Friday, March 15, 2013

An Apology: Racism And Autism

Brenda Rothman

It is not very long ago that I wrote a racist essay. 

While that statement settles in, let me quickly say: I am not a racist. I know racism still exists and must be fought against every day. I know black people still experience economic and social restraints that restrict their access and opportunity, compared to white people. I know people of color are marginalized by society in both trivial and critical ways through personal contact, society, and through the media.

I know all these things, and yet, I have also written unintentionally racist statements. One of those statements was in a public blog post, published on my own blog, on Thinking Person's Guide to Autism, on Denene Millner's My Brown Baby, and on It doesn't get much more public than that.

In case you missed it, I'll summarize it. I wrote that my autistic child did not recognize race in people and that he identified people, instead, by foreheads and hair color. That inability to recognize skin color meant that he sometimes identified a black man as being or looking like his father, who is white. That wasn't the racist part. I surmised that my child didn't see race and concluded that I didn't need to teach him about race. There. That was it.

The only way a person could say that she doesn't need to teach her child about race is if that person is not a black person or person of color and does not experience racism. It's not that racism doesn't exist. It's not that we are all one skin color and are treated equally. It's that I was operating from a base of privilege, the privilege of being born white, and never having experienced racism on a daily basis since I was a toddler, simply because of my skin color. I could ignore the pain and trauma of racism only because I am white.

Black parents have no choice. They must talk to their children about race. They must tell them why they are treated differently and why racism is embedded systematically across society, not just the result of individual "bad" people. They must have that talk with them while they are still too young to fully grasp it.

Anyone can identify overt examples of racism and decry them. It is the commonplace, covert statements like mine that are harder to identify, yet leave the same injuries and reminders of difference. My ignorant (not innocent) statement was racist. And for that, I must apologize -- to Denene Millner, to her readers, to the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism readers, to Parenting's readers, and to black people everywhere. I am sorry for causing you pain.

For my readers, you might be wondering what an essay about covert racism has to do with a disability like autism. Everything. Everything. Disability is how I learned exactly how racist my statement was. Disability has taught me to recognize how difference is systematically identified, monitored, and isolated. Disability and the oppression that comes with it fall into the same category of Different, of "Not One of Us," that race does. As the parent of an autistic child, I cannot afford to ignore it, just as black parents cannot afford to ignore racism. And while there are commonalities between bias against disability and racism,  I do not want to take away from the prominence of racism or the importance of other oppressed differences.

There are seemingly benign statements and observations made every day about disability and autism.  There are covert, systemic ways that autistic and disabled people are marginalized and excluded. Here I am, a white person, admitting that, while well-intentioned and educated, I was ignorant and biased about race. Why bring it up?  Because that openness, that need to have that talk, is what leads me to explore biased statements, whether overt or covert, against autism and disability.

And to apologize to my brothers and sisters in difference.

A version of this essay was previously published at