Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois called a double consciousness; the idea that African Americans must reconcile their own view of the world with the perspective of the dominate white society. As a black person, do I trust the police? Of course, I do. I depend on them just as much as any other citizen. However, I also recognize that in the wrong situation I could easily fall under suspicion, and my tendency to act strangely when stressed would only make matters worse. That is what happened thirty-four years ago when I was 13—not with the police but with the manager at the neighborhood supermarket.
It was a store my mother and I shopped at almost every day. One of the only times I was there by myself turned out to be a few days after another black kid had stolen some shopping carts. While I was waiting in line, the manager approached me asking “how’s the cart thief?” I thought he was joking, so I smiled. But something seemed off, and I began to feel self-conscious and embarrassed. My smile widened into my trademark Idiot Grin, a Cheshire cat like expression that looked even more ridiculous when I tried to suppress it. This, the store manager took as an admission of guilt. Fortunately, I had an alibi (a psychiatrist appointment), and one of my mother’s friends was a lawyer who told the manager that if he wasn’t going to press charges he needed to stop placing me under surveillance.
Before I was diagnosed with Infantile Autism at 18, my problems were attributed to many different causes from emotional disturbance, a learning disability, lack of intelligence, or just plain laziness. Sometimes my difficulties were linked to my race. When I failed the math portion of a science exam, my 5th grade teacher wrote what was then the slogan of the United Negro College Fund across the top of my paper: “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste.”
I was once asked if being black and autistic meant that I had a triple consciousness. After giving it some thought, I decided no. It’s not a question of arithmetic. It doesn’t matter how many characteristics you have that place you outside the mainstream. A double consciousness is what you get whenever you’re forced to see things form an alternative perspective. I have long seen the manifestations of a double consciousness in my non-disabled friends as they navigate a world that was not designed for their disabled children. Now, I recognize the double consciousness of my white friends as they come to terms with institutionalized racism and white privilege. It’s heartening. It’s commendable. It makes me think of one of my favorite quotes from American author F. Scott Fitzgerald: “the ability to entertain contradictory ideas while retaining the ability to function is the sign of a first rate intelligence.”
My mother came of age in the 1960’s, and she always told me about 1968; a year of mass protest around the world, rioting in the streets, political assassinations–creating (or reflecting) what philosopher Michel Foucault called a “rupture.” My mother passed away three years ago, so I can’t ask her if that is what is happening now. However, I’m pretty sure that if my mother were here she’d feel, with multiple institutions failing us at once, it’s definitely time for a revolution–not a violent one, but certainly a systemic one.
I’ve spent the last year learning about the system, particularly as it relates to people with disabilities, and I’ve been struck by the importance of the human element. A system is an abstraction. It doesn’t work or not work; it functions based on the people who populate it. A “broken” system can only be fixed by people, and it is only people who can make the best out of a flawed system. So, whatever systemic changes happen going forward, we must never forget the human element.
The type of society we live in will always be up to us, “We the People.” That’s why we must vote, write letters or make phone calls to congress, and otherwise stay civically engaged at the federal, state, and local level. It’s the charge given us long ago by Benjamin Franklin who, when asked what type of system the Constitutional Convention had created, said “a republic, if you can keep it.”