David J. Connor, Ferri, Beth A., Subini A. Annamma, eds. DisCrit - Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education. New York: Teachers College Press, 2015. 288 pp. $44.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8077-5667-6.
Reviewed by Amos Yong (Regent University)
Published on H-Disability (February, 2018)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
A confession is in order. This book appears in an education series of a leading education publisher, but I have no formal training in education. My interests and background, instead, are at the intersection of DisCrit—which is the nexus of where disability studies and critical race theory (CRT) meet—albeit from the specific viewpoint of an Asian American religion scholar. Hence, I bring my own peculiar interests to the so-called DisCrit conversation, and in this case, am peering into and making observations as a (relative) outsider about how this interface is resituated within the educational field. So, what to make of an already dually complex—DisCrit—discussion now complicated triadically: effectively “DisCritEd” (my neologism)?
First, to name the obvious: albeit squarely in the field of education, this triadic conversation is quite interdisplinary. Yes, only two of the twenty-four contributors are not educational theorists strictly speaking—a Juris Doctor and a psychology professor—but many more of them bring a range of other theoretical vantage points to bear on their DisCrit work: sociology, gender studies, cultural studies, not to mention various specializations within the field of education (e.g., special education, leadership, social sciences, humanities). The three editors, however, each work in the area of special education, and their jointly authored essay, “Dis/ability, Critical Race Studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the Intersections of Race and Dis/ability,” was originally published in the United Kingdom-based Journal of Race, Ethnicity and Education, and is the touchstone text, (reprinted as) the lead essay, for this book.
In terms of overarching content, besides the introduction, lead essay, and conclusion (all by the editors), there are twelve chapters across six parts (two essays each): on race-class-dis/ability, on the achievement/opportunity gap, on overrepresentation, on the school-to-prison pipeline, on school reform, and on race-law-dis/ability. The major themes and arguments that constitute the core threads of the book are:
- Observation of black and other minority/marginalized groups’ overrepresentation among those diagnosed with disability—e.g., emotional disorders, behavioral vices, learning challenges—in educational environments;
- Discussion of how middle-class status empowers minority/marginalized groups to a certain extent to resist subordination within educational systems designed to support white families/studies, and to advocate more effectively for their needs;
- Explication of “goodness” as a label ideologically derivative from the experiences of the white (European-North American) majority as applied to students that not only discriminates against students with disabilities, but does so with greater frequency if they are students of color;
- Documentation of students of color having greater educational debt than others, noting that this increases when students of color also have disabilities;
- Elaboration of how teacher beliefs and also personal attitudes about and dispositions regarding race/ethnicity are part of the cause of the disproportional numbers of such students being labeled as having disabilities, and how by extension these also lead to disproportionalities of such persons being perceived to be pathological (at best), being unemployed (or unemployable), seen as contributors to social degeneracy of various sorts (e.g., being on welfare rolls), and becoming inhabitants of prison systems due to criminal activities/behaviors (at worst);
- Assessment of how poverty, ghettoization, and other social environments are correlated with the overrepresentation of students of color to be diagnosed with disabilities and how school reform cannot proceed apart from social reform writ large;
- Nurturance of pathways forward for educators seeking to not only understand these issues, but work toward the transformation of educational and social systems so that our schools can be more welcoming learning spaces for all students.
In short, DisCrit delves deep into discussions of how race/ethnicity-profiling and ability-profiling work together in what might be called a racist and ableist culture. Put another way, our white-majority social world also presumes able-bodied normativity, or does not recognize, as disability studies perspectives have long suggested, that able-bodiedness is only a temporary rather than normative site of the human experience. From this angle, racism and ableism are two sides of the one coin of which nonwhite students with impairments feel the full force (as against white students with impairments or nonwhite students without impairments who both experience only part of the impact).
Therefore, if one of the goals—if not the main one—of CRT is to raise awareness of how all of us, even those of minority ethnic groups (like myself), are socialized or racialized into white normativity, then DisCrit shows also how all of us, perhaps also all children and persons across the spectrum of abilities, are socialized/whitenized and ableized, so to speak. This means that even as scholars of color learn how to “act white” and internalize the norms of whiteness into their own identity, students with impairments attempt to pass or at least adopt the norms of able-bodiedness into their own identity. The result is both that people of color contribute to perpetuating the status quo of white superiority, if not supremacy, and that people with disabilities propagate ableist suppositions and presumptions, surely at the cost of further marginalizing their own experience. The problem that a white society believes is one of “us” (or “them”)—whether our skin color or specified dis/abilities—is in fact the white, racist, or normate conventions that subordinate “us” (“them”) to begin with.
DisCrit invites all of us to be more alert to, and aware of, how we exist in relationship to the many others working in educational environments. Persons with disabilities can now be more informed about how the color of their skin, even if white, enables—or not—their navigation of educational and related spaces. White and other people of color can now be more attentive to the dynamics of ableism at work in society at large and in public school systems more specifically. Educators, whether of color (or not) or with impairments (or not), will be triply equipped (in terms of DisCritEd) to negotiate intersectional realities unfolding in their classrooms, pedagogical theories, and educational matrices at their different levels.
Last, but not least, some preliminary assessment. Those who are beginning to wake up to the fact that Western education is white and ableist will find a treasure trove of insight across this volume to solidify their nascent understandings, cultivate discursive frames for naming these realities, and catalyze ongoing critical, liberative educational practices. Part of what some might consider a paradoxical catch-22 is that to become conscious of whiteness/racism and ability/ableism may also mean being more able than before to name ethnic particularity disability that in some senses is already marginalized over and against the dominant white-able social contract; alternatively, not to talk about these matters is also to perpetuate a racist and ableist social reality, particularly in our educational systems (the focus of this volume). Herein, however, are beginning points, generated especially out of the British and North American contexts, for thinking about these matters. Much more work needs to be done from DisCrit perspectives moving toward the Euro-American margins and beyond to the so-named global South.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Amos Yong. Review of Connor, David J., Ferri, Beth A.; Annamma, Subini A., eds., DisCrit - Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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