabled. His work is also no doubt familiar to many readers of this blog, but again, I want to emphasize the ways spatiality is inherent to his arguments. This is most vivid in Discipline and Punish, his genealogy of the modern prison in which he parses Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon. Panopticism is a spatiality in which (in this case) a prisoner knows they may be watched from a central tower, but can’t tell if they in fact are, and thus acts as if they are. Panopticism’s spatiality—exemplified by the prison but by no means restricted to it—internalizes surveillance. Foucault also explores how confinement, categorization and surveillance were central to the spatialities of the school, hospital and the asylum, exemplary spaces of what we would now call disablement for many people with impairments.


And yet, as Simone Browne argues, Bentham’s normalizing panopticism is inadequate for understanding the role of surveillance in the production of Blackness, for it implicitly equates modernity with whiteness. We might instead view the slave ship that preceded the late eighteenth-century prison by some 200 years as the exemplary space of surveillance in the modern era. For not only was it built to prompt Black self-surveillance, it also facilitated Black sousveillance—a gaze from below—upon their white captors and for opportunities for exercising agency. Browne is careful not to exaggerate the potential for resistance that spatialities of sousveillance afford. Rather her point is that the slave ship offers an exemplary space of surveillance whose spatiality actively accounts for opportunities for agency and resistance, however fleeting, rather than simply tacitly assuming resistance as Foucault generally does.


What of exemplary spaces of disablement then? What we might gloss as the disciplinary institution epistemology—let’s call it ‘DIE’—is apparent in many strands of critical disability studies, neurodiversity studies and mad studies. Exemplary spaces of disablement such as the hospital, the psychiatrist’s office and the school are ubiquitous, if not often quite as systematically explored in terms of spatiality. But explicitly intersectional approaches (still fairly rare) are beginning to get at the complex terrain and differential effects of DIE spatiality.


Nirmala Erevelles, for example, explores how (in my words) MPE and DIE have long shared exemplary spaces in their respective analyses of racialization and disablement. She shows how Black children violate white norms of able-bodiedness by dint of being visible as Black bodies in white-controlled schools and public spaces, while being systematically segregated in Black neighborhoods that are already pathologized spaces. This process of disablement produces a school-to-prison pipeline for Black children in which the school’s disabling effect is magnified. For Erevelles, the school is a ‘generative’ space (for white children) from which Black children are expelled, disabled because they are Black. The corollary is that the relatively fewer white children expelled from school have failed ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ despite being white, or indeed because they failed at being white.


Erevelles explores exemplary spaces in which ‘racialized bodies became disabled and disabled bodies became racialized’, but she is careful to avoid treating these two processes as symmetrical or even synonymous. Therí Alyce Pickens observes in her study of Blackness and madness that this trap is a symptom of the fact that ‘critical discourses about madness and Blackness tend to implicate but not include each other’. While her own work looks at Black science fiction, she is clear that attending to material spaces is crucial if we are to avoid an easy assumption that disability and race are mutually constitutive in a simplistically reciprocal way. My term ‘exemplary space’ may risk oversimplification if spatialities of disablement are conceived in isolation from other power relations. But an intersectional approach should prompt attention to their decidedly uneven effects.