Author Archives: melissahillman

Is Trump Planting Undercover FBI Agents in Schools?

I’ve been job hunting for months. As someone with many years of teaching experience under my belt, I have alerts set for education-related positions on several job sites. The entire time I’ve been searching, I’ve been seeing job postings from the FBI looking for “experienced teachers.” Here’s a screenshot of an ad I found on LinkedIn in June. It says they’re “no longer accepting applications,” but this same ad has been reposted many times targeting cities all over the US. 

A LinkedIn job posting from the FBI that advertises for "Special Agent: Education/Teaching." The body of the ad says the FBI is looking for people "with expertise in education and teaching."

Here are a few screenshots from LinkedIn that show some of the breadth of the FBI recruitment of teachers:

The nest three pictures are all screenshots of LinkedIn listings. There are twelve job postings in all; all from the FBI. Nine are for "Special Agent: Education/Teaching" and three are for "Special Agent."

There are many more. The job posts labeled “Special Agent” list “EDUCATION/TEACHING” as a special skill for which they’re specifically recruiting. 

Back in June, I posted to my personal social media accounts about this, speculating that the FBI was planning to put undercover operatives in American classrooms to spy on educators who were teaching things the GOP calls “liberal indoctrination,” such as climate science, ethnic studies, critical race theory, race-based demographics, and history that centers the experience of BIPOC (such as the 1619 Project or discussions of the genocide of Native peoples). In June, this was just speculation.

Well, the other shoe has dropped. Now we have this:

Donald Trump tweets an article from Breitbart titled, "Trump Orders Purge os 'Critical Race Theory' from Federal Agencies" and comments, "This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue." Russ Vought retweets Trump's Tweet,. commenting, "Last week Donald Trump asked people to report any sightings of Critical Race Theory 'training.' We have been working with agencies to identify un-American trainings. We have set up an email to report these sightings. These must be stopped!" Vought supplies the email address underneath.

Trump and Russ Vought, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, are, astonishingly, urging Americans to report other Americans for “un-American” activity. Once again, the US Government is demanding that Americans “name names” in order to ruin the careers and lives of fellow Americans. Joseph McCarthy lives. 

A lot of people confuse McCarthy with the House Un-American Activities Committee of a few years prior. While McCarthy didn’t run the HUAC, its focus on rooting out “Communist infiltration” and its abusive tactics are all part of what we now call “the McCarthy era.” McCarthy campaigned for his Senate seat on paranoid delusions of a Deep State, supposedly made up of Communists who had “infiltrated” the government and were attempting to destroy it from within. Sound familiar?

Once in the Senate, Joseph McCarthy became more insistent that “Communists” had “infiltrated” the US government. He forced hundreds of loyal Americans into hearings that were notoriously insulting and hostile. All the Democrats on his committee resigned, and, eventually, bit by bit, McCarthy lost Republican support as well, leaving the hearings in the hands of himself and his attack dog, Roy Cohn. 

In 1954, they decided to take on the US Army, accusing it of being controlled by their imaginary Communist Deep State. The Army-McCarthy hearings ended, along with McCarthy’s public support and career, with Army attorney Joseph Welch’s immortal words, “Have you no sense of decency?” McCarthy died just three years later, but Roy Cohn returned to New York, where he eventually took on a protegé– Donald Trump

Two black and white pictures of Donald Trump abd Roy Cohn. In the top image, Trump speaks into several press microphones as Cohn looks on. In the second, Trump and Cohn wear tuxedos and stand with former NYC mayor Ed Koch.
Donald Trump with Roy Cohn (and, in the second image, Ed Koch.) (Photo: “El diablo que enseñó a golpear a Trump El presidente resucita la figura de su mentor y compañero de juergas, Roy Cohn, inquisidor mcCarthista y abogado de mafiosos” by rupertomiller@hotmail, Creative Commons license.)

Trump, then in his 30s, was (for once in his life) a good student. Now, 40 years later, Trump has used what he learned from Cohn and taken the tactics of McCarthy’s Red Scare to create his own Red Hat Scare. The Office of Management and Budget has provided a handy email address to use to turn your neighbors and coworkers in for ”any sightings of critical race theory trainings” because Trump has decided that discussions of racism are “un-American” activities. 

How is Trump defining “un-American”? The average American has no idea what “critical race theory” is, so Trump’s relentless lies about it provide the definition. Trump has attacked anything that mentions white privilege or systemic racism, anything supportive of protests for racial justice, and anything that says the words “Black lives matter.” He has, after years of these attacks, variously referred to anything related to the struggle for racial justice  as “Antifa,” “the radical left,” and, now, “critical race theory.” He clearly thinks “critical” means “to criticize” rather than “to think critically,” and assumes the fight for racial justice is an attack on white people– specifically, on him. 

A young Black woman with long, wavy hair parted in the middle, stands at a protest, wearing a face mask and holding a sign that says: "AM I NEXT? Police killings violate my right to due process! The Death Penalty on the streets!"
A protester in Washington, DC. (Photo: “George Floyd Black Lives Matter Protest, 14th & U Streets, 5/29/20 [Explored]” by Geoff Livingston, Creative Commons license)

The Trump Administration has imagined a nefarious purpose for any type of education or training around race, and is instructing its cult followers to “report” any “sighting” of it in “Federal Agencies.” And while it’s comforting to assume Trump means in his own administration only by “Federal Agencies,” remember that he has already said that schools and universities that teach “critical race theory” will be cut off from federal funding, so he has already very much included them in this. They’re clearly seeing public education as a “Federal Agency,” and any kind of education as a potentially “un-American training.” Just yesterday, the Department of Education announced it is “investigating” Princeton University– a private university– just for saying publicly that systemic racism exists. Princeton’s admission that systemic racism exists on campus is being weaponized against them in a clear attempt by the Trump Administration to bully educators and intimidate us from discussing the realities of systemic racism. 

And the FBI has been trying to recruit experienced educators for months. 

Are there undercover FBI agents currently placed in schools and universities? Is this what Vought means by “working with other agencies”– like the FBI– to “identify un-American trainings”? 

In addition to the Princeton announcement yesterday, Trump once again directly targeted schools for “un-American” education, and he announced the formation of a “national commission to promote patriotic education.” How long will it be before he sends DeVos or even Barr to investigate an HBCU? Or the University of Chicago’s Race & Ethnic Studies Department? Or the New York Public School District? 

Since nearly anything can be termed “un-American trainings,” this is clearly a weapon used to silence discussions of race in America. Past experience teaches us that any weapon Trump has will be used in service to his personal grievances, and that both William Barr and the Senate GOP will enable every corrupt, horrific abuse he cares to commit. 

Whether there are undercover FBI agents placed to surveil schools and universities or not, make no mistake: This is about targeting and silencing BIPOC people, especially Black people, and their allies. Trump isn’t satisfied gassing, shooting, or disappearing protesters for racial justice; he’s not satisfied with the prospect of using a supervillain-style heat ray against them. Now he wants to prevent us from even discussing racism.  

A photo of a granite monument carbed with, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; of abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The First Amendment to the US Constitution, 15 December 1791."
Photo: “First Amendment to the US Constitution” by elPadawan, Creative Commons license

Think about this email address and the Trump Administration’s urging that the public “report” any “un-American trainings” to the Office of Management and Budget. 

What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with a report that Ms. Kennedy taught “critical race theory” in her 10th grade English class by having students read a chapter from Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race? What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with a report that Dr. Abiola, Chair of the Department of Chemistry, required his department to do a day-long retreat on anti-racist pedagogy? What will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with the fact that nearly every university in the nation has an ethnic studies department? 

And what will the Office of Management and Budget be doing with the information that schools and universities won’t begin pretending that white privilege and systemic racism do not exist just because Trump demands it? Does Trump imagine he can intimidate HBCUs into lying about the lived experience of their faculty and students? Does Trump think we will all just set aside the mountain of data we have on these topics because he said so?

Trump will not win this fight. 

More Americans believe racial and ethnic discrimination is a major problem in America than support Donald Trump

More Americans support Black Lives Matter than support Donald Trump

Trump is dreaming if he thinks ethnic studies courses can be bullied out of existence. In 2017, Mike Pence’s own home state of Indiana passed a law requiring all Indiana high schools to offer an ethnic studies course at least once a year.

Trump. Will. Not. Win. This. Fight. 

Trump does not get to define “un-American.” We will not sit silently by while Trump defines “un-American” as “BIPOC.” We will not sit silently by while Trump demands punishment for BIPOC speaking out about the truth of their lives. 

Pull your [ALLEGED, ugh] undercover FBI agents out of our schools and universities, Don. 

We will not sit silently by while Trump tries to force this nation into a new era of McCarthyism. 

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Protect Historically Accurate Casting

A black-and-white drawing of a Black man, barefoot and wearing a short white belted tunic, blowing on a musical instrument that looks like a shofar to me. He's carrying a tall staff and stands among flowers. He has a piece of cloth tied around his head that blows in the breeze around him.
Detail from the Kalender of the Shepherdes, 1490s, Paris

Well, they’re at it again! This time they want to take away our precious American and European heritage with their aggressively political casting. The snowflakes are whining about diversity (as usual). They’re insisting that historical films, TV shows, and plays be cast with no regard to historical accuracy.

They’re insisting that shows about Western history be cast with all white actors.

All jokes aside, whatever era in western history in which your production is set, I assure you that people of color were there. “Historical accuracy” is not an excuse for turning away BIPOC actors; in fact, historical accuracy should compel you to cast them.

The reason people believe there were no BIPOC in certain historical eras is because there are so few BIPOC in historical plays, films, and TV shows. Refusing to cast BIPOC, or relegating them to servant roles or stereotypes, just shows the world that the only dramaturgy you’ve done is on Netflix.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Cheddar Man. The earliest skeletal remains that have been found intact in England belong to “Cheddar Man,” a mesolithic skeleton found in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset. DNA testing revealed that he had dark skin and blue eyes. Cheddar Man lived 10,000 years ago. White skin only developed about 8000 years ago, almost certainly a mutation that was likely genetically successful due to its increased ability to absorb vitamin D in areas of the world with less sunshine. Yes, white people: If Northern Europe had more sunshine, we would all still have dark skin.

Roman-occupied Britain. Many people of African descent came to Britain as Romans with the occupation. Two notable examples of the archaeological evidence are the Beachy Head Lady and the wealthy Ivory Bangle Lady.

A painting of the face of a young Black woman facing outward.
A reconstructed image of the beautiful and wealthy “Ivory Bangle Lady.” Wikipedia has images of the grave goods with which she was buried, including a hand mirror (!!!) and a blue glass jar in addition to the eponymous ivory bangles and more jewelry.

The Knights of the Round Table. One of the Knights of the Round Table was Black– Sir Morien. In the tale of Sir Morien, written in Middle Dutch in the 13th century, Sir Morien is described repeatedly as “black” of skin and hair, and repeatedly called “the Moor.” Morien’s praises are sung throughout the tale as one would expect from the genre; he’s as skilled a fighter as Lancelot, handsome, brave, and, although young, taller than all the other Knights of the Round Table. In the tale, Sir Morien is searching for his father, Sir Aglavale, who had pledged himself to Morien’s mother, an unnamed Moorish princess, and then disappeared before Morien was born. Eventually Morien locates Aglavale, who returns with him, accompanied by Sir Lancelot and Sir Gawain, to “the Moorish lands” to wed Sir Morien’s mother. No one seems to find anything unusual about white Sir Aglavale marrying a Black Moorish woman in a tale written in 13th century Europe.

The head of a Black man wearing a chain mail coif. The statue's nose is slightly damaged.
Detail of a statue thought to be Sir Morien, brought to Magdenburg Dom and called Saint Maurice– also Black— in the 1220s.

Feirefiz. Another Arthurian legend written in 13th century Europe is Parzival, written in Middle High German by Wolfram von Eschenbach, in which the main character, Parzival, has a Black half-brother, Feirefiz. Feirefiz and Parzival share a white father, Gahmuret, but Feirefiz’s mother is Belacane, queen of the fictional Moorish nation of Zazamanc. Feirefiz travels to Europe with a huge Saracen army to find his father, but meets his brother instead. Feirefiz cannot see the Grail because he’s not a Christian, but only agrees to convert after determining it will help him “in love.” He marries the Grail bearer, Repanse de Schoye.

It’s not at all surprising that these 13th century Europeans would be familiar with Moors. Why?

Al-Andalus. Most of the Iberian Peninsula, which now comprises both Spain and Portugal, as well as a bit of southern France, had already been under Moorish rule for 500 years by the time the tale of Sir Morien was written. The Moorish Kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula was called “Al-Andalus.” Portugal regained its independence in the mid-13th century, but most of Spain would continue to be under Moorish rule for another 200 years. For seven hundred years, most of the Iberian Peninsula and a slice of southern France were ruled by Muslim Moors. And before you jump in to claim that these were all light-skinned Amizigh, the art of the period begs to differ, showing a range of skin tones that include both light-skinned people and people who are unmistakeably Black.

Four Asian archers in armor, all facing to one side as they fire arrows at an unseen enemy.
Mongol archers painted in 1305 by Rashid al-Din.

The Mongol Invasion of Europe. This is a special valentine for the Witcher fanboys LIVID at the suggestion that Witcher 3 was too white, and LIVID that the Netflix series cast a few BIPOC actors: The Mongol Invasion of Europe. The Mongols were all over Eastern Europe in the 13th century including Poland, so your “Witcher is set in medieval Poland so diversity is solely political and unrealistic” argument dies in the dust, if it’s even still alive after everyone asked you where elves and giant spider monsters were in medieval Poland. Also for the Witcher crew: Black Madonnas.

Left: The Virgin Mary holds the baby Jesus, who raises his hand in blessing. Both Mary and Jesus have Black skin and hair. Mary holds a scepter in her right hand, and both are wearing golden crowns and golden robes. Right: The same image, but both Mary and Jesus have been repainted to look like white people.
The famous Black Madonna of Chartes Cathedral was repainted white in a controversial 2014 restoration. Most Black Madonnas have been left intact, apart from a few that were repainted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Black Madonnas of Europe. Hundreds of medieval European paintings and statues depict the Madonna and child with dark skin. One of the most famous is the Madonna of Częstochowa in Poland. Starting in the early 19th century, white people began strenuously working to “prove” that the Black Madonnas were not “intentionally” Black, an activity that continues to this day. Wikipedia flatly states that there is a “wide consensus” among scholars that the dark skin was “unintentional.” Apart from the obvious– no, there is nothing like a “wide consensus”– assumptions such as “Mary must conform to a post-medieval definition of ‘white’ to have meaning to medieval European Catholics” is preposterous. Many of the Black Madonnas are reputed to have been painted by St. Luke himself as he sat with Mary. Whether or not this is true is far less important than the fact that medieval European Catholics believed it, and venerated their Black Madonnas as faithful depictions of the Virgin and child. The face they prayed to in Church, the face they held in their hearts as they heard the words “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women,” was Black.

Islam in America. Islam was in the Americas before Protestantism even existed. Many Africans who were enslaved in the Americas were literate Muslims, including Omar ibn Said, who wrote an autobiography about his life as a slave in Arabic.

Three trumpeters, all facing left. They're all on horseback, and their trumpets bear the standard of Henry the 8th. The middle trumpeter is Black.
Scholars agree that this image from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll almost certainly depicts John Blanke.

John Blanke. Blanke was a Black trumpeter in the court of Henry VIII. He played at the funeral of Henry VII and at the coronation of Henry VIII. Records exist of his marriage and of his request for a raise. The king doubled his pay. Tudor London had a thriving Black population, many of whom married white Londoners. Click here for an article about the book Black Tudors: The Untold Story

Indians in London. There’s documented history that people from the Indian subcontinent lived in London beginning in the 16th century. A man called Suleman Noor was buried in Westminster in 1550. An Indian man named Samuel Munsur married a woman called Jane Johnson in 1613. There’s much more.

Abraham Pearse and John Pedro. Pearse was almost certainly a Black Pilgrim, and John Pedro was definitely Black. Click here to learn more about the Abraham Pearse controversy, which features white people claiming the “prestige” and “fun” of being descended from Pilgrims was “ruined” if their ancestor was Black, and subsequent DNA tests that focused only the Y chromosome, carefully avoiding tests of Pearse’s matrilineal line. Test results showed that Pearse’s father was European, and the white Pearse descendents claimed a victory for white supremacy. They seem nice. To this day no one has tested Abraham Pearse’s matrilineal line.

Lemuel Haynes. He was a Black Puritan who became the first ordained African-descended person in America. He was a Minuteman and an abolitionist as well. Read more about him in this book.

A Black man in spectacular full armor.  His helmet is off, so you can see his bearded face. He holds his sword in his left hand and a standard in his right. His body is angled away, but he looks straight out at the viewer.
This isn’t related to the text; I just really like it. “The Black Knight” by Hans Krell, 16th century Germany.

Zipporah Potter Atkins. Zipporah Potter Atkins, a free Black woman, owned land in colonial Boston. Click here to learn more about her.

Colonel Tye. The most feared and respected guerilla commander of the Revolutionary War was Colonol Tye, a Black man (formerly Titus Cornelius) who took the British Army up on its offer to enslaved men— escape slavery and come fight for the Loyalists, who will pay you and see that you remain free. The unit he commanded focused on enslavers– including his own former master. They were known for hitting hard and fast, eliminating the Patriot target and liberating the people he had enslaved. The British paid him well for this, and as the war went on, his unit was given increasingly important missions. By 1780, he was a major force in the war, raiding militias and escaping with prisoners and plunder virtually undetected and with few casualties.

The Harlem Hellfighters.The 369th Regiment of the US Army was one of several Black units in WWI. These young men first went to France in 1918, and soon distionguished themselves as fighters and as ambassadors of Black American culture; introducing jazz to the French. They saw more time on the front lines than any other American unit, and suffered horrific casualties, losing half the regiment. When they returned home in 1919, they were given a parade down Fifth Avenue to celebrate their heroic deeds.

Speakeasies. To speak to a Bay Area controversy of old, there were many people of color in speakeasies. Even in segregated clubs, they were there as employees. White New Yorkers flocked to Harlem speakeasies to see their unparalleled performers. Many speakeasies that were known as “black and tan clubs”– clubs that welcomed patrons of all races– became important centers for the development of jazz and remained open for decades, such as the Sunset Cafe in Chicago and the Black and Tan Club in Seattle. Black-and-tan clubs were in cities all over the US.

There’s so much more that I didn’t include here. I have a lot about trans and genderqueer people. I have a lot about women. I have a lot more in general. Native people fought in WWI. The most decorated unit of WWII was the 442nd, made up of Japanese Americans, and remains the most decorated unit of its size in US military history. Viking shieldmaidens were real. One third of pirates in the Caribbean were Black. The oldest human culture that left written records had transgender priestesses and taught that the goddess Inanna could bestow any one of several genders on people to match their “hearts.” The world’s first known author was an Akkadian priestess, Enheduanna. I’ve now spent about a bazillion hours on this post, and I have to force myself to stop. But there’s so much more.

If you don’t see something here, that doesn’t mean BIPOC weren’t there. BIPOC have been erased from history, both through negligence and through deliberate malice. Time to set the historical record straight.

If you need something you don’t see here, I have reasonable rates for dramaturgy. Head over to Melissa Hillman Consulting to learn more. If you’re an artist who needs evidence to take to a gatekeeper who has told you that you won’t be considered for a project because “it wouldn’t be historically accurate,” I will work pro bono to get the information you need into your hands. 

Parts of this post were originally patron-only content on Patreon. Become a Bitter Gertrude patron! Your support of my work makes posts like these possible.

“Portrait of a Moor” by Jan Mostaert, c. 1525-1530. The name and rank of this elegantly dressed nobleman have been lose to time, but we do know that he was a courtier in the court of Margaret of Austria, the Duchess of Savoy and Governor of the Habsburg Netherlands. The symbol on his hat means he made a Christian pilgrimage, popular with the court at that time, to venerate the Virgin Mary.
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REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Seeing Place, NYC

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

While this pandemic is, as the youngsters say, for the birds (my imaginary youngsters are all living in 1943), one of its silver linings is the accessibility of performances all over the world. As a Californian, I would have had no access to a production in New York. Now it’s as easy as clicking a link.

Artists always find a way. You can’t stop art, and the supposed “death of theatre” has been breathlessly reported many times, with the cause of death listed first as radio, then film, television, and, of course, the internet. Art is life, and life– according to the sage Jeff Goldblum– finds a way.

So I was excited to see what The Seeing Place Theater in New York had done to make Midsummer, often a very physical show, work on the Zoom platform. I know many people decry Zoom-based theater and long for a return to in-person shows. I long for in-person shows as well, but the creativity artists are showing as they play with this new format is, honestly, delightful.

Pictured; the logo of The Seeing Place Theater, white lettering on a black background, accompanied by a white S-curve with a blue eye in both parts of the curve.

The Seeing Place’s Midsummer is a small-cast show with each actor playing multiple roles. TSP utilizes animation, designed by Erin Cronican and Brandon Walker, as costuming, and while its execution was not always perfect, it was a lot of fun to see. The standout effect was Bottom’s animated ass head, which was a lot of fun. The fairy ensemble– Moth, Mustardseed, Peaseblossom– were animated fairies with the actors’ faces. Major character fairies like Titania & Oberon had animated effects that gave their eyes, hair, and/or faces magical elements. Again, the technology wasn’t perfect, but I would have killed to have the ability to make lightning shoot out of a fairy’s eyes in any of my live productions of Midsummer.

The actors appear in individual squares against a magical forest background. Puck is wearing a black lace shirt and Oberon has lightning shotting out of his eyes. Titania wears a flower crown. Two of the three minor fairies appear as tiny, flying fairies with the actors' faces. The third is human-sized with digital fairy makeup.

Pictured from left to right: Top row: Jon L. Peacock as Puck, Erin Cronican as Peaseblossom, and William Ketter as First Fairy. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Moth, Laura Clare Browne as Titania, and Brandon Walker as Oberon.

One thing that’s challenging for some actors is code switching from theater acting to camera work, especially the monologue-like format of Zoom theater. Most of the TSP actors had this down, but the star of the show was co-director Erin Cronican, who played both Helena and Peter Quince. Her character creation and immaculate comic timing were a real treat to watch. I was constantly engaged by Cronican’s performance, and found myself laughing out loud alone in my Ready Room at Cronican’s well-crafted and deeply detailed comic moments. Cronican’s Peter Quince monologue at the top of the “Pyramus and Thisbe” play-within-a-play is one of the best renderings I’ve seen in years. Cronican knows exactly what’s funny about every moment of this play, and serves it up to her audience masterfully. Other standouts were William Ketter’s blustery and egotistical Demetrius, Brandon Walker’s fatuous Theseus, and Laura Clare Browne’s joyful Titania. The adorable Ellinor DiLorenzo had some very nice moments as Hermia as well, but there were some moments she seemed to lose focus, which, admittedly, is really easy to do in this new format, where actors are juggling technology in addition to acting directly to a camera. Perhaps the greatest challenge of this kind of acting is to maintain your focus on the camera when your scene partner is (generally speaking) below it. But overall, the cast was solid and enjoyable to watch.

I’d like to tip my hat to stage manager Shannon K. Formas, who made the tech smoother than most Zoom performances. She had a lot on her plate and pulled it off seamlessly.

The LGBTQ+ theme was evident in the Hermia/Lysander love story, as both were cast with women. Some of the minor fairies and Puck were given androgynous looks, and the actor playing Puck, Jon L. Peacock, identifies as nonbinary. Pronouns were included in the program, which should be industry standard. Importantly, this production is a benefit for the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBTQ youth.

The actors appear in individual squares against a nighttime forest background.

Pictured: Top row: William Ketter as Demetrius and Erin Cronican as Helena. Bottom row: Weronika Helena Wozniak as Lysander and Ellinor DiLorenzo as Hermia.

One of the main reasons I was interested in this production is that two of the actors– Cronican and Ketter– are people with disabilities, and PWDs are deeply underrepresented in theater. Both of them have invisible disabilities, often glossed over in discussions of disability outside the PWD community. In a culture in which PWDs are relentlessly bombarded with accusations of “exaggerating” for “attention,” “drugs,”or “special treatment,” and often go through months (or even years) of doctors insisting symptoms are “imaginary” until finally running the right test and landing on the correct diagnosis, those whose disabilities are invisible face a very specific kind of cruel marginalization.

The fact that the disabilities of the actors aren’t visible doesn’t make their identities as PWDs any less real or important. What I appreciated most about Cronican and Ketter in this show is that their disabilities aren’t the focus of the story. When PWDs are represented in the theater, it’s almost always a story about disability in some way, and cast with an able-bodied actor. PWDs haven’t even reached the most basic level of inclusion in theater, let alone equity. Disability is still almost entirely ignored even just in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Including actors with disabilities in roles that are not defined by disability, in a play that isn’t about disability, is a refreshing change.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable production of Midsummer, and it couldn’t be for a better cause.

A recorded version of The Seeing Place’s Zoom production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is streaming through September 5th. Click here for tickets. Click here for more information about TSP’s 2020-21 season.

Want me to review your Zoom production? Email bittergertrude@gmail.com.

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Autonomy and Disability on Stage: The Seeing Place’s Midsummer

Pictured: The poster for the show depicts the silhouette of two women, facing each other closely, with a rainbow-colored rose covering where their lips meet.

The Seeing Place’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream plays August 28 at 7PM EDT and August 29 at 3PM EDT. For tickets, click here.

Yesterday I sat down (virually) with Erin Cronican and William Ketter of The Seeing Place Theater in New York to talk about their upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opening tonight! The production is, of course, on Zoom, so wherever you are, you can still grab a ticket and attend. I’ll be attending this afternoon’s performance (7PM Eastern; 4PM Pacific) and doing a longer write-up later, but I wanted to give you some highlights about why I’m excited to see this piece and give you a chance to see it with me before the piece comes out. (If not, one of the live performances will be recorded and posted online after the show closes).

First of all, it’s a benefit production for homeless LGBTQ youth. To quote their site: “This play is being presented as a benefit for The Ali Forney Center, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting LGBTQ youths from the harms of homelessness and empower them with the tools needed to live independently.” What’s not to love about that?

aliforney_logo

The Ali Forney Center is located in New York. Learn more about them by clicking here

But here’s what really hit home for me: This production of Midsummer is part of their 10th season, themed around “The Body Politic.” They’re presenting Midsummer as a story about the fight for autonomy and self-determination.

In this production, Lysander and Hermia are a lesbian couple, foregrounding the difficulties faced by LGBTQ youth in accessing the community acceptance needed to support self-determination. You can only determine your own destiny if people with power are not hostile to that destiny and using their power and privilege to disrupt it.

Hermia is given the choice to marry the man her father chooses, become a nun, or die. And while this play is 400 years old, many LGBTQ youth are forced into similar choices. Some legal progress has been made, but LGBTQ youth are still 140% more likely to experience homelessness than their peers. Parents are still throwing their transgender kids out into the street, or abusing them because they can’t perform their gender or sexuality according to parental specifications, driving LGBTQ youth to run away to seek a safer environment. The Ali Forney Center has a waiting list of over 100 kids a night just looking for a safe place to sleep.

While LGBTQ-focused productions of Midsummer are admittedly no longer rare, what is rare is The Seeing Place’s understanding that these issues are intersectional in casting two actors with disabilities: Erin and William.

ErinCronican2

Erin Cronican is also the Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place. (Source: seeingplacetheater.com)

People with disabilities, especially PWDs whose intersectional identities include other marginalized aspects, such as queer PWDs and BIPOC with disabilities, face enormous roadblocks to bodily autonomy and self-determination. Youth with disabilities must struggle against an ableist society that relentlessly seeks to infantilize PWDs, deny our self-determination, deny our autonomy, and frame us as sexless beings whose primary purpose is to provide a framework for able-bodied people as they perform “generosity” and “gratitude.”

Disability is routinely– even aggressively– shut out of discussions of privilege and marginalization. In my last teaching job, I pointed out that we had disability mentioned as part of our “commitment to diversity,” but that we had not even done any information gathering around disability, let alone begun anything approaching equity and inclusion work. Instead of committing to beginning that work, they responded that they would just remove disability from the list.

Disability is almost invisible in discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion, exacerbated by the fact that PWD representation in media is almost nonexistent, and when we do appear, it’s mostly inspiration porn.

So I’m very excited to see how they approach this play with these issues in mind! I’ll be posting a longer write-up about it early next week. See you at the theatre!

Theatres! If you would like to me write about your Zoom production, contact me at bittergertrude@gmail.com. 

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Your Best New Employee? A Theatermaker.

black-angels-over-tuskegee

Pictured: The cast of Black Angels Over Tuskeegee takes a bow, as seen from backstage at The Actors Temple in New York. (Source: TripAdvisor)

This pandemic means a lot of theater professionals are out of work. I know most corporate people think “flaky actors” and “workplace drama” when thinking about theater people, but the truth is exactly the opposite, and now is the time to jump on actors, playwrights, directors, casting directors, designers, technicians and more who have found themselves newly out of work.

Working in professional theatre requires intense discipline, the ability to leave all your issues at the door, and a level of multitasking and focus that most employers only dream of finding in an employee. Allow me to give you nine solid reasons to see years of theater experience as a major plus in a new employee.

1. Discipline, Focus, and Grace Under Pressure. I don’t care what’s happening, that curtain is going up at 8PM, and you must be ready for it. There’s no “Can I get it to you Thursday?” That schedule is utterly unforgiving, and every aspect of your work will be scrutinized in real time by hundreds of people, some of whom are journalists specifically there to evaluate the quality of your work and publish their evaluation on the internet for all to see, forever. Focused, disciplined work is the only way we function. If you can’t work efficiently with a team to deliver excellence on an unforgiving deadline, you won’t get far in theater. We are focused, disciplined, hardworking people, because there’s no other way to function in our world.

2. There’s No Drama in Drama. Theater workers are human beings and have messy lives like everyone else. But our work is deeply collaborative, and we work long hours in close quarters. The type of people who thrive in the disciplined, deadline-focused collaborative work we do are usually the kind of people who leave their drama on the stage. I’ve experienced far more drama working outside theater than I have within it. Everything you’ve seen in the movies about theater professionals being “dramatic” and “flaky” is as realistic a portrayal of our professional work as The Witcher is of medieval Europe.

Anya Chalotra as Yennefer of Vengerberg, a light-skinned woman with dark eyes and long black hair parted down the middle, from the Netflix series The Witcher.

Actually, very few people with disabilities were purchased by the headmistress of Abusive Hogwarts and trained as professional court witches. (Source: Netflix)

Oh, and don’t believe anything Jared Leto says about “method acting.” Actual professional actors don’t “become” their characters all day long off set. It’s embarrassing that this is such a prevalent myth that even actor-adjacent people like Jared Leto believe it.

3. Making Magic Out of Nothing. Theater is woefully underfunded. I tell my students that most of directing is finding artistic solutions to technical problems, and the most common technical problem is lack of budget. If you want something done beautifully, quickly, and exceeding expectations given the budget constraints, you want someone with professional theater experience. If you want a creative thinker who can craft an elegant solution to an intractable problem after everyone else has come up dry, you want a theatermaker. That props person built a 10-foot long sea monster puppet that squirts “ink,” is fully washable, AND lights up, all for $200 in one weekend. They’ll have a soltuion for you before lunch, and it’ll be under budget.

4. Project Management. If you’ve never run a theater company, you might not know how organized and efficient your project management skills need to be just to be minimally effective, let alone to succeed in professional theater.  Let’s take casting as an example. To cast a single season, a casting director needs to know the types, abilities, union status, and availability of hundreds of actors and successfully interface that with the script and with the director’s concept for each role, then manage the audition process, often a combination of video and live auditions. She must constantly manage an enormous amount of interlocking qualitative and quantitative data that all needs to be analyzed, processed, and applied in a rapidly changing environment that also requires deep personnel management and, in most cases, developing and maintaining a network of connections all over the nation.  The casting director is doing most of this work solo, on a tight deadline with little budget. That’s just casting, and I have barely scratched the surface of it. It’s the same level of complexity to produce, direct, manage a set build, or stage manage. The best project manager you will ever have will be that theatermaker you picked up in 2020.

5. Program Management. Producing theater is all about creating programming and ensuring its success. Most larger companies have an education arm as well that requires in-depth management to offer value, service, and– importantly– community. Competition is so fierce for after-school and adult education programs that a sense of community and belonging are critical for both initial buy-in and later upgrading. Look for “Artistic Director” and “Education Director” if you want to go right to the top, but people at all levels will have deep, relevant experience, and there are many companies that have other types of programs, such as a script development program or a teen outreach program. Creating programming for a specific group of end-users that succeeds only when it exceeds expectatons is our bread and butter.

A smiling redhead wearing a black beaded sweater, a black dress, black-framed glasses, and red lipstick sits in a theater with her hands folded in her lap.

A picture of me in my theater taken for the East Bay Express by Stephen Loewinsohn.

6. Personnel Management, Sales, and Customer Service. Anything with “Director” or “Manager” in its title will be an expert in personnel management in the theater. Everyone is working very hard on a very tight deadline, and keeping staff spirits high and minds focused is a basic requirement of the job. Additionally, staffing is a perennial challenge. We don’t have high salaries or stock options to lure top shelf talent; we have to rely on our skills as personnel managers. We are nothing without our ability to attract and retain talent.

While many people already see the benefit in acting training for sales people who must be able to give engaging presentations (hence the many acting seminars designed for business people), what you may not know is how much of our administrative work relies on marketing, sales, and customer service. As a service-oriented field, customer service is a critical aspect of what we do, and every theater employs marketing people with expertise in storytelling– remember, we’re selling an experience rather than a product. But also look for people in development. These are the people whose job it is to convince donors, foundations, and corporations to give them money. Asking someone to just give you money is some next-level sales work that involves storytelling, customer service, and the kind of relationship-building that creates brand loyalty in families for generations.

7. Multitasking. Because our deadlines are so intense and our resources are generally minimal, almost all of us have numerous balls in the air at all times. Even when it looks from the outside like it’s one task, such as acting, the multitasking involved is intense. While onstage, the actor must remember the lines, the blocking (the pattern of movement), and the latest notes they’ve received from the director and/or stage manager, in addition to staying emotionally in the moment, listening and responding to scene partners, manipulating props, and timing out how long to hold for a laugh or a reaction, all with lights blaring in your face and 100+ people judging your every move. Just “staying emotionally in the moment” has several moving parts. In a fight scene, being a foot out of position can land you in the hospital. In producing, there are always fourteen things happening at once, and the need to hold them all in your mind, prioritize, and manage your time well in order to gte them all sorted within the timeframe you have available are critical skills. In professional theater, one dropped ball can mean getting to 30 minutes before the show and realizing an actor has no pants.

 

A young white man wearing a tuxedo jacket, white shirt, black bow tie, white underwear, and a smile. He's opening a bottle of champagne because of course he is.

KENT: “Is not this your son, my Lord?”

8. Improvising and Creative Thinking. With so much in flux and so many unpredictable possibilities before us, now is definitely the time to snap up some quick-thinking, creative, solution-minded people for your team. In a live performance, anything can happen, and you can’t lose focus, bail, or start over. Theater people do not lose their cool when there’s a job to be done, and we can quickly improvise a creative, workable solution on the fly and make it look like that’s what was meant all along. Ask any actor whose scene partner missed an entrance or went up on a line about improvising dialogue to cover– even in a Shakespeare play. Ask any designer or tech who has had seven and a half minutes to frantically duct-tape, rewire, staple, or drill a solution in silence backstage during a show. Ask any producer who was told a week after announcing a season that the rights to a script were pulled because Sony optioned the film rights. If there’s a problem to be solved and you need a creative solution, you need a theatermaker.

A serene swan on a lake. ABove the swan, it says "The Show." Below the swan, it says, "The Frantic Paddling You Never See."

9. But they’ll leave, right? They’ll go back to theater when this is all over? Any of your employees can leave at any time. But the truth is, most of us have some kind of day job, and even those of us without one spent years working a day job while doing theater. There’s no reason your new hire can’t continue working for you when the theatres re-open, and for decades beyond.

The next time your see theater experience on a resume, ask for an interview! You will not be disappointed.

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Disability Cosplayers

Disability Awareness Month ended on July 31, but I have one more thing I need to mention: Disability Cosplayers.

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Not this. This guy’s epic. Follow him on the Twitter machine at @aracknoid3 and while you’re at it, follow the fine folks at @blerdover who were responsible for this photo, which made my whole damn day. Blerdover celebrates epic Black nerds like this badass. (Description: A man using a stand-up wheelchair is wearing a gorgeously crafted Iron Man/merfolk mashup costume.)

You know what I’m talking about: people who pretend to be disabled to take the accommodations that give PWDs access to public areas, events, and services.

One common aspect of this is misuse of accessible parking spaces. Of course I don’t mean the ableist notion that people use blue spaces who don’t “look disabled.” People with invisible disabilities exist and need those spaces. I mean the people who knowingly misuse the accommodation. When all the blue spaces are taken in a lot, I can’t park. I don’t need a space right by the door; I need a space with extra room to get in and out of my car. Parking is a minor issue, and one rife with privilege, since many of us cannot afford to own and maintain a car or adapt one for our particular disability. Yet it’s part of the endless stream of ableism we encounter daily that conveys to us that we are invisible and unimportant.

m2mwgpwygff21

Description: Two tweets are pictured. The first one is from @DanielLaw1998 and says: “Disabled parking should only be valid during business hours 9 to 5 Monday to Friday. I cannot see any reason why people with genuine disabilities would be out beyond those times.” The tweet in response is from @JenLRossman and says: “We’re disabled, Daniel, we’re not werewolves.”

There are hundreds of ways in which able-bodied people demonstrate that they are only willing to provide accommodations as long as it’s convenient for them and as long as they don’t believe the accommodation will increase their own comfort. Able-bodied people will place their comfort over our need so often that people with disabilities must fight every day for the disability accommodations supposedly reserved for us.

For example, ADA-compliant bathroom stalls. These are fairly new. The ADA was signed into law in 1990; prior to that, businesses were not required to provide them. Able-bodied people always say they’ll “only be in there for a minute,” but speaking as someone waiting outside the only accessible stall in an otherwise empty restroom listening to people cajole small children into using the toilet for a solid 20 minutes while I hold it, I can assure you that “a minute” is relative. Those stalls were created to give PWDs access to the public spaces able-bodied people were accessing all along. Able-bodied people take them because the extra space is more comfortable and convenient, not because they require an accessible space.

Having to wait for a bathroom stall is, of course, a minor inconvenience in most cases. But the idea that necessary disability accommodations can be withheld from people with disabilities if an able-bodied person simply wants them is the larger issue. This entitlement is so commonplace that it’s is a feature of our everyday lives. The widespread problem of disability cosplay is wholly a creature of that entitlement.

No one polices who uses which bathroom stall, so able-bodied people, by and large, feel free to just take them without pretense. But in many cases, accommodations are accessed through a human gatekeeper. This has, since the passage of the ADA, given rise to the disability cosplayer.

One of the stereotypes people with disabilities have to fight endlessly is that we’re entitled and demanding, and we don’t actually need the accommodations we use. Every disability cosplayer angrily demanding that they be given a disability accommodation they do not need makes it that much more difficult for people with disabilities to access accommodations we do need.

Every PWD has stories about able-bodied people disbelieving us when we say we need something. Most PWDs have a story about being told we’re “faking it,” or that our mobility devices are just “a crutch” (ironically) and that we would “get stronger” without them. We’re told that we would be “better at managing pain” if we stopped taking our pain medications and just “learned to deal with” disabling pain. Ambulatory wheelchair users are routinely scolded, mocked, or even shouted at by able-bodied people accusing them of “faking” because they stood up to reach something in a store, or because they walked a few steps.

abledsareweird-hashtag-350x350

Description: A tweet from @eirpaC says: “I was an ambulatory wheelchair user for a year in high school, while I awaited spinal surgery. A peer told me I would get better if I just took the stairs, and she tried to block the elevator entrance several times. We were on the fifth floor.”

People with disabilities are routinely gaslit by healthcare workers who insist we’re lying or mistaken about our own bodies, our pain levels, our responses to treatments, or our needs. Nearly every PWD has heard at least a few of these:

  • “You don’t need that (test, treatment, medication)”
  • “It doesn’t hurt that bad”
  • “You just want drugs”
  • “Stop feeling sorry for yourself”
  • “You couldn’t have had that reaction”
  • “You just need to exercise”
  • “You just need to lose weight”
  • “You just need a more positive attitude”
  • “It’s all in your head”

And of course the famous “Are you sure?” accompanied by a skeptical smirk. The nurses and doctors who believe us and treat us with respect and dignity are worth their weight in platinum.

Being disbelieved by family, friends, healthcare workers, and even strangers is one of the most commonly shared experiences of PWDs, especially women and BIPOC with disabilities. When an able-bodied person cosplays disability, it makes our lives that much more difficult because it confirms the suspicions of able-bodied people that we’re all just “faking it.” Even people with obvious physical disabilities or clear diagnoses are told we’re “faking it” about some aspect of our disability– the level of pain we experience, the things our bodies can or cannot do, or our experiences of ableism. There will be people who will contact me after reading this piece to tell me I’m “faking it” about how often we’re told we’re “faking it.”

The newest disability cosplay comes from able-bodied anti-maskers. They’ve even formed a little club that issues laminated cards that pretend to be “official”:

ftba-card-w-watermark.png

The cards say:

“FACE MASK EXEMPT CARD. I AM EXEMPT FROM ANY ORDINANCE REQUIRING FACE MASK USAGE IN PUBLIC. Wearing a face mask posses (sic) a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability (sic) Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you. Department of Justice ADA Violation reporting number: (800) 514-0301. If found in violation of the ADA you could face steep penalties. Organizations and businesses can be fined up to $75,000 for your first violation and $150,000 for any subsequent violations. DENYING ACCESS TO YOUR BUSINESS/ORGANIZATION WILL BE ALSO REPORTED TO FTBA FOR FURTHER ACTIONS.”

Also on the card is an official-looking seal that purports to be from the “Freedom to Breathe Agency,” with a web address. No such agency exists and the web address leads to a broken website. (I used a picture clearly labeled “FRAUD” for obvious reasons; that doesn’t appear on the original.)

This bit of disability cosplay is particularly egregious because people with disabilities are at higher risk of complications from Covid-19, and are protected from deadly infection by responsible public behaviors like social distancing and mask-wearing. There are very few disabilities that preclude mask-wearing, and those who truly cannot wear a mask are relying on the rest of us to keep our masks on. Your mask prevents you from infecting other people by catching the droplets that come from your nose and mouth. This is especially important with Covid-19 as so many people are asymptomatic in the early stages of infection, and some apparently remain asymptomatic, although we have no idea why, making us all possible asymptomatic carriers. The failure of the US to provide adequate testing means that people are waiting days or even weeks for test results when they can even access a test, making it even more difficult to contain the spread as people go about their daily lives awaiting results.

The internet is full of videos of people throwing tantrums as they insist they have a disability that prevents them from wearing masks while the poor, underpaid store worker is just trying to enforce store policy and commonsense public health protections. People pretending to be from the non-existent “Freedom to Breathe Agency” are even intimidating store workers with lies about how they can be personally held liable for enforcing store mask policy. Please note that every single one of these disability cosplayers who claim to have an unnamed “breathing problem” are breathing just fine through their lengthy, shouted tantrums.

And every single one of these disability cosplayers is making life more difficult for people with disabilities, especially the very few people who genuinely cannot wear a mask and the people with real respiratory issues, such as asthma and COPD, who are at enormous risk of complications from coronavirus and are relying on the rest of us to supplement the protection their masks give them by wearing our own.

If people want to throw a public tantrum about wearing garments, whether it’s safety equipment like a mask or a hardhat, or pants, please leave us out of it. It’s difficult enough to get the accommodations we need.

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Disability & Covid-19

It’s Disability Awareness Month, and in the middle of this pandemic, at the 30th anniversary of the ADA, there’s never been a more important time to center people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the national discussion around Covid-19 has been marginalizing, rather than centering, PwDs.

mask.rebirthgarments

All the images in this post promote independent mask makers. This cute design has a window, making it easier for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to understand you! The maker is Rebirth Garments on Etsy.  (Pictured: A smiling person with very short black hair, wearing colorful garments and a face mask with a plastic window through which their mouth can be seen.)

We are not disposable. Although little is still known for certain about Covid-19, people with chronic illnesses and certain disabilities appear to be at greater risk. “It’s mostly just old people and people with other conditions,” is tossed out by people looking to shut down concerns. Some prominent conservatives have even gone as far as to say that the elderly and/or people with disabilities should be sacrificed to “save” the US economy.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this is around pediatric cases. In news stories about the children who have died, “[Name of child victim] had underlying conditions” is featured prominently whenever it’s applicable. I’ve even seen it on a line by itself. “Reduce your concern,” it seems to say, “This child was disabled, so it’s not as bad.”

PwDs and families of PwDs are facing the very real possibility that our access to life-saving medical care will be impacted by ableism. In areas of the country overwhelmed by serious cases of Covid-19, hospitals face the unpleasant task of triage, and while disability is not supposed to be a concern, ableism– like racism, like sexism, like transphobia, like fatphobia, like every other kind of bigotry– is often expressed in implicit bias. We believe we have “good reasons” for a decision that, when more closely examined, are actually the result of bias. When there’s one ventilator left in the hospital and three patients who need that ventilator, “quality of life” and “best chance for a full recovery” can knock a person with a disability out of consideration.

Both the widespread sentiment that the danger of reopening schools and businesses is overstated because most of the people who will die have pre-existing conditions and the implicit — and explicit— bias at work in triage reflect systemic ableism. Our lives are not just considered less important than the lives of the able-bodied, our lives are considered less important than the economy. Which means, at its heart, that our lives are less important than protecting the wealth of billionaires. It’s not about “getting people back to work,” as the US has ample resources to temporarily provide income to people who must stay home and childcare for people who cannot. We just choose not to because it would require raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires.

The lives of PwDs are considered a more acceptable sacrifice than 1% of the wealth of billionaires.

Our lives are as valuable and precious as the lives of able-bodied people. We will not be sacrificed so you can “reopen the economy” and hold in-person classes, football games, or two-for-one jello shot nights at McCovid’s. You cannot have our children to sacrifice on the altar of capitalism.

masks.mverse

The MVerse is making gorgeous silk masks. (Pictured: Five colorful, patterned face masks arranged in a fan pattern.)

The other group Americans seem more than willing to sacrifice for the economy are people of color.

Two of the most significant conditions correlated with serious Covid-19 complications are asthma and cardiovascular issues, both of which are over-represented in BIPOC communities, especially Black and Indigenous communities. The impact of systemic racism on health has been studied for years, yet there is still widespread white resistance to the fact that racism is a public health crisis. White health– like able-bodied health– is considered more valuable and important.

Anything that primarily impacts BIPOC or PwDs is not a “crisis”; it’s a “special interest.”

Too many able-bodied white Americans do not consider disabled lives or Black lives important enough to protect. We were all in favor of social distancing and shelter-in-place until it became clear that the higher risk was borne by people with disabilities and people of color. Immediately, conservatives peeled off and became stridently insistent that the pandemic was a hoax, masks were “mind control devices,” and every healthcare provider and scientist around the world were somehow lying for “profit.” Suddenly allowing people to die to strengthen the economy was an acceptable sacrifice.

People with disabilities:

If you are a BIPOC PwD, you face all of these same barriers at twice the intensity.

BIPOC, especially Black and Native people, are much more likely to live in poverty due to generations of aggressive economic disenfranchisement, making it more difficult to access medical care. When they do access medical care, they face enormous bias in the healthcare system. Both Black and Latinx people are less likely to have their pain properly treated in emergency departments and are less likely to be believed when self-reporting symptoms.

Black people in particular face shocking levels of bias and discrimination while seeking medical care.

  • Almost half of medical students surveyed in 2016 reported believing that Black people do not feel pain as acutely as white people, have thicker skin than white people, and have fewer nerve endings than white people.
  • In 2015, another study found that Black children with appendicitis were far less likely to be given pain relief in the Emergency Department than white children.
  • In 2017, the publisher Pearson was forced to pull a popular nursing textbook when a page teaching racist stereotypes was posted online. The text claimed, “Blacks believe in prayer and the laying on of hands to heal pain” and “report higher pain intensity than other cultures.”
  • While overall maternity mortality rates in the US are higher than any other developed nation, Black women are three times more likely to die from childbirth complications than white women.

BIPOC people with disabilities, especially women, face systemic barriers to healthcare that make their ability to survive any health crisis, Covid-19 or otherwise, extremely difficult.

mask.consciouschange

This little cutie is wearing a mask from Conscious Change, a Black-owned Etsy shop.  (Pictured: Adorable Black girl with pigtails wears a white t-shirt that says “Black Girl” in black cursive and a black face mask that says “I Matter” in white below a white heart with an black, upraised fist.)

Being a BIPOC PwD is an especially potent intersectional identity because white supremacy measures the worth of BIPOC lives by how useful they are to the white supremacist narrative: Are you making money for white people? Are you appropriately grateful to your white benefactors for the opportunities you’ve been “given”? Do you refuse to participate in protests against racism, including non-violent protests like taking a knee? Are you “happy” or “angry” and “rude”?

Nowhere is this more robust than in the white understanding of Black people. White people see the existence of Black people as being about white people. Every Black event, movement, slogan, or group is criticized bitterly if it does not center whiteness. If you doubt this, remember that they can’t even say “our lives matter” without white people angrily denouncing them as “racists” and responding with “white lives matter,” “white lives are better,” “only white lives matter” and support for white supremacy.

The angry and even violent white backlash to Black people publicly stating that their lives matter, combined with the widespread ableist belief that the lives of people with disabilities are less valuable, means Black PwDs face some of the most virulent and insidious bigotry in the country at the very moment when the nation is hotly debating whether we should sacrifice American lives to reopen schools and businesses.

mask.hipfruit

The Black-owned Etsy store HipFruit has a wide variety of masks, including both floral and BLM designs. (Pictured: A Black woman with long, straight hair and an off-the-shoulder top with navy and white stripes is wearing a face mask featuring white flowers on a black background.)

Government Apathy. This pandemic has highlighted the brutal impact of systemic ableism and systemic racism. Yet, as more and more people suffer, die, or survive with long-lasting medical complications, the government is less and less interested in providing relief. The Trump Administration, aided in large part by their ghoulish GOP allies in Congress, is insistent that unemployment and disability should be slashed, funding for Covid testing and tracing should be eliminated, and the CDC budget reduced in addition to pulling out of the World Health Organization. The press heaps praise upon Trump for wearing a mask in public and for making a speech without a single dangerous lie while his inaction and incompetence have caused the deaths of over 140,000 Americans (and counting).

The pandemic has put a spotlight on some pre-existing inequities. But what we choose to do about those inequities is the critical question. Thus far, we seem content with nothing better than comforting able-bodied white people with narratives like “People of color are at higher risk” and “People with underlying conditions are at higher risk” while half the nation insists that our deaths are irrelevant if the economy rebounds.

When you say, “Black Lives Matter,” please remember that some of those Black lives are disabled lives. When you say, “We should reopen schools and businesses because most of the people who die have underlying conditions,” remember that what you’re really saying is “the deaths of PwDs, especially the BIPOC PwDs at the highest risk, are an acceptable sacrifice to maintain billionaire wealth, since we can’t expect them to pay higher taxes for a few years.”

In a nation where months of conservative propaganda has resulted in 31% of people refusing to wear a mask regularly to protect others, , it’s impossible to predict just how deadly this pandemic will get in the US before we have a vaccine– which anywhere between 27% and 50% of Americans say they will refuse, thanks again to propaganda, this time on the standard sources for antivax hooey on the fringe left as well as the right.

There are many things in life that are “risky,” and “acceptable risks” are part of life. In this case, however, we’re not talking about “risk.” We know this virus is deadly; we know a certain percentage of people will die or suffer long-term debilitating consequences. In this case, “acceptable risk” means “it is acceptable to me that these people will die.”

We refuse to be your “acceptable risk.” Allies, accomplices, loved ones: stand with us. And we all need to remember that BIPOC PwDs are bearing the brunt of every aspect of this crisis.

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Anti-Ableism 101: How to Be a Better Ally

953727_necroticpixies_make-it-accessible-or-burn-it-down

Image: The standard disability icon, but carrying a flaming torch, and with this written on the wheelchair: Make is accessible or burn it down. Buy this image on a variety of products at the Etsy shop NecroticPixies

Happy Disability Pride Month!

July is the month people with disabilities express pride in our identities and accomplishments, and work to make the world a more equitable place for all PwDs. I’ll be devoting July’s posts to discussing disability and the able-bodied allyship we need from you. This post is designed to cover a few of the basics.

THESE ISSUES ARE SYSTEMIC. The vast majority of people who say and do ableist things just haven’t yet examined the ways in which systemic ableism has impacted their beliefs and understanding. One key thing to remember in work around allyship is this:

When you’re feeling defensive, when that “BUT I’M NOT ABLEIST, I DIDN’T MEAN IT THAT WAY, I’M A GOOD PERSON” rises in your chest, it’s the X that marks the spot: Dig Here. There is something to find. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Sit in the discomfort. Think honestly and fearlessly about the issue at hand. Instead of resisting them, allow defensiveness and fragility to be your guides. When they occur, stop. Breathe. And then DIG. It’s not your fault our ableist society put those ableist thoughts in your mind, but it’s your job to honestly examine them and root them out.

If a PwD has told you that something you’ve said or done is ableist, thank them. It took an enormous act of bravery to be honest with you because so many able-bodied people react defensively and even angrily when told that their words or actions were ableist. Honor the trust they’ve shown in you by doing the work required. Is it easy? No. But honest self-examination is one of the central projects around learning how to be a better ally.

EXAMINE YOUR EXPECTATIONS.

  • Not every disability is visible. It’s not allyship to yell at someone who “seems fine” when they park in a space reserved for PwDs. There are numerous invisible disabilities that can make walking painful, difficult, or dangerous, and you are more likely to be shaming a PwD than fighting on our behalf. And there are many aspects to disability that aren’t about mobility. Learn about invisible disabilities.
  • Disability is not all or nothing. Ambulatory wheelchair users exist. Many people who use wheelchairs can stand and walk under certain circumstances. For example, I usually walk with a cane, but if I’m going to a museum or theme park, I will use a wheelchair because I can’t walk for very long. The ableist jokes and memes (“It’s a miracle!”) about ambulatory wheelchair users are an example of disability binarism— the concept that disability must be all or nothing. Either you can walk fine, or you cannot walk at all. Either you can see well, or you cannot see at all. This concept does real harm to people with disabilities.
  • Do not assume you know what we need. Once I taught at a school that rented space from a church. I parked in one of the blue spaces until the church complained that all the blue spaces were “theirs.” Rather than wrangle with them, the school generously provided me with a parking space right near the building entrance. The only problem: I wasn’t using the blue space because I needed to be close to the entrance; I was using the blue space because I needed more room to get in and out of my car. No one had asked me what I needed; they just assumed they knew. Ask us what we need.

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Image: An illustration of flags that say, “Nothing About Us Without Us” against a dark blue backdrop with many small icons representing various disabilities in light blue. This appears to be an adaptation of a Women’s March protest poster by Jennifer Maravillas, but if you have more specific information, please let me know. 

NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US. If you’re creating disability-related policy, planning a public event, creating a product, writing a character with a disability, or educating yourself about PwDs, you must center the voices of PwDs in your work. I know this sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s not often followed. The majority of public policy, corporate policy, event planning, and disabled character creation happens with little or no input from PwDs. When we do give our opinions, we are frequently shut down. I’m just one person, but I’ve been told all of the following when attempting to create a more disability-friendly workplace:

  • We don’t need that; we do great with disability
  • Maybe we’ll include disability in our DEI work in the future, but not right now.
  • People know that our program is not fully accessible. They can just choose to go elsewhere.
  • This area is occasionally used by able-bodied people, so we can’t make it disability seating.
  • But we’re not required to by law.
  • It’s too difficult.
  • It’s too expensive.

PwDs have written reams of material about making spaces, programming, events, products, and characters more accessible. There are hundreds of PwDs, myself included, who offer their services as disability equity and inclusion consultants. There is no need to guess, assume, or imagine what we need. “Nothing about us without us.” Just ask, and when we tell you, believe us.

DO NOT GLORIFY “TOUGHING IT OUT.” Once I heard a colleague say about a student with a mobility disability, “They did great! They walked for hours and never once complained. I’m so proud of them!”

This stood out to me because it’s an excellent example of the prevailing attitude of able-bodied people: It’s OK to be disabled, but it’s not OK to talk about it or inconvenience able-bodied people with our needs. It’s OK to come along, but you must never tell able-bodied people that you’re in pain or that you need an accommodation. This “push through pain; never show weakness” is one of the cornerstones of American ableism. I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go into detail here, but suffice it to say, it’s ableist to glorify pretending that disability doesn’t impact us.

HANDS OFF. You would be astonished how often people with visible disabilities are grabbed, touched, pulled, or pushed. Apart from the obvious– never touch another person without their consent– you are more than likely not helping. Any time you suddenly grab another person without warning or consent, you risk pulling them off balance. I walk with a cane, and when you grab my arm to “help” me walk, it destabilizes me and makes walking more difficult. People who use wheelchairs all have stories about able-bodied people who lean on their chairs, try to sit on them, or even grab the handles and start pushing them in random directions, assuming they know where the PwD wants to go.

Always ask us what we need.

And while you should never pet or feed any domesticated animal without permission from its human companion, this is especially important with service animals. We don’t come to your place of business and pet you or shove an eclair in your mouth while you’re trying to give a presentation; don’t pet or feed a service animal while it’s trying to work.

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Image: A raised black fist with the infinity symbol on the wrist and thumb; to the right, the words “Black Disabled Lives Matter.” Source: Amazing artist Jen White Johnson. Go spend money on her stickers, prints, and other cool stuff. 

BLACK LIVES MATTER. Remember that these issues are intersectional. Our experience of disability is enormously impacted by other aspects of our identities. Consider the additional impact of racism, sexism, homo/transphobia, classism, fatphobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of oppression as they interact with ableism. This is why it’s key to develop your allyship by reading the work of a wide variety of PwDs. Your ally reading list for Disability Awareness Month 2020 should lean towards reading the work of Black PwDs. One of my favorites is Crutches and Spice, run by Imani Barbarin, but there are dozens of excellent sources out there!

LANGUAGE. Refer to us as “people with disabilities” (“PwDs”) in the aggregate. Individuals may have different preferences, but in the aggregate, remember that we are people with disabilities, people who use wheelchairs, people with invisible disabilities, etc. Put people first! Please avoid “the handicapped” or cutesy euphemisms like “differently abled,” “special needs,” or “handi-capable.” If an individual has a different preference, use that! It’s not up to able-bodied people to tell a PwD they’re “wrong” for using a different term.

It’s also important to stop using ableist slang terms. “Lame” and “dumb” meaning “bad” are two of the most prevalent now that it’s common knowledge that “r****ded” and “r****d” are ableist slurs. (Also avoid variants of “r****d” like “fuckt**d” and “libt**d,” although it seems implausible that anyone who would use “libt**d” cares about people with disabilities.)

Two more critical terms to avoid are “blind” and “deaf” as metaphors for ignorance. (You can go back through this blog and find examples of my own unthinking, ableist use of these terms.) People with sight-related and/or hearing-related disabilities are not any more or less likely to be ignorant than anyone else. Another troubling trend is the use of blindness as a metaphor in books, films, TV, and theatre. Actress, teacher, and disability activist Marilee Talkington writes powerfully about this in her critique of José Saramago’s book, Blindness, now a sound installation art piece in London:

“The book is a despicable depiction of humans who have suddenly gone blind being herded into and imprisoned in an asylum where they devolve into animalistic killers, lose all humanity and sense of self, all while being ‘cared for’ and ‘lead’ by SIGHTED individuals. . . . Stop using us (BLIND folx) as your METAPHOR for the disintegration of humanity, for your ignorance, for the world’s chaos, for your lack of goodness, your lack of ability to adapt, and for the emptiness of your own soul.”

Disability should not be used as a metaphor for moral impairment. 

THERE’S SO MUCH MORE. My post barely scratches the surface, but I hope it’s enough to get you started thinking about disability allyship!

NEXT WEEK: Disability and Covid-19.

Want more? Become a Bitter Gertrude patron & get access to Bitter Gertrude Book Club, a bimonthly post with reading recommendations about BG posts, current events, and writers to keep on your radar.

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My Patreon is Launching!

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Pictured: A 1948 ad for the Hillman Husky, which says, “New Double Duty Hillman at a low price.”

Hello, Bitter Gertrude readers!

I’m launching my Patreon! My goal is to be able to devote more time to bringing you Bitter Gertrude’s cultural & political analysis with a focus on equity (and back-sass). For that, I need your help!

I have six different levels of patronage, all of which come with access to the Bitter Gertrude Book Club, a bimonthly post that contains reading recommendations related to Bitter Gertrude posts, current events, and writers to keep your eye on. At $20 and above, you also get access to “Words Words Words,” a monthly tip sheet about language & social justice, etymology, writing mechanics, and other aspects of word nerdery.

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ANNOUNCE IT TO THE WORLD      (Pictured: Medieval marginalia depicting a naked trumpeter holding one trumpet to his mouth and another to his butt. Medieval marginalia is full of butt-trumpeters.)

Whether you are able to join or not, please know that I value your support over the past seven (!) years, and my regular Bitter Gertrude content will always be free to access.

My next post comes out in a few days! It’s Disability Awareness Month, and I’ll be writing about allyship all month.

Thank you again for reading Bitter Gertrude! You mean the world to me.

Become a Patron!

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You’re Not OK? Glad to Hear It.

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Thanks, ableism! I’ll get right on that. (Picture shows a staircase with the words “There is no elevator to success. You have to take the stairs” placed on the steps.)

Our culture is flooded with supposedly “inspirational” messages framing nonstop work as heroic. “Never let anything hold you back,” “Go harder and achieve your dreams,” and similar platitudes permeate our culture. People with disabilities are often the targets of it– “The only disability is a bad attitude,” “Don’t call yourself disabled!” and the whole “differently abled” and “handi-capable” nonsense. The worst of these are “inspiration porn”– people with disabilities used as props to inspire able-bodied people.

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Oscar Pistorius is famous, so I feel comfortable using this, but there are numerous memes just like this using images of children and everyday people. (Picture shows Oscar Pistorius, wearing his specially designed prosthetic legs and a yellow and green racing uniform, running in a race in a packed stadium. Emblazoned in large white letters across the picture is, “WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE?” in all caps.)

Who does it serve to pretend that any admission of limitations is a sign of laziness, personal weakness, “giving up,” and moral failure? Who does it serve to frame pushing through limitations without asking for help as the highest possible good? Who does it serve to pretend that success is the natural end result of relentless work?

Who does it serve to tell people with disabilities that the highest good we can achieve is to live as if we are not disabled?

Who does it serve to pretend you are OK when you are not, in fact, OK?

I haven’t posted since July. That’s an eight month hiatus. In that time, my husband and I bought our first house. Just before closing, my mother-in-law died suddenly and unexpectedly, collapsing in front of our son as she was taking him to lunch.  While we were moving, I was bit by a venomous spider, leaving a large, blistered wound that took weeks to heal. I had a stalker, angry about something I had written, track down and contact a number of co-workers. Five days after that, I got a call from my husband’s workplace telling me he had collapsed with chest pains and was being rushed to Kaiser in an ambulance. Shortly after he recovered, our daughter had surgery, and had complications that resulted in her calling me at work and sobbing into the phone in pain and frustration. Then I had an extremely painful back injury. Then I lost my job.

That’s not even everything, and this was all before the virus. Today is Day 11 of shelter-in-place with no real end in sight.

The past eight months have brought me the greatest turmoil and upheaval I have ever experienced. The blog has taken a backseat to all this, and I hate myself for it.

I have constructed my entire adult identity around being reliable, hardworking, and extremely productive. I have been proud of my lack of work/life balance. Even in the midst of the turmoil and upheaval of the past eight months, at a time I was hiding in the bathroom and sobbing at work, barely able to get through each day, I took just two days off. I have answered work emails in line at Disneyland. I have answered work emails at midnight. I have answered work emails from a hospital bed. Our culture is awash in “Never Stop,” “No Excuses” propaganda, and I am clearly as susceptible to that as anyone else.

Yet the price we pay for that is brutal. We shorten our lives, spread dangerous viruses, and live lives that are less full. We work 70 hour weeks for companies that lay us off without a second thought. We take on punishing “fitness” regimens that drain our time, wallets, and health. We pretend that leisure is just laziness if we’re not using that time to work on a project. We even have to make our downtime about goal-setting and achievement. Meditation apps give rewards for achievements. Level up! Get those stickers! NO EXCUSES.

Even in the midst of this horrific pandemic, there’s pressure to ACHIEVE. What are you writing? What new language are you learning? Which of the 10,000 online events are you attending? How many online events are you offering to your community? What are you DOING? Don’t just sit around online, you lazy jerk! What are you DOING?

I ask again: Who does this serve? Who benefits from the propaganda that claims that smashing our bodies, minds, and lives against the rocks of relentless labor is the greatest moral good, and that any less is a moral failing?

Who benefits from a culture that demands we never admit to limitations?

When we refuse to accept our limitations, we prop up an ableist culture that sees any physical, mental, or emotional limitation as a moral failing. We prop up a culture that centers the bodies of able-bodied, neurotypical people and defines all others by their distance from that “norm.”

When we refuse to accept our own limitations, we are propping up an ableist culture that demands that others refuse to accept their own limitations, that frames limitations as laziness– as moral failure.

When we pretend that “anyone” can be wealthy, thin, or healthy with “hard work,” and that any lapse in relentless work is the “reason” we aren’t wealthy, thin, or healthy, we prop up an ableist, classist culture that serves only the wealthy and powerful. And while there are some wealthy people who “worked hard” to “get there,” they did not work HARDER than poor or middle class people. If hard work = wealth, every nurse and teacher would be wealthy. Most wealthy people inherited their wealth anyway.

Our culture supports the lie that anyone can be wealthy, successful, thin, and healthy through “hard work” because it benefits the privileged when those of us who are not privileged are fooled into believing financial privilege, thin privilege, and healthy privilege are merit-based. We are complicit in this lie when we refuse to challenge the idea that constant, unrelenting labor that ignores physical, emotional, and psychological limits is the highest good, and anything less is a moral failing.

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(Picture shows fluffy pink clouds and the words, “It’s OK not to be OK.”)

 

We are in the middle of a global pandemic worse than any we have seen in over a hundred years, and I say this as someone who had H1N1. I’m not going to list the many reasons people who live in a nation ruled by an incompetent, vindictive, childish narcissist have to be anxious. Suffice it to say: We are anxious. We are not OK.

Ableism demands that we never allow ourselves to be seen as “not OK”– not fully able. Because being dis/abled is a moral failing.

You don’t need to have a blue placard or a medical diagnosis to be dis/abled. You may not be a person with a disability, but the extreme emotional and psychological demands of this crisis– or of life in general– can leave you dis/abled. Unable to continue at the pace at which you’re continuing.

Those of us who identify as people with disabilities are right there with you. We understand. And we all need to agree together that it is OK to be disabled or dis/abled. It is OK not to be OK. Because the alternative– limitations = failure– is at the core of the ableist culture that oppresses us. We need YOU to be OK with not being OK to help us shift the culture toward greater inclusion of people with disabilities.

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Stella Young, 1982-2014. Photo credit: crippledscholar.com (Picture shows Stella Young, a woman looking cute as hell in a long-sleeved red shirt, red lipstick, and a light brown bob haircut, sitting in her wheelchair and looking into the camera with a slight smile and her eyebrows raised. The quote appears in red on a yellow background: “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude,’ the reason that’s bullshit is . . . No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”)

People with disabilities aren’t inspired by posters of athletes with disabilities emblazoned with “What’s YOUR excuse?” or the label “handi-capable.” We don’t need “encouragement,” or a lecture about “You’re only disabled if you allow yourself to be” or “Don’t let your disability stop you from reaching THE STARS.”

What we need is cultural acceptance of limitations. And whether those limitations are physical and permanent like mine, or temporary and emotional like ::gestures broadly at the quarantined world::, the cultural function is the same. It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to need help, whether that’s an elevator or a day off.

Every time you publicly chastise yourself for skipping a workout, taking a day off, getting takeout instead of cooking, allowing the kids to watch TV so you can have a break, or otherwise acknowledging your limitations, you are building cultural support structure around ableism. You are supporting a world that sees limitations as failure rather than as a fact of human existence.

Take that break. Take all the breaks. And refuse to apologize for it.

You’re not OK? Glad to hear it, because it means you are creating cultural space for people with disabilities by using your able-bodied cultural privilege to claim space for limitations, to show that we all still have value– and can still achieve plenty– within our limitations.

It’s important to fight for the idea that limitations and accommodations are not admissions of weakness. PwDs are not “weak” or “lazy” if we don’t do wheelchair basketball or if we need to work from home. You are not “weak” or “lazy” if you need a day off or if you don’t learn quantum mechanics during shelter-in-place.

Accommodations are not burdensome. I cannot “work hard” or “positive attitude” my way out of my physical limitations. Accommodations level the playing field so that we can achieve as much as able-bodied people. The accommodations able-bodied need for their limitations are similarly not burdensome. The more space we create in our culture for acceptance of limitations and the natural and obvious need for accommodations– the natural and obvious need to allocate resources for accommodations– the more inclusive our culture will be.

“What’s your excuse?” I don’t NEED an excuse to have human limitations. And neither do you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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