Searching for discussions of autism and blackness online, I found a pamphlet documenting the disparity of autism diagnoses among different racial, ethnic, and economic groups in the United States. African Americans and other children of color are more likely not to get diagnosed with autism than white children and children from upper middle class incomes. This reminded me of the contradictions and overlaps between Critical Race Studies and Disability Studies. On one hand, pathologization and labeling has been a way of controlling, containing and marking difference, particularly the differences assigned to black bodies. We know this fact from historic terms invented by nineteenth-century doctors like Samuel Cartwright, such as draeptemonia, a diagnostic label applied to enslaved blacks that classified the desire to escape to freedom as a type of mental illness. This was later translated into the notion that blacks/African Americans who rebelled against their marginalization, economic condition or second class status were inherently disabled, troubled, and in need of institutionalized care. What then, are the stakes of inclusion in the diagnostic category? Is it better to remain undiagnosed, unlabeled, unstigmatized? Is this even possible, regardless of a label, at this historically grounded moment in which the color of one's skin, the enactments of one's identity, can be called into question in so many different contexts? Or, is it possible that the stakes of a label or a name, whether it is citizen or special needs, seem more likely to offer some sort of collective identity that MAY serve as site of recognition, resistance to the type of labeling designed to reduce one's humanity. What is more productive? A seat at the table? Visibility that might fix one's identity, or, mobility from the margins where you also risk invisibility, silence, erasure?
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As a scholar of color, I want to evaluate how popular narratives of autism draw from the history of uninterrogated whiteness in ways that reproduce mainstream notions of racial universalism, gender norms, and unfettered upward mobility. When reading autoethnographies about autism the notion of the "Veil" and "double-consciousness," popularized by W.E.B. Du Bois in his important critique of the color line, The Souls of Black Folk, resonated for me. Like Du Bois' notion of viewing the world through one's multiple identities, many narratives that provide powerful insights about autistic experiences and identities also point to the struggle to navigate the line that divides "me" from "you" or "normal" from disabled. Is possible to think about autistic identity as akin to racial formation without conflating difference and without reproducing classifications that promote marginalization? How might more expansive notions of "blackness," like Nikhil Singh's "black is a country" or Benedict Anderson's imagined communities provide productive ways for relating past struggles to current attempts to affirm the value of autistic identities and struggles for equality, personhood, and civil rights? Alternatively, can the intersectionality of autistic identities with other identity categories help us to develop new ways of talking about, imagining, sustaining, and supporting the diversity and value of/in autism communities?