The Intersectionality of Disability, Race, Gender and Oppression

On Killing the Black Body:  What would have happened to the Eugenics movement(sterilization of women,  blacks, immigrants and the disabled) if the public opinion/ perception of disability was different? What does the strong relationship between the oppression of blacks and women to disability say about the feelings toward disability in our society?

Disability as Race, Gender and Sexuality**

From Dr. Baynton’s Essay, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.”

“Disability is everywhere in history, once you begin looking for it, but conspicuously absent in the histories we write” (Baynton 52)

(On disability)

“While many have pointed out the injustice and perniciousness of attributing these qualities to a racial or ethnic group, little has been written about why these attributions are such powerful weapons for inequality, why they were so furiously denied and condemned by their targets, and what this tells us about our attitudes toward disability” (Baynton 41).

The appearance of disability within the texts of black women writers that we have read in this course begs the question of just where does disability fit in our discussion of race and gender?  Whether disability has been used metaphorically as exhibited in Toni Morrison’s Recitatif, as a part of a historical narrative as it is within Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body, or as a result of an incestuous relationship between daughter and father within Sapphire’s Novel, Push, an undeniable connection between disability, gender and race is evident and deserving of critical analysis. In light of the prevalence of black males being placed in Special Education classes at such a higher rate than other ethnic groups and disability being used to justify the sterilization of black mothers, an understanding of gender and race as disability is also critical to the furthering of civil rights in the 21st century.

In Black Skin, White Mask, Psychiatrist Frantz Fanon illuminates the connection between language and oppression with his declaration that to speak “a language is to take on a world, a culture.”  By using language to describe racial groups, particularly African Americans in terms typically associated with disability, an appropriation of disability to African Americans through language has occurred and is historically explicative.  The same appropriation of disability through language has also been true for women.  The implications of disability language being used to describe African Americans, women and other oppressed groups have been explored by Historian, Douglas C. Baynton, in his essay, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” In his Essay Baynton writes, “while disabled people can be considered one of the minority groups historically assigned inferior status and subjected to discrimination, disability has functioned for all such groups as a sign of and justification for inferiority.”  How disability acts as a justification for the oppression of Blacks and women is particularly relevant to Roberts’ and Morrison’s texts as each deal greatly with the issue of oppression from the perspective of race and gender. In  Dorothy Roberts’  text, Killing the Black Body, it is evident that the reproductive rights of black women have been challenged due to disability language being used to describe Black children as Roberts states that ”Poor Black mothers are  blamed for perpetuating social problems by transmitting defective genes, irreparable crack damage and a deviant lifestyle to their children.”(Roberts 3)  The use of language such as defective genes, deviant lifestyles and irreparable crack damage  to validate the controlling of black women’s reproductive bodies either by sterilization or health hazardous birth control shows how physical disability(Irreparable crack damage, defective genes) or behavioral disability(defective genes, deviant behavior) has been used to oppress black women.

How disability relates to racial oppression in Toni Morrison Recitatif is not as easily noticeable but does further reiterate the connection between race and gender. Toni Morrison combines the common depiction of the subaltern as mute with racist physical qualities akin to the Sambo character popularized in Literature and theater with her inclusion of Maggie in the story. Throughout the  story, Maggie, a black female character, is described as having ”bowed legs like parenthesis” that made her sway from side to side when she walked and also as a mute. In this way Morrison combines possible perceptions of disability (muteness, difference in walking) with the pictorial depiction of the Sambo as having legs like parenthesis or bowed legs. It is interesting to note that the meaning of Sambo has been traced to ”Hispanic or Portuguese sources  in which the word Zambo means, bow-legged or knock-kneed”(Nurrudin 252). The relationship between disability and racial oppression is explained in historical terms by Baynton’s admission that “blacks were  often physically depicted in terms of deformity, specifically as having exaggerated lips, amusingly long or bowed legs, grotesquely big feet, bad posture, missing teeth, crossed or bulging eyes, and otherwise deformed bodies” (40). In regards to how the proposed physical deformities of blacks were related to their oppression; these types of depictions were often used to prove that blacks were inferior and in turn was used to justify their enslavement, disenfranchisement, and state of poverty.

The film adaptation of the novel Push also illuminates the connectedness of race and disability through the naming of Precious’s daughter with Down syndrome as Mongo. Mongo, which is arguably the shortened version of Monogoloid, is historically a term used to describe the physical features of  racial groups(Asians, mixed children) and also people with Down Syndrome. As it is commonly known, the intermixing of blacks and whites in sexual terms were said to result in the production of a mongrel race but the historical background behind the term Mongolism provided by Baynton reiterates just how connected race and disability truly are. According to Baynton, “Down’s syndrome was called Mongolism by the doctor who first identified it in 1866 because he believed the syndrome to be the result of a biological reversion by Caucasians to the Mongol racial type.” As exhibited by this historical anecdote, racial inferiority was often viewed in terms of disability.

What is important about the understanding of the connectedness of disability,race and oppression is to come to the realization that discussions about race and gender cannot fully exist without an inclusion of disability within the discussion due to the stigmatizing of blacks and women with the stigma of disability. What must ultimately come out this inclusion is a rethinking of how disability is perceived within society and treated within the world of academia and disciplines concerned with the uplifting of oppressed groups.


1[pdf issuu_pdf_id=”120316071936-3b825a86fa924912949bd40d45a7bd42″].

2. Nurrudin, Yusuf. “Sambo.” Encyclopedia of African American History. Ed. Leslie Alexandria, Walter C. Rucker.  ABC-CLIO: United States, 2010. 252. Print.


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