Ableist Activism

It is a great irony that as I have become more aware of and invested in the need for social justice activism, I am less able than ever to participate in it.

Think of every “call to action” email you’ve received. “Call your representative,” they urge. “Don’t email, emails get ignored. Call today!”

Well, I can’t call. Hard of hearing, dont’cha know, with the resultant anxiety surrounding any situation where I might actually have to talk to someone without being sure of what they’re saying. (Interesting side factoid: I can usually handle the interaction in a drive-through fast food place because it’s so heavily scripted. Go off that script even a little, and I’m lost.) And no, TTY phones do not help in my case.

There are other things I’d love to do, but can’t because of my chronic pain. In-person lobbying. Escorting at Planned Parenthood clinics. Even the online stuff that just requires spoons that I don’t have most of the time – networking, posting, retweeting, emailing.

And, of course, the most common request I get is for donations. Planned Parenthood, ACLU, Courage Campaign, Kiva, Doctors Without Borders. We’re cash-strapped not only by my husband’s layoff, but my disability-based inability to work a regular job and the hundreds of dollars per month of medical insurance and copays that we cannot go without. And that doesn’t even get into the issue of the opportunity cost (see the Paradox of Choice for more on that.)

In short, I am irked that right when I am most willing to Do Something, I am drowned in ableist pleas to Do Something that I cannot do. I am doing what I can – my art, blogging, participating in discussions when and where my spoons permit – but in the face of those endless pleas for phone calls, personal appearances, and donations, my best attempts are framed as pathetic excuses for avoiding “real” activism.

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Revealing Racism through Art

What with my becoming involved in the anti-racist and other social justice communities, and my ongoing work to call out privilege and prejudice within myself, I discovered I was tired of drawing white people.

Now, I’m white. And in art, as with writing, the repeated maxim is often “make what you know”. That’s one of the reasons I draw mainly women; I’m familiar with the way female bodies work on a deeper level from having inhabited one. (Also, they’re pretty. Though whether that opinion is a manifestation of internalized sexism is something I’m still working on.) And white women, well, again, I’m white. Plus I’ve recently realized going through my copious collection of naked-woman-photo books, almost all of them are white, especially the “photo reference for artists” type. Right there is a huge example of racism I never would have noticed a year ago.

Yeah, I was tired of drawing white people. And even more, I was newly aware of how problematic it was to make an unconscious assumption – not decision – to make the subject of my art white.

So this woman, I decided, would be black. A mild artistic challenge, since in black and white differences in skin color are not as apparent as they would be in color. But just approaching it with the mindset that she was black set off unexpected turmoil within me. Was I over-emphasizing her facial features? Was I sending a message by portraying a nude black woman that I wouldn’t send by portraying a nude white one? Did I even have the right to portray someone whose ancestors were enslaved, raped, and killed by my ancestors? By portraying someone constructed by society as Other, was I making this single person into a token, with every physical feature, gesture, and curve of limb somehow a commentary on her race as a whole?

Of course my first reaction was to explain it away, that I was just worried about what “people” would think, because “people” were unthinkingly racist, not me, oh no. But the sheer strength and volume of my internal reaction belied that explanation. I didn’t have these sorts of internal dialogues when drawing “Get it Out of Me“, despite my subject in that piece being significantly larger than I. The truth is I was being racist, and what’s more I was more concerned with the potential of being considered racist than with the art itself.

Our society is racist. We live and breathe racism every damned day, it’s embedded in our media and advertising and fashion and literature from the day we’re born. And as we are intertwined with our society, we cannot separate ourselves from the worst in it. The best I can think of to do is try to become aware of it, and to talk about the process. The silence around racism (unless it’s to decry it in other people or to declare America “post-racial“) is just as damaging as the racism itself, since it prevents us from moving forward.

The tagline of this blog is The intersection of art and activism. It isn’t just about creating pretty pictures to call out problems in the world outside. It’s also about the very difficult conversations the work creates within yourself, acknowledging that you’re just as broken as the society that made you, and trying to be better.

In conclusion, I should say that I am not posting this to collect anti-racist points, or to solicit validation from POC. I have done my best to talk about this in an honest and anti-racist manner, but I’m equally aware that I have probably fucked up in quite a few ways. I welcome commentary but do not expect teaching. The art in question I will post separately, as it ended up really being about something else entirely. (I’ve also decided it’s not, in fact, quite done yet.)

Edited to add: It’s done now, and posted here.

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