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Ableism and East Bay Solidarity Network

August 22, 2011

Love this image from Mingus' site, labeled "watercolor painting of an octopus done in greens, yellows, oranges and pinks."

To me, femme must include ending ableism, white supremacy, heterosexism, the gender binary, economic exploitation, sexual violence, population control, male supremacy, war and militarization, and ownership of children and land.

—from Mia Mingus’ keynote, “Moving Toward the Ugly: A Politic Beyond Desirability” at the Femmes of Color Symposium this weekend in Oakland

Yesterday: downtown Oakland is in full Art-And-Soul festival mode, and a small squad of us from East Bay Solidarity Network gather outside its gated entrance to do our own jovial yet serious work. Once we finally locate one another in the crowd (who has whose cell numbers?), it’s on to the business of distributing xeroxed posters and tape (did we bring enough tape? it sucks to run out), and divvying out areas to flyer. Some of us are slow and others are impatient.  Caught in between as an unofficially appointed problem solver, I feel my face edge toward a scowl. Luckily, though, our little gang laughs together more and more as months pass. And laughter is nature’s aspirin for the headache of logistics.  Besides: no one’s getting paid here, and there are no managers or fears of getting fired and losing that paycheck, so we’re more free to move at our own pace.

Have I told you about our current fight? Mel Hill was a security guard working for ABC Security. After working at a number of different locations, he was stationed way, way out at a bus yard, miles from any public transport. The way Mel puts it: “I had leg muscles big as Popeye from walking to and from work.” He posted up in a little World War II tin shack (“hot when it’s hot; cold when it’s cold”) with no heat, electricity, water — nothing. Leaks in the roof let the rain in. Misery. After months of enduring this, with no administrative response to his complaints, he began bringing a yellow blanket along on his shifts, to keep himself warm. This, he was told by management, is “unprofessional” and unacceptable.  Eventually Mel was fired, and brought his case to us, the East Bay Solidarity Network.  We explained that in order for us to take on his fight to win his job back and improve site conditions, he would have to join the network and agree to be there for other people’s fights, as well.

There’s more than enough fights to go around.

Economic need compels people who don’t own the means of production (a.k.a. the vast majority of us) to work in conditions that are often terrible for our bodies. Job conditions are set up that way in order to save time and production costs (including wages). If we object, as Mel did, we get the message (implicitly or explicitly) that (a) we’re lazy, or (b) our bodies are the problem; our bodies are defective. Look: other people can do it. Why can’t you?  Stop bringing the blanket.  It’s unprofessional.

What can we do about this core of ableism within the exploitative, competitive, profit-driven system?

Master of not-fitting: Chican@ queer & disability scholar Gloria Anzaldúa

Building on the praxis of many theorists and worker militants, we must include ableism in our understanding of the way capital categorizes and divides labor, and pathologizes, commodifies, punishes and “corrects” what may not even be problems in people’s bodies and minds.

When Mel would get cold during his overnight shift at the bus yard, his body was telling him that something needed to change.  So he asked for improvements in the site infrastructure, and when he was denied/ignored, took it upon himself to bring a blanket.  For this management punished him.  Whereas we can clearly see Mel’s discomfort as an institutional problem, his bosses painted it as something wrong with him, his attitude, and his body.  When bosses expect us to adapt to shitty, toxic, stressful conditions that don’t work for our particular mind/body, they are denying our lived, embodied experience, and casting us as unfit, unable, and, in a sense, ugly.  We better shape up or ship out.

As Mingus puts it, though, we can go a long way toward reclaiming the ‘ugliness’ of our bodies.

As the (generational) effects of global capitalism, genocide, violence, oppression and trauma settle into our bodies, we must build new understandings of bodies and gender that can reflect our histories and our resiliency, not our oppressor or our self-shame and loathing. We must shift from a politic of desirability and beauty to a politic of ugly and magnificence. That moves us closer to bodies and movements that disrupt, dismantle, disturb. Bodies and movements ready to throw down and create a different way for all of us, not just some of us.

The magnificence of a body that shakes, spills out, takes up space, needs help, moseys, slinks, limps, drools, rocks, curls over on itself. The magnificence of a body that doesn’t get to choose when to go to the bathroom, let alone which bathroom to use. A body that doesn’t get to choose what to wear in the morning, what hairstyle to sport, how they’re going to move or stand, or what time they’re going to bed. The magnificence of bodies that have been coded, not just undesirable and ugly, but un-human. The magnificence of bodies that are understanding gender in far more complex ways than I could explain in an hour. Moving beyond a politic of desirability to loving the ugly. Respecting Ugly for how it has shaped us and been exiled. Seeing its power and magic, seeing the reasons it has been feared. Seeing it for what it is: some of our greatest strength.

. . .

Where is the Ugly in you? What is it trying to teach you?

And I am not saying it is easy to be ugly without apology. It is hard as fuck. It threatens our survival. I recognize the brilliance in our instinct to move toward beauty and desirability. And it takes time and for some of us it may be impossible. I know it is complicated. …And I also know that though it may be a way to survive, it will not be a way to thrive, to grow the kind of genders and world we need. And it is not attainable to everyone, even those who want it to be.

What do we do with bodies that can’t change no matter how much we dress them up or down; no matter how much we want them to?

. . .

If you leave with anything today, leave with this: you are magnificent. There is magnificence in our ugliness. There is power in it, far greater than beauty ever can wield. Work to not be afraid of the Ugly—in each other or ourselves. Work to learn from it, to value it. Know that every time we turn away from ugliness, we turn away from ourselves. And always remember this: I would rather you be magnificent, than beautiful, any day of the week. I would rather you be ugly—magnificently ugly.

This is wonderful and necessary. But in addition to transforming our subjectivity, we need solid ideas about how to transform our material, day-to-day existence. Right? Even as we learn to love our own ugly, non-performing bodies and minds, we also need to team up with other bodies and minds to resist the ongoing process of worker discipline.

How can we also conceive of our bodies in terms of collectives, teams, and super-organisms? Worker-led unions, solidarity networks, and deeply rooted international coalitions? How can we be there for each other in a material way that takes the focus and scrutiny off of our individual bodies/minds and their workplace “performance,” and instead furthers the power and solidarity of the collective?

Yesterday as Mel and two other EastBaySol organizers were postering near ABC’s offices, a former co-worker spotted him and came over to talk. He recognized our flyers, and while he wasn’t angry with us for badmouthing the company, he did seem upset. “What am I supposed to do, Mel?” he asked. “I’m stuck. I can’t just go get another job. I’m stuck here.”

That’s why we gotta get together, right?

Or as Mel often says from behind his aviator sunglasses, chin lifted: “We can show the others that they don’t have to take it, either. Together we’re strong, and we won’t stand for this.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 22, 2011 9:08 pm

    A friend of mine shared this post on Facebook, and I wanted to share this resulting convo in case it’s helpful or clarifying to others.

    Sebastián Luis Chávez I don’t really understand what point this article is trying to make.

    Katie Loncke:
    thanks asia! sebastián, it was kind of a stream-of-consciousness post but basically it’s saying: both economics and culture push our bodies to conform & perform, telling us that are bodies are no good unless they are beautiful and/or “abled” (i.e. productive for the profit of bosses). mia mingus says that in order to counteract this, we must learn to appreciate ugliness and magnificence instead of always chasing beauty. i say that in addition to that, we need fighting organizations that can stand up for one another when our lives are endangered because our bodies are not ‘abled’ in the way the bosses want them to be.

    Sebastián Luis Chávez:
    What is the functional definition of “beautiful” and “ugly” at work here? And isn’t the essence of the body that it is a performative apparatus? Do you mean “perform” in a different sense?

    Also, in the example of Mel that you cited: I understand that, in capitalism, we often are forced into fields of work with deplorable conditions in order to survive, so in that situation I think the answer is very clear. But in other cases, the waters become muddy. There are many fields of work that will never be totally safe or comfortable: coal mining, for instance, will always be risky and unhealthy. If a severe asthmatic couldn’t handle working in those conditions, who or what is ‘the problem’? Aren’t lungs naturally supposed to work in a particular way that would allow us to function in that sort of environment (albeit not without hurting ourselves in the process)?

    Human bodies have to be ‘abled’ in particular ways for us to survive as a species and as individuals, no? Simply because the dominant mode of production determines toward what ends these abilities are used does not mean that the whole concept of being ‘abled’ becomes one of mere difference. Having two hands and two feet is superior to not having them. Having 20/20 vision is superior to having to wear glasses or contacts. Being mentally stable is superior to being schizophrenic. That doesn’t mean we exclude people from our communities or don’t provide resources and accommodation for their self-development, but it doesn’t seem to me that ableism belongs in the same category as racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc.

    I assume from your angle I’m totally f’ing this up but I just don’t really grasp it.

    Katie Loncke: thanks for your engagement, i appreciate it, and i’m tryna revise my post to make it clearer, so i’m thankful for your questions and thoughts,
    2 hours ago · LikeUnlike
    #
    Katie Loncke:
    sorry! :) so i guess in my view, humans are a social species, which means that our survival depends not only on how vital each person is, but also on how well we take care of one another. also, “survival” is kind of a tricky notion when we take oppression into account, since oppressing groups can ‘survive’ at the expense of violence and exploitation toward oppressed groups (which i see as a bad thing, even though it might be ‘good’ for some members of the species). finally, when we think about human life in terms of compassion, wisdom, love, etc., i think it’s clear that a person without legs, or who wears glasses, can be wiser or more compassionate than a person with legs or with no glasses, and a person with schizophrenia can be more compassionate, creative, etc. than a person who doesn’t have schizophrenia. so to me it’s not clear at all that the latter examples in the pairs are “superior,” unless we tautologically define superiority as the latter examples of the pairs. what *does* seem effed up to me is how people with schizophrenia get treated, i.e. routinely stigmatized, isolated, medicated, and incarcerated, which might be the more significant cause of suffering than the way their minds are working in the first place. not trying to be completely relativistic – i agree that some illnesses and conditions cause us a lot of pain. but i think that if our society were organized more equally and fairly, people could be supported in whatever it is we’re going through, rather than punished because our bodies or minds don’t do what our bosses want them to.

    Sebastián Luis Chávez Interesting food for thought. Thanks Katie!
    32 minutes ago · LikeUnlike

  2. simcha3 permalink
    August 30, 2011 10:10 am

    An article about gender and labor from 2007, “Feminism at Work” by Lynne Williams makes some interestingly similar points. See http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/456

  3. August 31, 2011 9:32 am

    Cool, thanks simcha3! I’ll check it out.

  4. September 1, 2011 11:20 pm

    There’s a really insightful and important chapter on ableism and activist communities and intimate partner violence in The Revolution Starts at Home by this person called Peggy Munson. I understand what the person is talking about from my experience working at nursing homes and the complicity of workers in ableism, thats institutionalized in nursing home industry complexes. Let me know when you read it cos I’d like to discuss it sometime. Can’t wait for you to come visit Seatown!!!! When???

  5. September 1, 2011 11:24 pm

    Awesome — I’ll borrow my friend’s copy of TRevSAH and hit you up when I’m through. I might head up north in October! We’ll see. :)

  6. September 2, 2011 12:48 am

    yo! its online
    http://www.incite-national.org/media/docs/0985_revolution-starts-at-home.pdf
    i think the online one has some different content from the book, dunnoe why, but the Peggy Munson piece is online

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