Autism is many things. But it is seldom what it is perceived by people to be. It isn’t a tragedy. It isn’t a ravaged life. It isn’t an entity that destroys lives. It isn’t a disease.
– Morenike Giwa Onaiwu
All the Weight of Our Dreams is the first ever anthology written entirely by autistic women of colour, brought to us by the Autism Women’s Network. Featuring essays, poetry and artwork from 61 writers and artists, it talks about how ableism intersects with other oppressions; particularly racism but also sexism and homophobia.
There were three themes that I found particularly powerful:
I accepted his implicit judgment that the ability to act abled meant that one was not really disabled. And that is the unfortunate consequence for those who are good enough at acting abled. Once people think of you as abled any time you are unable to keep up the act is seen as something to be suspicious of.
– Amanda Filteau
First, the concept of ‘passing’. I was aware of this idea from other literature about race and sexuality. ‘Passing privilege’ is the principle that one looks or acts like members of the “normal” group and so experience some of the privilege associated with that group. For example, some people of colour who have lighter skin may be able to pass as white, and so do not experience the same level of racial prejudice as those with darker skin. Likewise, bisexual people may automatically ‘pass’ for heterosexual if they are with a partner of the opposite gender identity, and so may not experience the same level of homophobia. This is not to say that this concept is entirely positive. For many who ‘pass’ it is due to assumptions on the part of society, and those assumptions can do just as much damage as the prejudice that’s been avoided. In the bisexual example, the person’s sexual identity is erased, as is common with bisexuality, due to assumptions that bisexual people are closeted homosexuals or experimenting heterosexuals.
Many of the writers in this anthology speak of having to “pass” for neurotypical, and the many costs of having to do that. In many cases, unlike the examples above, “passing” is not through lack of choice (e.g. as Daniel Au Valencia puts it “I put zero effort into making myself look more white”); hence the alternative description: “acting abled”. This language reflects the active, exhausting effort required to pass for neurotypical (read: “normal”). Like the examples above, it also costs people their pride and dignity in having to suppress part of their identity.
“I had ‘the talk’ with my kids this morning in the car. Not the ‘birds and the bees’ talk. The ‘how to stay alive because you’re black and therefore a threat’ talk.
– Morenike Giwa Onaiwu
The second theme that struck me was how this idea of ‘passing’ interacts with the racism experienced by autistics of colour. Police brutality against people of colour is so prevalent that parents must teach their children how to react (or more importantly, not to react) when coming into contact with the police, as a critical way of ensuring their survival. But what about when those children are neurodivergent? Many people on the autism spectrum show “self-stimulatory behaviour” (commonly called “stimming”) as a way of calming and/or stimulating themselves. Behaviours can include things like flapping hands, making sounds, repeating movements etc. Put this into the context of police brutality, and suddenly “acting abled” takes on a whole new level of necessity – a young African-American boy stimming when approached by the police could very well lead to his murder.
Somebody I have to work with to survive will respect at most two of the three things that are most central to who I am: my race, my gender or my neurodivergence.
– //kiran foster
This is also why I am frustrated and disappointed when disability activists speak about racism as though it’s over, or dismiss racism as irrelevant to ableism, as well as when organizers for racial justice are completely ignorant to disability issues, or dismiss ableism as simply no-existent or unconnected to racial oppression and white supremacy.
– Lydia X Z Brown
The third theme is one of the core purposes of bring this anthology together – addressing the intersectionality of ableism and other oppressions. While many social movements are making headway in raising awareness of inequality, it is often siloed to a single issue and ignorant of how the issue intersects with others. For example, the mainstream feminist movement has long faced accusations of being for white, middle-class, cisgendered, able-bodied, heterosexual women. However, it is not just the feminist movement. Many disability activism groups do not consider race, gender or sexuality to be relevant, a common consequence of lack of representation of people of colour, women or LGBTQ+ people in the leadership of these organisations. When we think about the representation of autism in the media, it is commonly a young white boy. This has led to faulty perceptions such as the idea that women and people of colour cannot be autistic; or delays in diagnosis because of doctors categorising symptoms as just part of being from a certain race or culture.
Most people will hold multiple identities at any one time; if any or multiple of these are membership of oppressed social groups, how can one ever feel truly understood? If a person is disabled, of colour, and trans but each individual movement does not recognise the role of those other identities, then those people are never fully recognised.
I have two criticisms of this collection that stopped it getting a higher rating from me. Firstly, the length. This could easily have been two anthologies in my opinion. It wasn’t long because each piece was long, but simply there were too many pieces. I don’t believe that any piece was less deserving than the others, but the sheer volume made it a laborious read in places. A lot of pieces repeated similar ideas; and of course that’s important to demonstrate the breadth of an issue, but it also made it harder to differentiate between pieces and to stay engaged. Perhaps this is just the kind of collection that you need to dip in and out of.
The second problem I had was the jargon. While there is a note at the beginning explaining the approach to editing as focusing on substance over style (with the very pertinent point that “focusing too much on ‘proper’ spelling and grammar reinforces white, wealthy, educated ‘norms’ of language”), a glossary would have been hugely helpful. Terminology such as “stimming”, “echolalia” etc., went straight over my head and made some of the essays inaccessible to me as a reader who didn’t know a lot about neurodivergence when I started. I have no problem educating myself, but when one of the aims of this anthology seemed to be awareness raising, that aim is ultimately hindered if the reader is alienated by seemingly technical language they don’t understand.
Overall, this is a unique and important work in the field of intersectionality that I would recommend to anyone wanting to understand autism, neurodivergence, and racism in more detail.
On every page, in every account, from every contributor, you will find one profound, universal theme threaded silently and artfully throughout the entire anthology. Again and again, you will find that the answer to the aforementioned question, now unspoken, ‘What does autism have to do with race?’ is a gentle, but resounding, ‘Everything.’
– Morenike Giwa Onaiwu