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Let’s Confront Ideas of “Normality” — They Are Rooted in Racism and Ableism

Racism is the ideology that works to subordinate specific people, while ableism is the means for achieving that goal.

Cover illustration for The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-prison Nexus.

What would it feel like for educators to truly reject the implicit positioning of whiteness and ability at the center of the teaching and learning that takes place in the United States? To do that, education professor Subini Annamma says, “we must consider all parts of our classrooms including pedagogy, curriculum and relationships.”

Annamma, the author of The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus, encourages all of us to take a deeper look at how different modes of oppression operate in our world, and by doing so, compels us to reimagine what is possible in a world where suffering is dire.

As an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, Annamma works at the intersections of how students are negatively marked through a network of oppressive forces: racism, ableism, sites of incarceration, hegemonic forms of pathologization and criminalization.

Talking with Annamma has deepened my own reflection on how much of my work within the context of racism and anti-Blackness has focused on the experiences of Black men. This is partly a function of my own identity as a cisgender Black man. I write from that social location, that embodied place of being. I am under no illusions that in various ways I have failed to critically theorize and engage complex discourses vis-à-vis Black women/girls, especially those Black women/girls who contend with multiple forms of oppression. For me, this means that work must be done.

Annamma’s work passionately tackles those forces that Black girls and girls of color face as they struggle to find meaning in a world that sees them as inconsequential and invisible. For Annamma, anger, hope and abolition are not separate, but work in conjunction to infuse the structure and energy of political praxis and the aspiration for a more joyful world.

George Yancy: I would like to ask a question about your work within the fascinating area of disability studies (DS) and critical race theory (CRT) — what is known as DisCrit. What are some of the important generative assumptions embedded within DisCrit critical analysis? What sorts of insights are deployed within DisCrit that neither disability studies nor critical race theory alone provide? In short, what are some of the conceptual affordances of DisCrit?

Subini Annamma: Before I came to the academy, I was a special education teacher for youth with emotional and learning disabilities in public schools and youth carceral facilities. My students were mostly Black and Brown kids who were funny and thoughtful and yet often struggled in school. I had high school students who were said to have a first-grade reading level, yet could read all the directions on the video games they played; students who were said to have no self-control at school but had after-school jobs or took care of their siblings. I worked with Black and Brown students who were said to have criminal minds, but who showed compassion to their chosen families and themselves daily. I found Black and Brown disabled kids were incarcerated because they were trying to survive the interpersonal and systemic violence they experienced.

But when I got to graduate school and when I reflected on my training as a teacher, I could not locate these brilliant Black and Brown disabled kids in education research. When they were present, the perspectives that researchers brought were often saturated in deficit perspectives, pathologizing Black and Brown disabled youth. I struggled to find their voices represented. That doesn’t mean no one was doing that work, but it certainly does mean these Black and Brown disabled kids were not the center of most education research. I was drawn to critical race theory and disability studies because that is where I got glimpses of youth at the margins — Black and Brown kids were at the center of CRT in education work, disabled kids were at the center of DS literature on education.

What I found was that CRT legal scholars — like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado and Mari Matsuda, just to name a few — identified how racism was created to categorize and subordinate racial “others” while gathering ideological and material power for whiteness. Of course, they were drawing on a lineage of knowledge from folks such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglas, and [others], and used legal concepts to build out CRT’s tenets. Education scholars Gloria Ladson Billings and William Tate (and then other foundational CRT in education scholars like Delores Delgado-Bernal, Zeus Leonardo, Theodorea Berry, Marvin Lynn, Adrienne Dixson, Daniel Solórzano, David Gillborn, Laurence Parker, David Stovall, and [others]) recognized how racism and white supremacy became entrenched in education to support the hoarding of resources and opportunities.

“I found Black and Brown disabled kids were incarcerated because they were trying to survive the interpersonal and systemic violence they experienced.”

DisCrit grew from the CRT commitment to intersectionality that was academically born in Crenshaw’s work — though its lineage reaches back to Anna Julia Cooper, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldua, the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins, and a host of others throughout history and into the present — and substantively developed through critical race feminism through work by thinkers like Adrienne Wing and others. This recognition of how multiple oppressions, not simply identities, impacted the lives of multiply-marginalized Black and Brown people expanded CRT’s theoretical and analytical reach. All this knowledge was the necessary starting point for CRT’s sibling, DisCrit.

DisCrit was born out of the lineage of knowledge that includes all mentioned above and also disability studies and critical disability in education scholars including Nirmala Erevelles, Alfredo Artiles, Beth Ferri, James M. Patton, Alicia Broderick, David Connor, Federico Waitoller, Kathleen King-Thorius, Edward Fergus, Susan Baglieri, Catherine Kudlick and Chris Bell, again to name just a few. These scholars were naming the ways ableism animated who we center as the “normal,” and how we draw boundaries around that conception of normal, and punish those outside those walls. In schools, we seek out youth we position as “abnormal” and try to cure, segregate or funnel them out of public spaces.

And of course, DisCrit wasn’t born just out of knowledge produced by the academy, but also the labor of activists and public intellectuals including Patti Berne, Ki’tay Davidson, Alice Wong, Heather Watkins, Vilissa Thompson, Leroy Moore, Anita Cameron, Keith Jones, Lydia Brown, Mia Mingus, T.L. Lewis, Dustin Gibson, Mia Ives-Rublee, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and [others], who all have led the way in a variety of work centering those most impacted, disabled Black and Brown people.

Those intellectual ancestors, both those who have passed on and those still with us, created a space for DisCrit to recognize that racism and ableism are interdependent, that they depend on and inform each other. That is, if racism is the ideology for situating specific people in subordinated locations, then ableism is how that goal is achieved — by situating the learning, thinking, and behaviors of Black and Brown people as “less than” and “inferior.” Racism and ableism are mutually constitutive because they need each other to survive; whiteness needed to “other” Black and Brown people, and did so through ableism.

Both CRT and DS scholars and public intellectuals left space for us to do this work; to seriously consider how racism and ableism inform one another and are normalized, not aberrant in society. DisCrit uses specific tenets to build on this conceptual foundation to name how, in a system of white supremacy, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism, whiteness defines the normal and desired individual; and positions all Black and Brown folks as abnormal.

Further, while all Black and Brown folks are impacted by racism and ableism, disabled Black and Brown people are targeted for labeling, surveillance and punishment. Yet they do not simply accept the ways they are pathologized; Black and Brown disabled people resist individually and collectively. DisCrit opened a space for my disabled Black and Brown students to not only exist, but [to] position them as knowledge generators, linking them to that lineage of resistance.

What you’ve provided here functions as a veritable primer for understanding the origins of DisCrit. Since I began teaching, I have taught at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). There is so much critical pedagogical work to do within those spaces. There are such concerns as curriculum change and representation, diversity and inclusion, hiring and retaining BIPOC faculty, forms of white racist microaggression, and the racialization of space and how spaces within colleges and universities function (consciously or not) to support white bodies. Speak to DisCrit’s contributions to critically engaging pedagogy, especially within those contexts where there are both explicit and implicit white/Eurocentric ableist forms of knowledge production.

Knowledge production, pedagogy, and ways of knowing have always been legitimated through white supremacy and ableism used those avenues to marginalize and target disabled Black and Brown students. The goal of DisCrit has always been to move disabled Black and Brown students from the margins to the center.

A DisCrit Classroom Ecology is about rejecting whiteness and ability as the center of our teaching and learning. To do that, we must consider all parts of our classrooms, including pedagogy, curriculum and relationships. So, I think, often we highlight critical curriculum, and that’s essential. Questioning how power is reproduced in society and how that power is entrenched in white supremacy, anti-Blackness and settler colonialism is in the work of Ethnic Studies, hip-hop, culturally relevant and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Yet with critical curriculum and pedagogy that are engaging, we still must make them accessible and refuse relationships rooted in management. For me, this pedagogy involves making complex curricular ideas accessible (e.g., videos, Tik-Toks, zines, traditional journal articles, popular articles, poetry); creating multiple ways into the work; and developing multiple formats for assignments (participation looks like the virtual chat; work in small groups; written, drawn and verbal responses). And relationships must be rooted in solidarity with my students, their struggles and their resistance. So, in my classroom, this is enacted by providing time to check in, giving space to be their full selves, having students reflect on what is working and what can be improved, and letting them come and go when they need while checking in individually if they are showing up differently than what I know they can do. Of course, the work of critically engaging DisCrit Classroom Ecology is not prescriptive, and can only be done with humility. Ultimately, we must recognize that our multiply-marginalized disabled Black and Brown students know things that educators do not.

“In schools, we seek out youth we position as “abnormal” and try to cure, segregate or funnel them out of public spaces.”

What I especially like about DisCrit is its multidisciplinary mode of analysis. Social existence, as we know, is so incredibly messy and its complexity is not explanatorily exhausted by a single disciplinary vision. Understanding this complexity, please speak to how mass incarceration is a disability justice issue.

I know you’ve engaged in a discussion with the brilliant T.L. Lewis, and they have described how mass incarceration is a disability justice issue. So I’ll focus on how mass incarceration is a racial and disability justice issue because it targets disabled Black and Brown youth specifically. In other words, age does not protect disabled Black and Brown children because they are not imagined as innocent (what Black women and other women of color scholars, such as Jamilia Blake and Thalia González, have named as adultification) and they are also imagined as hyper-strong and aggressive. Instead, disabled Black and Brown kids are targeted and punished because of their disabilities. Moreover, Black and Brown youth are disabled by prison conditions, which cause trauma. Family separation through incarceration — whether in the name of rehabilitation, child welfare or mental health care — are all forms of punishment for perceived deviance. The abuse and neglect in these systems is well documented. We lock up what we are afraid of — if justice is what love looks like in public, then mass incarceration is hate institutionalized. And in the worst cases, our babies die in these hate-filled cages, babies like Cedric “C.J.” Lofton, Loyce Tucker, Cornelius Frederick, Gynnya McMillen, Elord Revolte, Andre Sheffield, Robert Wright, and more unnamed babies. Or they die while being rounded up to be put in these cages like Ma’Khia Bryant, Tamir Rice, Iremamber Skyap, Adam Toledo, and [others]. Mass incarceration is a racial and disability justice issue for Black and Brown disabled youth because it targets and creates disability, all while trying to eradicate their power and resistance.

I would like you to elaborate on the prior question through the specific lens of girls of color within the context of public schools. I’m thinking here of your book, The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-Prison Nexus. Speak to the specific ways in which girls of color are “framed” (pun intended) within racist and ableist pedagogical philosophies and practices.

Black and Brown disabled girls have a unique experience because they have been erased from the narratives of what is not working in schools. The focus on the numbers of Black boys who are being disenfranchised by schools — which is necessary and useful — can situate Black and Brown girls as successful and thriving by default, when that is often not the case. Black and Brown girls are experiencing high rates of suspensions, arrests and incarceration compared to white girls and some boys. Moreover, disabled Black and Brown girls are experiencing higher rates of these negative outcomes than their nondisabled peers. When these disabled Black and Brown girls are abused by the system and their stories become public, their disabilities are often erased. We imagine them as what scholar Michele Goodwin discusses as “too intersectional,” when their disability or queerness is viewed as something to disassociate them from, trying to cleave their identities into something closer to the norm. Yet, this misses the fact that these Black and Brown girls are being punished because of their disabilities, and that disability labels and laws are not protecting them. We must recognize that Black and Brown disabled girls are not broken, our systems are broken. Carceral geographies threaten Black and Brown disabled girls. We must respond by loving Black and Brown girls in their full humanity.

“If justice is what love looks like in public, then mass incarceration is hate institutionalized.”

I want to end with what you envision as hope. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, I am not hopeless, but I am unhopeful regarding the racist attitudes, racist practices, racist habits, racist ideologies and racist structures within the U.S. This includes how racism toxically lives intramurally or extramurally, and this includes how racism functions through ableism — or conversely, how ableism functions through racism. This is another way of saying that racism exists within every nook and cranny of U.S. society. I can’t begin to express how angry I feel as I write about racism and other forms of injustice. This anger is not misplaced, and it has its place. You’ve worked as an educator in both youth prisons and public schools. You’ve been able to observe directly how forms of discipline negatively impact girls of color, how they suffer under panoptic surveillance and pathologizing discourses. I can only imagine that they have internalized such racist and pathologizing forms of captivity. How do you find hope in what you do without being seduced by a neoliberal sense of hope that fails or refuses to think critically about systems of racism and pathology? Does anger help?

For Black and Brown people, our anger is the antithesis of white supremacy and ableism that centralizes docility and compliance masquerading as kindness and civility. I draw from Audre Lorde who wrote about the uses of anger and Brittney Cooper who writes about eloquent rage. Lorde describes the power of our anger when it is focused with precision on the systems that harm us. So, I try to focus my anger on dismantling those systems, like the abolition of youth prisons, and all prisons. I draw from Mariame Kaba who reminds us to practice hope regularly; I practice hope by being in relationship with disabled Black and Brown youth, many of whom are being pushed out of public schools, and/or are currently or formerly incarcerated. I work to support our community as we labor in violent systems. We can create a world that is less violent, more humane, and even joyful. I believe in abolition, so my anger and hope are rooted in the ways I show up, I experiment and fail, and keep showing up to be in community with Black and Brown disabled youth. And those Black and Brown disabled youth are constantly pushing me to be more radical, to develop a clearer abolitionist imaginary. That is hope.

Hope is recognizing how our fights are all connected and cultivating solidarity. The attacks on trans that are so prevalent right now are built on ableism, misogynoir and white supremacy. Therefore, we must be in solidarity with our queer and trans siblings. One study found that 20 percent of youth in detention centers identified as queer and trans: 13 percent of boys and 40 percent of girls. Eighty-five percent of these incarcerated queer and trans girls are girls of color. Trans and queer youth of color often stay longer in family policing systems (known as child welfare) and juvenile incarceration systems, increasing the likelihood of negative impacts of both systems. Queer and trans Black and Brown youth deserve our solidarity and our protection. These same systems are harming Black and Brown disabled kids; our struggles are connected, and liberation means fighting together. Solidarity, the kind where we recognize our common fights and allow our differences in oppressions and experiences to inform our resistance, is what gives me hope.

Also exciting is the work of my contemporary colleagues and earlier career scholars, public intellectuals and activists who are also thinking critically about race and disability while not stopping there, like Jamelia Morgan, Mildred Boveda, Hailey Love, Maggie Beneke, Jenn Phuong, Tami Handy, Adai Teferra, Ericka Weathers, Sami Schalk, Jina B. Kim, Therí Pickens, Liat Ben-Moshe, Kay Ulanday Barrett, Keah Brown, Akiea Gross, D’Arcee Charington Neal, plus a whole host of students who are doing it better than us. They are thinking with less binaries and more interconnected systems. They are more radical and hopeful. And those of us who are developing a sharper analysis because we are listening to them, filling in gaps of our work we missed the first time around. I wanted a theory that centralized the lives of Black and Brown disabled youth, and DisCrit is what grew. DisCrit isn’t the best theory, it’s the one we created when we needed something better. We have always said we want to see it expanded and pushed until its borders break open and something better is born. That’s the beautiful thing about theory, it must continually evolve. As long as we are listening to Audre Lorde and focusing our rage with precision, our theory will evolve to meet us in the moment.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.