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Black Feminism and Its Legacy of Intersectionality and Disability

Billion Strong advisor and contributor Mansi Varma discusses the history of Black feminism, intersectionality, and their importance to the disability rights movement.

As the Billion Strong movement continues to evolve and advocate for all people with disabilities (PwDs), I reflect on how the disability rights movement sits on the legacy of Black feminism. Specifically, one of the most commonly used terms in the disability rights movement is “intersectionality” and how this term propels the human rights movement to encourage communities to form intersectional solidarity. The term intersectionality was coined by Kimberly Crenshaw, a Black feminist scholar and attorney, in order to convey the relationship between people’s multiple identities and their experience with oppression.

Since the 1800s, Black feminists have spoken of intersectionality as part of the women’s suffrage movement in the United States due to their race excluding them from mainstream dialogues on feminism. They were caught in between two identities. They could not attribute their experience as fully based on being a woman or being Black. One such advocate for an intersectional lens on the women’s suffrage movement was Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and women’s rights activist. In her famous speech “Ain’t I a Woman,” she shares her qualms of being a Black woman in the women’s suffrage movement:

“I think that ‘twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?… That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches… Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman?”

Sojourner Truth, 1851

As seen in the quote above, Black women were excluded from women’s rights. The history of Black feminism is important to the disability rights movement because other identities beyond the initial disability – such as race, gender, immigration status, and more – influence the experience of a PwD.

Words on a page including privilege, Discrimination, Stereotype, Racism
Sexism, racism, shaming, and other forms of discrimination.

For example, ChrisTiana ObeySumner, a Black autistic person, encountered discrimination based on being a disabled Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) in the school system. Their high school tried to remove them from school and place them in an involuntary institution. There were several reasons why the school made this suggestion. ChrisTiana’s socialization skills were not like their classmates, they were bullied and would hide in the bathrooms and closets throughout the day, plus their hygiene and eating habits were not the best. These behaviors alongside family poverty and being an uninsured autistic person were the reason why the high school would not support them. The school sent the message that a disabled BIPOC child should be placed in juvenile hall or psychiatric ward rather than a classroom.

ChrisTiana’s story aligns with the statistics of disabled BIPOC children. According to AP News, students with disabilities are twice as likely to get suspended than those without a disability. Specifically, Black, Latino, and Native American students receive harsher punishments than their white disabled peers for comparable offenses. The story of ChrisTiana and other disabled BIPOC children exemplify the importance of other identities beyond disability status interacting with each other to create a different experience for PwDs.

The disability rights movement cannot be in silo of other human right movements, whether its race, sexuality, or immigration status. Black feminists have shown us flexible solidarity, which seeks to overcome oppression with the support and unity of other communities when the circumstances allow so. We need to work with all communities that face intersectional oppression to gain strength. The liberation of other communities is important because within the PwD community, there are people with intersectional identities that are Black disabled, non-binary disabled, and undocumented disabled.   

Mansi Varma is a Masters of Public Health graduate who specializes in Health Communication and Mental Health and Substance Use. She is passionate about solving health problems through innovative strategies. She has worked on disability rights work in Kenya and has built applications to better the disability advocacy. Some of her interests are health, human rights, and health technology. 

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