Friday, December 24, 2010

Sexual empowerment and the practice of pride (1)

I.My practice of pride begins in my stomach
a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb.

I'm growing. My arms span wider, my legs stand straighter, my thighs are stronger. The shackles of shame loosened, my body is better able to breathe under its weight. Once constricted, twisted, and contorted by the medical labels of 'cerebral palsy' and 'disability'; my limbs, muscles, and bones are now untangling through the power in crip and community.

II. Pride, a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb
drops like an egg, and travels down my inner thighs

I'm growing. Lost shame has left spaces in my flesh, craters in my bones and dents in my muscles. Wounds so deep, that I feel a cool emptiness enter my body where the shame exists. Wounds so deep, that sometimes I wonder if it is possible to ever be whole without shame.

III. Pride, a red ball of energy kept warm within my womb,
drops and traces the curves of my hips with her two gentle fingers.
I feel her pressure on my bones.
Her warmth makes my stomach tingle
I see her red, five fingered hand prints on my skin.

Can you?


Sunday, November 28, 2010

"And as we let our own light shine, we unconciously give other people permission to do the same." - Nelson Mandela

Pride as a practice. Pride as a process. Pride as progress, not perfection.

I am thirteen years old. My walk is the best it has ever been. A girl on the school bus, just asked me if I sprained my ankle. I replied "No. I have Cerebral Palsy". She didn't believe me. She thought I was too "normal".

I am thirteen years old, hiding in a closet, crying. My body is curled. My back is bent from the weight of pain. I want to die. Hot, hate - filled tears flood my bright red cheeks. My forehead hurts from the pressure of raging sadness. I am crazed by the fact that I will walk differently for the rest of my life, I will be crippled for the rest of my life, I will always be viewed as less than for the rest of my life. My soul feels trapped. It's not fair.

I am sixteen years old. I am sitting at my desk looking at a magazine ad that reads do something powerful. I begin to think about how disabled people are portrayed in the media. I get angry. I begin to realize that the problem in my life, isn't my body, rather, the problem is how society views and defines my body. I vow then and there to work for disability rights; I vow then and there, to never again let myself be silenced by a lie.

I am eighteen years old. I am reading a speech on social justice and disability at my high school. It is the annual Martin Luther King celebration. I am terrified, but I speak,. A couple months later, I will go onto win a diversity award for that speech; a couple months later , I will go onto win a scholarship for that speech. Most importantly, however, a couple of weeks later, I will overhear a classmate saying how much he hated my speech. "No one would care about her disability, if she didn't talk about it." His words would shake me to the core: was I wrong to speak out about social justice? Is discrimination my fault? His words would make me realize that my feelings about my own disability had little to nothing to do with the need for justice in the world. My feelings and fear surrounding advocacy, would not disappear, but they would lose significance.

I am twenty five years old. I decide to go visit an old physical therapist. As per usual, she wants to watch me walk. She remarks on how well I am doing. She inquires about whether or not I will get a surgery that will correct my walk. For the first time in my life, I realize that I am not obsessed with erasing my limp; for the first time in my life, I realize that I am perfectly fine with walking imperfectly for the rest of my life; for the first time in my life, I don't view my body as a mistake that needs to be fixed. It's just my body, and it's damn beautiful and it deserves a space/place in society. For the first time in my life, I feel a huge weight lift off my soldiers. I cry tears of happiness and gratitude. My intellectual philosophy of pride and advocacy has finally been integrated into my body. I am no longer a diagnosis. I am a part of a diverse culture and community of people. I am human. I am crip. I am Ava.

It is thanksgiving 2010. I am watching old home videos with my family. I watch eight year old Ava walk across the screen, then I watch thirteen year old Ava walk across the screen. Something deep down inside of my body winces. I can't help but think that my walk looks so ugly on screen. I begin to doubt my desirability. I begin to wonder if my new crush will ever reciprocate the developing feelings I have for him. "How can he, when I walk like that?" I have forgotten about my past romantic relationships and all of the people who have had crushes on me. I shrink once again to nothing more than a limping diagnosis.

Can the practice of pride shrink or stretch with age, just like the skin on my body? Or if shame is wrinkles of my skin, can forgiveness be the syringe, which holds pride, the chemical that erases the wrinkles?

As semi - illustrated by the 'snapshots' above, I have been thinking about pride, the process by which one gains pride, and if the concept of forgiveness as a catalyst for for pride. My thoughts on these topics have been largely inspired by the following Nelson Mandela quote:
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner. "

Thus, from this quote I began to think that the ability to forgive can lead to the ability to achieve a radical freedom (or pride). For the purposes of this blog, then, one can conceptualize the word "enemy" as ( any combination or form of), oppression, discrimination, erasure of identity, and internalized oppression. If we substitute a form of oppression for the word "enemy" in Mandela's quote, it is not a far stretch to conclude that the practice of pride, then, can become as much about forgiving others (and oneself) for oppression as it can be about radically redefining the narrative surrounding one's self concept.

Thus, we are led to question whether or not, one can sustain an active and stable practice (or sense) of pride that has nothing to do with forgiveness? Can the traditional ingredients of protest prove to be too reactionary at times? If so, how can the concept of forgiveness help stabilize the concept of pride?

I am not suggesting that applying forgiveness in this way would be easy, rational, or even the right way to deal with oppression, I am merely discussing it as an option to help cultivate pride. I think it could look something like this:

A friend tells me that she thinks bisexuality doesn't exist, I am just closeted.
I acknowledge the harmful narrative, hold it, and place it somewhere on my body (figuratively of course) to symbolize acceptance and partnership with all things in my environment. Placing the h narrative on my body, could be seen as akin to accepting and forgiving the harmful effects of nature. For example, I can get a pretty bad sun burn in the summer, but I don't get angry at the sun. I just accept the effects of its strong UV rays on my fair skim, and learn to put on sun screen. I am not saying that wearing sunscreen will stop the sun from ever burning my skin, the sun will still exist and be harmful at times. However, My application of sunscreen doesn't have as much to do with my relationship with the sun, as it does with my relationship with myself. Similarly, my learning how to forgive oppression has to do primarily with my relationship with myself, and my concept of identity, and not with the oppression itself. If my body is big enough, if it is strong enough to hold many of the false narratives I have grown up with, then my body is big enough and strong enough to hold forgiveness for these narratives also.

Please, don't misunderstand, this is not a post about insecurities or self - esteem. This is a post about the cultivation of a continuous sense of pride in the face of various types of oppression. Furthermore, let me reiterate, I am not saying that forgiving oppression is the only way to achieve a lasting sense of pride, I am merely posing the question of the relationship of the practice of pride to the practice of forgiveness. Should forgiveness and pride be practiced together?

I am thirteen years old. My walk is the best it has ever been. A girl on the school bus, just asked me if I sprained my ankle. I replied "No. I have Cerebral Palsy". She didn't believe me. She thought I was too "normal". I went home and looked in the mirror, I examined the beginning of curves in my chest and hips. Then, I looked at the curves in my foot. I take the narrative she shared, and I forgive it, and in forgiving it, I also forgive my classmate. I forgive it by visualizing the narrative, split in two, and place one half on each hip. It adds curve to my figure; it's beautiful; it's beautiful because of the freedom it produces, I do not have to hold the reponsibility of rebelling agaisnt the narrative nor do I run the risk of internalizing it. It becomes like a freckle; I coexist with it, and in doing so, I continue my journey towards pride.

It always seems impossible, until its done.
- Nelson Mandela

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Let's have a brain storming session about internalized oppression

An idea is like a virus. Once implanted in a person's mind it is extremely hard to kill.

Internalized oppression. Say it out loud 3x.
(There is nothing to be afraid of, I promise no witch will appear.)
Notice the sounds inherent in the words.
Do you notice how "internalized oppression" even sounds like a small cage?
Notice how your tongue feels when repeating these words.
Does a heaviness enter your mouth? Does your tongue become a memory foam where " internalized oppression's" indentations obscure your taste buds?

I am beginning to realize that internalized oppression is like the boulder I keep pushing up the mountain, and I am Sisyphus. That is, the longer I try to pretend it doesn't exist, the longer it persists. Up until recently, I was under the delusion that because I identify as a disability rights activist and am becoming acquainted with an attitude of almost radical pride, that my experiences of shame, fear, or insecurity due to my disability would cease to exist.
I was wrong. I experienced all of those emotions about an hour ago, which is why I decided to quickly jot them down in this blog.
The situation happened as follows.
I was getting my oil changed in my car. When the attendant told me to pump my gas pedal three times, I accidentally pumped my brake. I giggled and apologized. However, almost simultaneously my mind was flooded with thoughts like:
" Oh no! He is going to think I am slow now"
" He is going to wonder how the hell I got a license"

Now, it's important to realize two things. First, the above thoughts are only significant to this discussion when analyzed within the context of internalized oppression. Meaning, that those thoughts were sparked by a thought process of internalized oppression which I will detail in the next paragraph. Secondly, at no point in my oil change was the attendant even aware of my disability. I only say this to specify that my thoughts were not a reaction to the attendant's actions, I was reacting to my own perception of the situation.

I would like to take a moment to exemplify ( through detailing the experience of having my oil changed), what I mean when I write the 'thought process of internalized oppression'. Through out my life, I have had the repeated experience of having my intelligence and integrity questioned due to the way I walk. This experience can be called a pattern of oppression. My reaction to this pattern , has beento prove my intelligence. The byproduct of this then, is an internalization of the experience that I am not allowed to make mistakes and must always be percieved as extremely intelligent, or I automatically will be discounted as slow. This thought process becomes a feature of internalized oppression, when the patten of oppression happens so often that my that I internalize all its implications and proving my intelligence becomes associated with proving my personal worth. Thus, when I made the mistake of pumping my brake pedal instead of my gas pedal, I instantly became afraid that the attendant would see this as a reason why, he should treat me like a person who is slower.

When I have an experience of internalized oppression, I become ashamed and want to keep it to myself. I feel like I should "know better", then to react in that manner. I am hesitant to share it with people because I don't want them to pity me for my experience and / or question my sincerity or loyalty to various rights causes I am a part of. Thus, the shame that comes with some experiences of internalized oppression, becomes exacerbated(sp?), by the belief that one should not be "giving in" to internalized oppression. I really wish I could walk around like an iron fortress of pride, which society's discrimination's and prejudices can never penetrate, but that idea is absurd. It becomes exactly like the Myth of Sisyphus, in that it lets me believe that I can actually deny my own imperfect humanity.

I do not believe the experience of internalized oppression is not specific to people with disabilities. Internalized oppression affects all minority groups, whether individuals are aware of it or not. I believe it is the reason why social hierarchies even exist within various civil rights movements. (The establishment of a hierarchy within a rights movement, even if it may be subconscious, works only to reinforce the system of power and oppression within the context of that movement. The only difference is that the people who hold the power and who are recreating the power, are also oppressed by society.)

So how can we fight internalized oppression? How can I maintain my belief in diversity, pride, and crip - ness, without denying my internalized oppression? Do they have to be mutually exclusive? Doesn't the socially acceptable way of dealing with internalized oppression (which from what I have observed is silence), just add fuel to the fire?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Don't you wish your girlfriend was crip like me?

Disclaimer: The following post contains a lot of questions. I don't presume to have the answers to all of them, and I don't assume others will either. Rather, I am asking these questions and/or writing this post in order to start to some sort of dialogue. Enjoy.

I have a strong body.
I have a healthy body.
I have a (relatively) cute body.
I am intelligent.
I am funny.
I am creative.
I am kind.
I have Cerebral Palsy.

Why is it that the declaration of my Cerebral Palsy seems to erase all of the positive attributes I have listed above? Is this power of deletion all in my head?


However, if the negative sexual or romantic connotations of the phrase *Cerebral Palsy* are all in my head, then, I hypothesize that the many people with disabilities are suffering from the same affliction. (Note: I am not talking about all people with disabilities). I am basing my hypothesis on a highly "scientific" experiment I conducted on the popular dating site, OKCUPID.

Earlier today, I did a search under the term "disability". The number of profiles I read that contained any type of disability pride were few and far between. Instead, time and time again I read profiles that contained the following phrases:

"I am overcoming my disability."
"I overcame my disability"
"I wonder if I ever will find someone who will look past my disability"
"I am looking for someone who can look past my disability."
"I am looking for someone to accept me despite my disability."

As I read these profiles I began to feel more oppressed and then I began to feel angry. Not because I think the people who wrote these profiles were outrageous and wrong, but because I can relate to their sentiment. I know what it is like to feel like nothing more than a big, ugly, medical phrase. I know what it is like to *pray* that someone will be kind enough, to overlook my *phrase* and date me anyway; validate me anyway.

How oppressive is that thought process!

And yet it has been sustained in the collective "disabled" psyche for all these years? Why? How? Who is it benefiting? When did disabled people agree that their bodies were their enemies? I mean, those are the connotations attached to stating that the state of your body is something to be overcome. Or, at least that is what I hear.

In answering these questions one can state the rather obvious societal pressures such as the poor representations of disabled people in the media; or the lack of accessibility in public causing isolation among other difficulties; or stereotypical prejudices making finding employment difficult. However, I am not interested in these reasons, I am already extremely aware of them. I am not downplaying the effects of all of these pressures, they are just more of what I would call external forces on the disability community. What I am interested in, is the internal forces on the disability community. What I am interested in is the more difficult and complex question of what is the disability community doing (or not doing) that perpetuates these internalized oppressive thoughts in its members? For example, why is it that the disability advocacy community and rights movement is relatively small when compared to the number of disabled people in the world? Furthermore, why are many disabled people isolated from a community or unaware that a rights movement even exists?

When contemplating these internal forces (and trying in vain, to identify all of them), I became aware of a pattern I noticed in all the phrases I found on OKCUPID, that I typed above. All of the phrases contain the generally accepted term "disabled" and use it as either a noun or an adjective. This exemplifies the many (silent) negative connotations attached to the word. How come, then, it is still used widely both among the disability community and among society as a whole? Could this attachment to potentially harmful language be perpetuating internalized oppression? Would people have written the same things in their profiles if they identified as crips, and not as disabled? Somehow, I think not. The phrase " I have overcome my cripness" just doesn't carry the same tone. This primarily being because the word"crip" doesn't have the same tone and carry the same connotations as the word disabled."
Why is it then that only (what I would consider to be) a minority of disabled people are aware of this recent crip language and crip culture? Who benefits from such a large communication gap within a single group of people? How can we bridge it? Is changing our language one of the only ways we can delete the internalized power of sexual and romantic deletion, that come attached to our diagnoses? Will we ever reach a point where a diagnosis fails to be a relative descriptor? And where does the majority of responsibility for such change lie? Is it on the individual? On the community? On society? Are they all independent entities or are they interdependent?

P.S. I am writing all this when I am tired and feeling under the weather. Thus, it may come out sounding a bit circular and incoherent. However, all these thoughts and questions were spinning around in my head so I thought it best to write a post about it, however it may turn out.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Here I am Baby, signed, sealed, delivered - I'm "Crip"

Subtitle or alternate title : What is "Crip", what does it mean, and why it is important to me.

The interconnection between labels and empowerment has been seen again and again throughout civil rights movements. For example, the reclaiming and redefining of the label "Queer" in the GLBT movement. Until recently the label "queer" was considered an extremely derogatory and creul slur agaisnt a GLBT person. However, in the new wave of the GLBT movement "queer" is now used by some as a political term or identidy, and/or by some to describe their sexuality. ( In the latter context, "queer" is an umbrella term that describes any identidy that is not hetereosexual.) In a similiar sense the disability community has been reclaiming the slur "cripple". (If you are not already aware the terms "cripple", "gimp" "dumb", "vegetable", "deformed", "retard", "midget"and "victim" are considered to be extremely offensive words and derogatory slurs.) The derogatory word "cripple" has been transformed into a label of empowerment (when used by people who identify as having a disability within this context). One offshoot of the reclaiming of "cripple" is the label of "crip":
In Simi Linton's book " Claiming Disability: knowledge and identity" she describes the phenomenom in the following way.
'In reclaiming 'cripple' disabled people are taking the thing in their identity that scares the outside world the most and making it a cause to revel in with militant self pride.' (Shapiro 1993, 34). Cripple, gimp, and freak as used by the disability community have transgressive potential. They are personally and politically useful as means to comment on oppression because they assert our right to name experience." (17)

Thus, one of the reasons I decided to start this blog is because of the complex power dynamics hidden within language. What we say, and what we choose to label ourselves as, colors our self worth and thus our understanding of our identity within society; whether it be concious or not. Language is extradonarily powerful. In short, it can assign worth to an object and/or devalue an object in as little as one sentance. Framed within this context, one can see how important it is to carefully contemplate how one chooses or agrees to label oneself. I believe, that when a group of people are denied the right to name their identidy, a most complex power dynamic is set up. It is almost as if they are denied the right to have an identidy seperate from the oppressor or the group that is doing the "naming". They are constantly seen as to be in relation to the dominant group,; not an independent or empowered group within itself. Basically, the politics surrounding the language of their "naming"- "others" them before their experience or apparent differance can be fully realized. Although, I am not sure of the process or power dynamics of "othering", I would argue that a large dominant group of people labeling a smaller group of people, may be the first step or one of the first steps in the process of becoming the "other".

Therefore, I am declaring my state of rebellion agaisnt being the "other" and the beginning of my process of becoming a "crip".

I walk with a limp. My left foot turns inward and when I am tired or sick, I almost entirely walk on the side of it. Due to my CP, my muscles are tighter and I could be described as walking on my toes. I function independently in almost all areas of my life, but I do need help going up and down steps that don't have a railing. Unfortunately, I have spent a better part of twenty five years trying to hide it by limiting my public activities to things I know will not accentuate my "walk".

How oppressing.

Where did I get this idea that I must hide and apologize for the very human imperfections of my body? How did I come to embody the narrative that how I move and/or look is not valid or acceptable enough for public display? I do not know the exact answer to this, and even if I did, it is not something I could coherantly explain via a blog post at midnight. However, I do believe that the beginnings of my harmful embodied narrative started with the labels of " disabled" and "Cerebral Palsy".

Since I can remember these labels have been attached to my name - mostly in a medical context, and occasionally in a social context. Equally if not more important, they are some of the primary labels I have used to describe myself, my identity, and my experience. When deconstructed I can see that the very nature of these labels degrade my identity and experience in that they compartamentalize it to such a great extent. For example, for better or worse, I understand the descriptive term 'disabled' as a way to describe me as nothing more than my physical parts. Physical parts, that by the very definition of the word, can never live up to their "intended" or "normal" function. Physical parts, that by the very definition of the word, are less than, as in they are less than able. Furthermore, the constant labeling of "Cerebral Palsy" although useful in some medical settings for diagnostic reasons served as a reminder that I have this imperfect body, whose worth is entangled in terms other people use to describe it.

It is difficult for me to fully describe this lived power dynamic, so I will try to use the following example. Imagine how a body image and body politic may change if every time an overweight woman went to the doctor, she was referred to as the ' woman with fatness'. Imagine also that her body fat was often measured to gage an adequete increase in her weight in order perhaps for the doctors and to effectively suggest methods that may make her life more "normal". Finally, imagine that the woman was one of the only visably overweight women wherever she went and her identity was often connected to her fatness. For example, people may revere her for living such a "normal" life despite being fat; she may be considered a "fat inspiration"; and people may ask her "how come you are "fat" what happened?"

Just by pure life experience through labeling, one can see that not only is this woman's identity rooted somewhat in her "fatness"; but it is also rooted within the context that her "fatness" should be changed or normalized.

How oppressing.

Now, consider if the woman were to say "I am not a woman with fatness, I am just fat! This is my body type and nothing is wrong with it; we all have different body types - and mine is fat - stop trying to sanititize me into non existance."

Could that small change in language trigger a change in identity? Could that small change in language trigger a change in power dynamics with the dominating or "naming" group?

I say "Yes it can!"

The labels "disabled" and "Cerebral Palsy" - attached to me by other people - describes a very compartamentalized, medical, and physical version of my experience; that is in a sense very, very "othering". While the label "Crip" loosely describes my body type and a community of people with whom I share lived experiences. There is no value or medical judgement attached to "crip". It is not seen as a prescription for a harder life or social awkwardness. "Crip" just is. Just like some people are brunettes, some people are "crip" - and the label ends there without any added judgement, apology, or connotation.
I, therefore, believe that by "cripping" language and labels such as "disability" I (and we) can change the process of being "othered" and internalizing the "othering". Because even though I am very new to this, to me, "crip" is not an "other"; "crip" is "crip".