Thursday, 23 February 2012

Black disabled activist Johnnie Lacy

Black disabled activist Johnnie Lacy, in a 1998 interview for UC Berkeley's oral history archive, recounted several decades of experience trying to negotiate her minority identities. As early as 1960, Lacy was exquisitely conscious of the freedom that even those who might oppose race and sex discrimination felt they could exert in oppressing people with disabilities. She recalls the San Francisco State University professor who successfully organized a movement to stop her from studying in his department because he saw no place in his profession for wheelchair-users: ". . . my final and departing shot to him was that if I were just a woman, he could not do this to me; if I were only a person of color, he would not be able to do this to me; and . . . the only reason that—the only way that you [are] able to take this unfair advantage is because I have a disability."
Although the analogy between racist and ableist discrimination is evident in Lacy's protest, she did not see that analogy being widely understood. At the time, and well into the early Seventies, her interaction with her fellow Black activists led her to believe that the Black community shared the larger society's prejudices against the disabled: "I believe that African Americans see disability in the same way that everybody else sees it—[perceiving people with disabilities as] worthless, mindless—without realizing that this is the same attitude held by others toward African Americans. This belief in effect cancels out the black identity they share with a disabled black person, both socially and culturally, because the disability experience is not viewed in the same context as if one were only black, and not disabled. Because of this myopic view, I as a black disabled person could not share in the intellectual dialogue viewed as exclusive to black folk. In other words, I could be one or the other but not both." Although the Black community acknowledged the existence of disability, Lacy felt that it did not recognize the possibility of people with disabilities having a group identity. "I also discovered . . . that many African-Americans consider being black as having a disability, and so they didn't really identify with disability as a disability but just as one other kind of inequity that black people had to deal with.

As an activist in the new movement, working at Berkeley's Center for Independent Living and similar institutions, Lacy found herself on the other side of the divide: instead of feeling frustrated with the Black community's limited understanding of disability culture, she became a kind of ethnographic guide to the largely white disability community, trying to educate its members who had no clue as to how to approach the Black community. Although she quickly taught her white colleagues to avoid openly condescending behavior, she had more difficulty with their ignorance of cultural difference: "It's just that they came from backgrounds where . . . they just didn't have that much exposure to people of color, and they truly did not know how to outreach with these folks. They just felt that if you're disabled, that's the only thing, you know, that's important." She struggled to explain how many minority cultures had different attitudes toward community and family than did the independence-minded white professional class, and how those differences were relevant to the Independent Living Movement. Ultimately the movement's minority outreach resources improved with the recruitment of more activists of color who had received and given training in the "504 group."

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