Thursday, September 4, 2014

White Guard to Black Student with Down Syndrome: Assume the Position (as a joke)

Sometimes I write about Down syndrome and comedy and why I think it's so important. I get the pushback - lighten up, it was only a joke, don't take things so seriously, and so forth.

So here's this story from (via the Daily Mail, which loves "outrage" reporting on authoritarians in the U.S.). A 12-year-old boy with Down syndrome was heading to school for his first day:
Brandon was accompanied on his first day at Huntington K-8 School in Eastwood by his mother, Brandiss Pearson, her husband and her father.

When they stopped in front of a hallway mural to snap pictures, a school sentry, or security guard, who is white, inserted himself. Brandon and his family are black.

"Wait, wait, wait, hold on,'' Brandiss Pearson recalls the sentry saying. Then the sentry turned Brandon to face the wall and lifted Brandon's hands above his head on the wall, as if to be frisked, she said.

"And he starts laughing and says, 'Now take the picture, he's in the right position,' '' Pearson recalled.
As always, I suggest an intersectional reading of the event. Racism takes the center, but disability enables the racism to play out, to make the argument that this is only a joke.
Pearson reported the incident to Huntington's principal Tuesday afternoon. She tearfully confronted the security guard, or school sentry, Wednesday when she saw him in the hallway. He responded that he thought it was "a funny joke,'' she said.

School administrators put the sentry on leave Wednesday while they look into the incident, said Michael Henesey, coordinator of communications for the school district. Henesey declined to identify the sentry. Pearson said she did not know the sentry's full name.
This is a prime example of why I am so concerned about how we represent disability, how we make sure we tread people with disabilities as full people, not as objects. Because I don't care if Brandon didn't understand what was happening on some level, if he was laughing. This is objectifying and humiliation. It's akin to the constant bullying that plays about an eagerness to please and a confusion about social norms for people with developmental disabilities.

I write this little post as I ponder what happened in North Carolina thirty years ago. Two black men with intellectual disabilities were harassed and bullied by police into signing confessions, they were placed on death row, they lost thirty years of their lives, they were innocent. The cops at the time knew that they were innocent, or at least had the evidence of the true criminal at their fingertips, and yet decided to go ahead and throw these two in jail.

Yes, racism. Yes, ableism. Yes, authoritarianism.