The volatile and toxic intersection of anti-Black racism and our society’s dehumanizing attitude toward people seen by others as “mentally ill” is on full display this week in victim blaming narratives surrounding the murder of Jordan Neely — the 30-year-old Black subway rider who was choked to death by a 24-year-old white ex-Marine on the New York City subway on May 1, as other passengers looked on.
New York Mayor Eric Adams, the New York Times and other news outlets have described the murder in a way that downplays the violence of the killing, instead seeming to exonerate the killer by casting the lethal chokehold as somehow understandable because, in Adams’s words, “there were serious mental health issues in play here.” And as Sharon Zhang noted yesterday in Truthout, the right-wing New York Post even cast the murder as an act of heroism.
To understand how sanism and anti-Black racism intersect in horrifying acts of violence such as this, and in our society more broadly, I spoke with Idil Abdillahi — an assistant professor in the School of Disability Studies at Toronto Metropolitan University — about how her work brings together Black Studies and the emerging interdisciplinary field of scholarship known as mad studies.
In a world where suffering is so pervasive and overlapping, Abdillahi’s critical voice is indispensable. In addition to her role in the School of Disability Studies, Abdillahi is also cross-appointed to the School of Social Work, has served as an adviser to the Dean on Anti-Black racism at the Faculty of Community Services, and is author of Black Women Under State: Surveillance, Poverty & the Violence of Social Assistance. In the exclusive conversation with Abdillahi that follows, we discuss the killing of Jordan Neely in the U.S., as well as Canadian forms of white racist bad faith, genocide, how universities benefit from Black death, mad studies, ableism and neoliberalism.
George Yancy: Before you delve into the particularities of anti-Black racism and sanism in Canada, where you live and work, I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on the murder of Jordan Neely this week in the United States, and how discourses of mental illness and the pathologization of Blackness are affecting how his killing is framed by politicians and by the corporate media.
Idil Abdillahi: In the mad Black person, all the violences of modernity converge to produce death. That is what we witnessed on the New York subway. Add to that homelessness, and the mad Black person without property is the perfect anthesis of this violent brutal capitalist society — they must be made to disappear by all means necessary, even if by white non-police deputization, as Frank Wilderson has called it. Wilderson argues that the existence of Black people is put permanently in question when compared to others whose existence goes without saying. He writes, “In such a paradigm White people are, ipso facto, deputized in the face of Black people, whether they know it (consciously) or not.” The message seems to be, “kill them fuckers!” Indeed, any white deputy can kill them fuckers. White protection is the order of the day because whiteness owns everything. In “The Souls of White Folk,” it is W.E.B. Du Bois who says, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
I agree with your point regarding the ways in which experiencing homelessness, being Black and experiencing a mental illness combine to render Jordan Neely a problem to be dealt with through violence as opposed to a person crying out for help. I think of the other passengers who may have sat there and done nothing to help Neely. Right before their eyes, he was made to disappear through the use of a chokehold. Yet, Neely was not the problem. The problem is the failure of our society to invest in understanding and supporting people who are struggling to survive. The problem in this case is the so-called white hero who held Neely by the neck until he died. Effective intervention is not the same as applying a chokehold. We don’t need white heroes or white savior figures. We need people who love Black bodies, people who understand Black precarity and vulnerability vis-à-vis an anti-Black U.S. Important here is also to point out that anti-Black racism is global. Black embodied precarity is not something that exists only in the U.S. I have encountered white people who seem to think racism only exists in the U.S. For example, I have been in conversations with white Canadians on the theme of race/racism and the first question that I get is: “What’s going on in the U.S.? What’s this race problem?” It’s at this point that I want to say to them, “How courageously are you dealing with your whiteness when it comes to Indigenous suffering under white settler colonialism in Canada?”
Stop talking to white Canadians who are lying to you. It is as if Canada is free of any race problems. Such questions can be exhausting as they point away from Canada’s long history of racism.
To be sure, it is not these questions themselves that are exhausting; rather, what becomes tiresome is the commitment to the denial of racism itself, which has significant and ongoing implications, dangerous or deadly outcomes. It is precisely these refusals and outright obfuscations of the historical and ongoing legacies of racism and Indigenous genocides in Canada that allow for the white lies and shock vis-à-vis the United States to not only be repeated but become proliferated as a global narrative.
It becomes so pervasive in how Canada as a nation likes to imagine itself as being safer in relation to our neighbors to the south. To point to a few examples, the so-called country of Canada was founded upon the genocide of Indigenous peoples from coast-to-coast over an ongoing and extended period of time. This encounter, then, has extended itself to loss of language, culture and spirituality; to the development of residential schools; to forced sterilization of Indigenous women and girls; to the missing and murder of Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit peoples; to the violence enacted by the state against Indigenous peoples living with disabilities; to the capture of Indigenous children; and to the ongoing theft of Indigenous lands. These were calculated and legislated by anti-Indigenous laws, which came by way of violent and racist state-sanctioned policies and practices such as The Indian Act (1876). This history is not over. Indigenous survival and resistance are still met with genocidal practices.
Furthermore, we need to consider the history of slavery in Canada as well, which is often denied in exchange for the palatable and romanticized story of this country as a safe haven for runaway slaves from the United States. We are aware that Canada in fact actively participated in slavery, had numerous segregated schools for Black people, law and legislation which prohibited interracial marriages, limited movement after certain times within Black communities, and outright refused immigrants from particular countries who [officials] deemed unfit to weather the weather. (This was not specific to Black people only.) Yet, another example of racism can be gleaned from the experiences of migrant workers in Canada and the harsh treatments they must endure here.
We can also turn to the example of the Chinese Immigration Act (1885) which sought a $50 “head tax” on every person of Chinese origin immigrating to Canada. This was a practice that was never seen before and was uniquely undertaken in the Canadian context. To be clear, in Canada, anti-Asian racism continues to be on the rise, even in so-called multicultural cities such as the one I live in. I think, for instance, about the attacks on Chinatown in Toronto and what this means for the collective psyche of that community. More recently, I am sitting with the attacks on Muslim people as well as the vandalism enacted on mosques and other sites of worship — not unlike or dissimilar from the disabling violence enacted upon the Al Aqsa Mosque. Violence like this is always disabling.
We need to become more in tune with the dangers of these benign questions and curiosities regarding “what’s happening over there” and what these mean to those of us who are living in the here and now, not only in the midst of ongoing erasure, absenting, and outright dishonesty directed at the lives of Black people in so-called Canada, but also in how such discourse has an impact on all Black people. It is not that there are authentic experiences of violence or that these experiences are unique to either Black Canadians or Black Americans. It is that these discourses inform us about how Black life is imagined as undervalued across the board.
In short, the question allows white Canadians the opportunity to reproduce national mythologies.
I value the core emphasis of your response. In other words, the problem with Canadians asking about racism in the U.S. is that it obfuscates the racism within Canada. As a Black woman whose critical scholarship engages deep political and existential themes within the areas of disability, colonialism, anti-Blackness and imperialism, speak to this dynamic of white “race evasion.”
From my perspective, “race evasion” as a turn of phrase does a disservice to what is taking place. For me, evasion means (or can mean) “to avoid,” “to ignore,” “to dismiss.” I believe we no longer live in a time where the notion of this being a case of evasion should be entertained. Instead, I invite us to consider what is being gained from our commitment to those people, places and institutions who fundamentally refuse to tend to the conditions of Black life. I also urge us to consider and take seriously the fight that is required in the face of the outright refusal of our lives, a refusal that is mobilized on the daily. If I can return to my prior reference to authenticity, it might be helpful to think through the following examples of three police-involved deaths of Black people that happened in Canada and the United States. These are the unnecessary and tragic murders of D’Andre Campbell on April 6, 2020; George Floyd on May 25, 2020; and Regis Korchinski-Paquet on May 27, 2020.
Despite the ongoing fatal killings of and police interactions with Black people in Canada, we have not yet observed a national response in the way that we did for George Floyd. I am not making this comparison to be crass. However, I offer that we sit with this truth as well. I must pause and wonder how at once the spectacularization of Black death occurs in a way that is so global, so much so that it permeates Canadian institutions, private corporations and nonprofit sectors alike. What does it mean, then, for Black people in Canada such as Regis Korchinski-Paquet and D’Andre Campbell, whose lives were rendered absent, invisible and unimportant even while Canadian institutions were enthralled in all the logics of mourning Black death publicly?
I am intrigued by the way in which you see your entry into disability studies/justice. Some scholars enter the field having not done the kind of grassroots work that you’ve done. I imagine there are those who forget the fact that disability studies/justice is not some “pure” academic preoccupation, but engages with folk on the ground, those who are marginalized, those who don’t fit within white normative frameworks. Share how you, as a Black woman, as someone critically aware of the powerful logics of racism, came to disability studies/justice. And what was it about your experience of organizing that provided you with an epistemologically robust understanding of disability studies/justice?
I’ll begin with the first part of your question — that is, my entry into disability studies (which is still a very white field) and disability justice. For instance, consider the work of Chris Bell, who in 2006 wrote the essay, “Introducing White Disability Studies: A Modest Proposal.” Bell demonstrates the many ways in which disability studies is rooted in whiteness, in the preservation of whiteness, and how disability studies scholars so often fail to recognize this. As Bell poignantly claims, “Disability Studies has a tenuous relationship with race and ethnicity: while the field readily acknowledges its debt to and inspiration by inquiries such as Black Studies, its efforts at addressing intersections between disability, race, and ethnicity are, at best, wanting.” Like Bell, my work seeks to address the intersections between disability and race, ableism and racism in order to further contextualize and deepen disability studies, Black studies, and other areas of critical thought and inquiry.
In general, the field of disability studies seeks to define and understand disability not as a “problem” of the body or mind, but rather, as a complex social phenomenon that engages with the diversity and complexity of the human experience. Related to disability studies, though not identical, is mad studies. Mad studies (again, still a very white field) addresses critical concepts and conversations surrounding sanism, or the ways in which madness or what is often called “mental illness” is demeaned in society, and it is through processes of sanism that mad people are excluded, dehumanized and perceived to be dangerous. When sanism and anti-Black violence intersect — which I’ve referred to in the past as anti-Black sanism — we witness the collision of anti-Black racist ideologies of non-humanness and extreme danger, buttressed by similar yet different notions of the “disposable and wasted human.”
Taken together, mad studies and disability studies offer ways into critical conversations regarding the human experience, and encourage us to think about the ways in which many forms of oppression — racism, ableism and sanism — can and do occur, including but not limited to academic and disciplinary expressions of ableism.
To address your point about disability studies as not a “pure” academic discipline, I find this very interesting. After all, what academic field is pure? From my vantage point, disability studies can be understood as interdisciplinary, but also as seeking to be anti-disciplinary.
I, like many others, assert that disability studies is not “the study of disability.” To draw upon the work of Rod Michalko, disability studies occurs in the midst of ableist disciplines. In his book, The Mystery of the Eye and the Shadow of Blindness, Michalko offers the following:
Blindness is always experienced in the midst of sightedness. People are either born blind into a world organized by sight or lose their sight in the same world. Most people are not blind, and the meaning of blindness is understood within the social context of its rare occurrence. Thus the meaning of blindness is wrapped in the cloak of its immersion in a “sighted world.” This immersion is always dramatic.
Michalko’s provocation extends to disability and madness. That is, there is a white, normative order against which disability and madness appear — under the cloak of a sane, able-bodied, white world. In other words, disability studies reflects a number of critical areas of thought and draws upon disciplines such as sociology, cultural studies, the fields in the humanities such as English literature and so on. However, disability studies also pushes back against these traditional disciplinary spaces, which so often perpetuate and maintain inequity, oppression and marginalization within and outside of academic contexts.
What you’ve delineated provides an important segue to my next question. In your work you embrace the language of “madness” and “mad-identified people.” I typically think of the term madness as something negatively defined in relationship to “sanity.” My sense however is that your use of madness is a form of reclaiming madness outside of the context of normalizing forces that are linked to mental health institutions and their oppressive discourses. Given this, what is the relationship between “mad-identified people” and ableism? I’m interested in the overlap between racialized Black bodies and madness as both are criminalized and pathologized. Given the interdisciplinary nature of your work, my sense is that the question that I am asking you regarding Black bodies and madness is also fundamentally linked to incarceration, neoliberal capitalist forces, whiteness and colonial forms of surveillance.
I wouldn’t say that I embrace it necessarily. Rather, that I am doing/undoing something with it — or at least trying to. You are on the right track in terms of how I understand mad studies and madness in my work and in my life. The term “madness” also reflects a countercultural movement, whereby mad-identified people took this term, which was often used in offensive and derogatory ways, and changed it to signify solidarity, power and resistance. We have seen this happen in other instances, which I think also demonstrates the power and possibilities that language holds. For example, the term “queer” is now used in a similar countercultural fashion. All of this said, I do agree with you that there are some negative connotations, particularly as these relate to Black and other marginalized communities in which identifying in this way serves and functions to alienate you further still as different. For me, the framework of madness currently offers a space to grapple with and contest these very language offerings, as well as their interventions and limitations. I see madness as a “site of study” or a point of curiosity. It is also an opportunity to revisit the very limits of the white, mad academic imagination.
I think the relationship between mad-identified people is complex, but very important to examine. That is, mad people experience sanism just as disabled people experience ableism and inaccessibility. The thing is, I think there is a real divide that occurs between mad people and people who claim to be “sane” — or claim to not have “mental illnesses.” We are all mad people. We live in worlds and environments that are maddening. Such an orientation to madness also reflects more of a social model of disability. But, beyond this social model, we must also attend to the construction and categorization of the mad person. For instance, in psycho-medical and clinical discourses such as the diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM), diagnostic processes bolster and require a response from not only pharmaceutical companies, but also many other systems. We see madness also at the intersections of many interacting systems, structures and institutions.
By attending to maddening social contexts — racism, ableism, sanism, sexism, heteropatriarchy, and more — we begin to see the ways in which madness is not an individual “ailment” or condition that is one person’s “fault.” And I think we also see a sort of dilution of madness through discourses of “wellness” and refrains of “we all have mental health.” While I understand that the impetus behind such phenomena may be informed by some measure or expectation of altruism, such a means of “raising awareness” actually doesn’t do anything in terms of turning our attention towards the social, cultural, historical and political conditions that are maddening, those that must be addressed.
The work that you do, and that you see yourself as doing, is linked to community. In other words, I like how you understand your work as not being driven by forms of egoism and pretentiousness. We know what neoliberalism has created within the academy, what it values, how it measures “success” and how scholars undergo processes of identity formation that leave them feeling like “gods.” How do you avoid the seduction of neoliberal values that place under erasure the collective? And if scholars within the academy are to take seriously the importance of collective action when it comes to a profoundly significant and intersectional issue such as disability justice, which precisely requires collective action, how should we rethink what it means to be scholars, what it means to do scholarship and what it means to be part of the academy?
My answer to these questions, I think, more generally, reflects the importance of commitment to community and activism in my life and work. To be clear, I do not understand activism as something that I do external to myself. I am a Black Muslim woman situated in all sorts of constellations. I want to make clear that often when I speak of activism, it is indicative and reflective of my own daily life. The idea of activism, I think, is often seen as an external project, as something external to our lived experience. Of course, this is part of activism, but it is not all of it.
I consider my work in the university not as integral to my identity. What is integral to my life is the monthly cheque deposited into my account, which sustains me as well as the people I love and care about. I fulfill my duties as a professor; I take my work seriously. But my work and employment is not who I am largely because I am well aware that the institution has no commitment to me; where I sell my labor is not contingent on my inherent self-worth as a person, but rather, what others determine as useful or helpful. My identity, my love, my energy, comes from outside of the university.
Simply showing up, doing my work, and selling my labor in order to survive is how I resist the neoliberalism of the university, and of academia more broadly. To tie this back to what I have been discussing thus far, I want to draw our attention to a recent example of how I interpret the dangers of the neoliberal institution. Since the emergence of Black studies programs across U.S. universities in the 1960s, my colleague Rinaldo Walcott has argued that the field has been “smuggled” into Canadian institutions “and lives a fugitive life here.”
This can be illustrated by the interventions by Canadian institutions following the May 25, 2020, murder of George Floyd. In the past two years, Canadian universities have attempted to respond to protests on and off campus by entering into national dialogues “to redress anti-Black racism and to promote Black inclusion” (Scarborough Charter, 2021) and through individual and institutional commitments to equity, diversity, inclusion and access. This can be evidenced by the promotion of Black faculty into senior administrative roles; the creation of Black (Canadian) studies certificates, minors and programs; as well as the recruitment of Black faculty through what has been referred to as tenure-stream cluster hiring initiatives. While, at first pass, this can come off as a thoughtful response to the decades-long exclusion of Black faculty in the Canadian academy, and while I do not disagree to a large extent, in a project I am currently working on, I seek to explore and isolate how cluster hiring demonstrates how quickly Black death has become remunerated through hiring practices.
I reflect critically on the neoliberal university’s response (in this case, in the form of cluster hiring practices), which makes Black death a spectacle, one which can be easily remedied through the neoliberal university by singular, Band-Aid-like efforts. In his book, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey maintains that neoliberalism “is a theory of political economic practices proposing that human well-being can best be advanced by the maximization of entrepreneurial freedoms within an institutional framework characterized by private property rights, individual liberty, unencumbered markets, and free trade.” In this project, I apply a poignant analysis of Harvey’s which casts neoliberalism as a virtue. Because these values and beliefs are so often wrapped up in the virtues of individual productivity and meritocracy, what I might discover is that the risk of perpetual inequality and harm is always present, and so often enacted within social structures and institutions — particularly within the university.