Autistic while Black: The Holocaust is my history too #HMD
“Identity is not only a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is stories which change with historical circumstances. And identity shifts with the way in which we think and hear them and experience them. Far from only coming from the still small point of truth inside us, identities actually come from outside; they are the way in which we are recognized and then come to step into the place of the recognitions which others give us. Without the others there is no self, there is no self- recognition” (Hall, 2001: 30).Stuart Hall, qtd in New Caribbean Thought: A Reader (Meeks and Lindahl, 2001)
For many years, dominant narratives of Holocaust Memorial Day have been seen as interchangable with the remembrance of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. It is a day that until 2016, I never thought applied to me (as a non-Jewish person) because the pervading narrative I was taught in school, was that it was to remember the six million Jews. And though something need not have happened to you for it to matter to you, I know for many people that term ‘solidarity’ is lots easier when it is relatable. When we consider all victims of The Holocaust, people like me who sit on the faultlines of Blackness and disablement are included.
Though I have never experienced genocide personally, nor have I fled conflict, I do understand what it means to be a product of its survivors – as a descendant of enslaved people, I am the product of holocaust survivors.The framing of colonialism and enslavement as separate from the logic of genocide that allowed Nazis to kill relentlessly, is an example of what it means to treat the Final Solution as an exception. In truth what happened between 1933 and 1945 was the logic of empire imported into fortress white Europe (Andrews, 2022: 40). Perhaps it is true this may have been a first in Europe for white people, but this was usual for Black and Brown people in the Global South (i.e the Herero and Nama Genocide, 1904). Here, I also look to UCL’s Legacies of British Slavery, and the many thousands of enslavers who were compensated for their loss of human property. Furthermore, sadists like enslaver Thomas Thistlewood who raped hundreds of enslaved women in Jamaica. These discourses intersect with my own family history via Windrush Atlantic crossings, my great/grandparents being migrants from the Caribbean.
How odd it is that myself who others see as Black British exists in a state of identity crises, seen as rootless yet rooted, that I can be in Britain but not of Britain. Or as Anne Cheng (2001) writes “racial signification has always come into fullest play precisely at the intersection between materiality and fantasy, between history and memory” (p73). Then as disabled too, I am seen as another stranger, viewed through white supreamcy as not quite whole … I have been here before as a Black person and a disabled person who would have been doubly hated in Nazi-occupied Europe. Through intersectionality and history, I do not have the privilege of amnesia to forget the violent institutions of racial science and eugenics through which Black people and disabled people live.
In her 1990 book Black Feminist Thought, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins writes
“… distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s surivival. […] For most African-American women those individuals who have lived through experiences which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences. Thus lived experiences as criterion for credibility frequently is invoked by U.S. Black women when making knowledge claims” (p276).
For me, as someone that is Black and disabled I have written essays and delivered talks that mesh lived experience with those readings. As Black people, we are more aware of our place as victims of colonialism and enslavement. Yet, I think there is less awareness of the fact that we were also victims of the Nazi Holocaust. In Britain’s Black communities, I do hear murmurs along the lines of “what about our Holocaust Memorial Day?” In truth, we actually already have the 25th March every year as ‘ International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade‘ (acknowledged by the UN, make of that what you will). However, it is not promoted by the state (for … reasons). Nonetheless, there is room for both … but what this also tells me is that many Black people do not see themselves in The Holocaust, which is something we can work on.
Yet, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust also tells us that an estimated 24,000 Black people lived in Germany in the 1920s. After the First World War, the French government sent 100,000 French troops to occupy the German Rhineland in 1920 and about 20,000 were from French colonies including Tunisia, Morocco, French Indochina and Sénégal. The presence of these Black and Brown soldiers in the Rhineland allowed the conditions for interracial relationships (despite anti-miscegenation laws) and these relationships produced many children of Mixed Heritage who the German state termed as the “Rhineland Bastards.” Many were later persecuted by the Nazis, that Robert Kestin says were reportedly taken to killing centres in 1937. As someone who is racialised as Black, I am constantly reminded of the estimated fifteen million victims of transatlantic chattel enslavement. Yet, I am told The Holocaust isn’t “our history” when in truth, it really is (for me, as a Black and disabled person, the Holocaust is as much my history as the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 and Stephen Lawrence).
As an autistic person with other neurotypes and someone who moves through the disability space, more of us do identify with The Holocaust and the victims because we were victims too as disabled people. In 1938, a man called Hans Asperger first labelled a group of children with distinct psychological traits under “autistic psychopathy” then in 1944 publishing a study which would only gain international traction in the 1980s. From then, the term ‘Asperger’s Syndrome’ gained notoriety as a diagnostic for what we call autism. Now, many autistic activists and advocates are rejecting Asperger’s as a label due to evidence that he also collaborated with the Nazis in the executions of disabled children under the Third Reich. The historian Herwig Czech documented this in a 2018 journal article in Molecular Autism. In addition, historian Edith Sheffer’s book Asperger’s Children builds on this, saying the original ideas of autism came from a society that was in fact anti-neurodiversity. This is also stirring a debate in disability justice spaces amid parents and families. Sheffer considers psychiatry in Hitler’s regime became part of an effort to categorise Nazi-occupied populations as genetically fit or unfit – where euthanasia killing programmes determined who lived and who was killed.
People like myself and many of my friends – who are autistic, ADHD, dyspraxic and so on – would have been viewed as incapable of social conformity and the idea of pure perfect people. And in the context of neurotypes like autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia etc etc, if you have it, the likelihood of someone related to you having it is significant. These neurotypes can be considered genetic variants and in a Nazi-occupied society, these hereditary neurotypes would have been viewed as defective under eugenics. Today, neurodivergent activist spaces are continuously discussing Applied Behavioral Analysis [ABA] (basically autistic conversation therapy). This is something that is promoted by organisations like Autism Speaks which has been called a hate group by autistic advocates and activists. ABA is seen as pioneering in countries like the United States and Australia, and it seeks to “cure” autistic people of our traits through behavioral therapy to make us more palatable in neurotypical spaces.
Discourses to Black British history frequently erase the disabled. As someone that is multiply neurodivergent, The Holocaust is a period of history that I identify with. For the first-year students doing CRI1007 (The Science of Crime and Criminals) where I am sure you would have looked at eugenics, I would bring you to consider the role eugenics played in Nazi-occupied Europe in not just framing the state-lead dehumanisation of the Jews but also Black people and disabled people (the latter included the mentally ill and what today we’d associate with neurotypes like Down Syndrome and autism). The stigma against neurodivergent people continues in a multitude of ways, and I still meet people reproducing ideas of our neurotypes as in need of a cure. Not something that ended with Hitler, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust – things that many still view as divorced from a current society. Yet, these ideologies of control that underpinned the Holocaust continue to do damage today.
In the now, autistic and neuro-minortised activists are fighting a culture in science and academia that is seeking to develop prenatal autism screenings. This is so prospective parents can have an abortion on the stigma of ‘autism being defective’. Neurotypes like autism are still viewed as a deficit, and these screenings are positioned as something that corrects so-called genetic wrongness or abnormalities. Daniel Kevles (1995) also describes eugenics as the science of “improving” humanity by exploiting theories of hereditary. Additionally, science journalist Angela Saini and disability rights activist Adam Pearson further tell us that “for more than a century, eugenics lead innocent people – the disabled, the poor, the non-white – to be segregated even sterilised in the name of science. It was a formative influence for Adolf Hitler and a driving force for the Nazi death camps” (Saini and Pearson, 2020).
We are history and history is part of us. Stuart Hall (2001) writes that “Identity is not only a story, a narrative which we tell ourselves about ourselves, it is stories which change with historical circumstances” (p30). My identity tied to Blackness and disablement is much changed when considering the positionality of Black disabled people during the Holocaust. Eugenics and racial science exist today to do harm: everything from the “subnormal” education scandal of the 1970s all the way to the treatment of the elderly and the disabled during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as Spectrum10k run by University of Cambridge. And there is a chance that if the genetic markers for autism existed in the mid-1990s when I was born, that I wouldn’t exist now. I like living and I think the world would be a lot less interesting without autistic and other neurodivergent people in it. The Holocaust, its history and legacy belong to all of us – and this should be uncontroversial, but of course there will be those who contest that fact.
Please do come along to come along to Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council’s Holocaust Memorial Day Lecture on the 5th February. I will be exploring some of what I have discussed above further. Free registration here.
The People’s Oligarch: What the fuck’s an anti-racist royal? #AbolishtheMonarchy
Over the past months I have been asked “are you Team Harry & Meghan?” And the answer is no; despite having nothing personally against them as invidiuals, they are part of the establishment. As someone that identifies with many socialist beliefs (and socialism is not without its critiques), H&M represent everything I am against.
However, as there is no doubt they have suffered abuse at the hands of The Crown and media, it appears to me both were upset they were excluded from the Royal Family due to racism and other things. Yet, they would never challenge the monarchy within the frame of a white supermacist, imperialist heteropatriarchal construct” (hooks, 2006: 250). Still, they have never called the monarchy institutionally racist, and their dislike to racism appears personal not communal, revisiting the problematic notion that it only affects them. Their problem wasn’t about equality for all, only in relation to other royals. If Meghan had not been impacted by the UK’s brand of racism, I wonder if they would have been so outspoken about racism at all, something Harry seems to only have reduced down to ‘unconscious bias’ which seems to be all he knows!
By the by, many fans of H&M, like numerous journalists during the Jubilee, are still presenting themselves as bootlicking sychophants. Here, I see no space to have discussions that frame H&M as complicit in an imperialistic construct (the monarchy), but there are “nice” conversations framing them as passive victims of the media and The Crown. The dominant public narrative is one of fairy tale romance and sympathy to their struggle. Yet, what seems unclear is the public amnesia that these two are still members of the establishment, and living thousands of miles away will not change that. Particularly, responses to Meghan from Black Britain in many spaces is positive, but then remain uncritical of how more Black and Brown faces in high places will not change things. To “reform” the monarchy would be to reform empireland itself. It’s a fool’s hope!
The docuseries Harry and Meghan also showed that the couple were willing to do the monarchy’s bidding overseas in order to avoid the British press (this presumably includes those wretched royal tours). What this shows me is both were willing to continue the legacy of an imperialist monarchy as long as media abuse stopped intruding on their lives. Harry showed a want to reconcile with his father and brother, but it was contentious. Even the fact both have kept their titles shows you where their alleigances sit and that one day, they will be “welcomed back.” For anyone that is pro-democracy, one cannot be pro-H&M when the monarchy still exists (one must choose). The racism Meghan experienced from the media and reportedly from members of the Royal Family is framed as an ‘unexplainable random’ occurence, not the results of centuries of colonial racism wired into the structure. Brown-skinned people being “included” into the white establishment simply reasserts the whiteness in place (Ahmed, 2012: 33).
Harry belongs to posse of privileged white men who have benefited from the spoils of colonial pillage and plunder. This is also someone who spent ten years in the Armed Forces – an institution that has long been envisaged through ‘orientalism and war’ (Smith, 2016: 68). The military was tool of violence throughout the British Empire and continues to be a tool of colonisation now … I find it difficult to see establishmentarians as activists, someone that continues to say they’re pro-monarchy and pro-military while “aligning” with the ‘liberal’ equality agenda. Though their story is interesting (I will be reading Spare), I must question if ‘celebrity activism‘ is the way. Celebrity is not freedom when it just raises the profile of the rich and famous. No less than when those celebrities are establishment and do not show a willingness to leave it. In fact, though the British media are brutal and have treated H&M appallingly, it does appear that if the media stopped and the monarchy came calling Meghan and Harry may go back!
I was also taken aback by the commentary from Black British public intellectuals in the documentary offering a critical analysis of the British Empire, but seemed to have lost steam when it came to linking that analysis to the monarchy itself including present-day Royal Family members. In one case, Prince Harry was referred to as “anti-racist” by author-journalist Afua Hirsch. What the fuck’s an anti-racist royal? This is a captialist institution made up of captialists! Meanwhile, the comment that Meghan looked like many of the people in Commonwealth (Empire 2.0) by historian David Olusoga sent my head spinning for fifteen minutes (insinuating she could reform The Crown). This is a deeply individual docuseries that goes no way to further the debate on race equality in the UK nor the toxicities of the media, but what it does is show how entrenched neoliberal ideology is.
Neoliberal capitalism is defined by scholar-YouTuber Tom Nicholas (2019) as a “political ideology which holds that the primary bond between humans is … purely economic. All of our interactions … with other humans are neoliberal posits, driven … on self-interest.” American economist Milton Friedman (2002) continues that the ‘liberal’ part of the word is “a corruption of the term” (p6). More current discussions around neoliberal capitalism also tell us that the ‘liberal’ in that term is a misnomer (Friedman, 2002: 6), and it actually belongs to the Victorian-Georgian period, for the rich to spend their money how they want (Tom Nicholas, 2019). The H&M docuseries is a text that centres privileged whining with no want to link the formations of colonialism of yesterday to the racism that happens today. This was an individual docuseries centred around H&M’s experiences; this is fine and all, but what was more problematic was the exceptionalism. H&M appear not to be upset at racism in general, but that it is in fact intruding on their lives, somewhat revisiting of how individualism is part-and-parcel of our society.
It is very easy to be pro-Harry & Meghan when they have been painted as victims, but not all victims are blameless (no less than when they’re millionaires part of a colonising institution). Thousands of miles does not change that one day they may go back. If Harry & Meghan debacle has shown me anything, it has only revealed that colonial racism is endemic to Britain. Moreover, oligarchy is not being discussed in this context. ByLine Times editor Peter Jukes says “oligarchy is the combination of money and power, of the state and money and power.” H&M are complicit in an establishment where the few rule the many. In my opinion, the greatest threat to democracy is not just right-wing politicians, but also oligarchs. Plato believed that an exclusive group of rich people taking over was a threat to democracy, and we call this oligarchy. Whilst Harry & Meghan are allegedly among the popular royals, I also worry that their sympathy story opens the floodgates for them (especially Harry) to become The People’s Oligarch.
Public investment in Harry & Meghan as a symbol of British culture worries me. It is smoke and mirrors, and the monarchy benefits from their popularity; as individuals, H&M have had a rough go of it but they are part of a rat-infested institution. As long as H&M are seen as “good royals”, the British Crown benefits – because the monarchy is then seen as good. Regardless of in-fighting, the institution wins. Recently, we saw their sewage floating down the streets through the Jubilee, and colonial nostalgia following the Queen’s death. It accumaltes in stately homes; it gathers in schools forcing their students to stand for the national anthem and honour The Crown; it exists in the deluge of investment into the 2022 Commonwealth Games during the summer … pervading, as numbers of “activists” become knights of realm and Members of the British Empire [MBEs].
During a Cost of Capitalism Crisis (dubbed Living by media), we are being infected by royal propaganda as if ‘being royal’ is a normal thing. One way to solve this pollution of our bodies and minds is filter it out by educating people at every level on the history and present of this institution. There are no good royals, simply many shades of bad. I hold no ill-will to Harry & Meghan as individuals, but the Disney story metaphor that the docuseries projected overshadows another story – H&M as the layperson’s neoliberal and Prince Harry as the oligarch that everyday people will accept – the antithesis to men like PM Rishi Sunak, but covertly equally as damaging where the British monarchy is good for oligarch business, but not for working-class survival.
Now that the Queen has been buried, why not bury the institution? Britain has more foodbanks than McDonald’s restaurants and people act like a brown person in the royal institution will change things? Nonsense. You can’t EDI the monarchy. Throw it on the scrapheap. Nothing about the royal couple is anti-racist when they present themselves as capitalists. Eric Williams’ 1944 book Capitalism and Slavery shows the intersections between capitalism and enslavement, further to Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism and Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. In our anti-racism, anti-capitalism must feature. This power couple are capitalists, so I need someone to tell answer me this, “what the fuck’s an anti-racist royal?” This is diversity wearing the Benin Bronzes; it is EDI in a Gucci belt – celebrity activism “spectacularised” (DeBord, 1967), making the public look like mugs.
In his book Not the Chilcot Report, journalist Peter Oborne calls Britain a modern state with a medieval core. The treatment of Harry & Meghan is testament to this. Their punishment for complaining, for daring to say anything and speak out is deeply medieval in its logic. These incidents are treated as individual while those who complain are disciplined (Ahmed, 2021). What is the antithesis to monarchy? A British culture of equality driven by abolition and decolonial thought at its heart. If we actually took decolonisation seriously, we would see empire at home embedded in numerous ways – including we the public internally colonised at home while the police ‘maintain law and order.’
With abolishing the monarchy, you then start to think about abolishing the House of Lords (filled with unelected officials of all colours and creeds who “make decisions” for us). This triggers me to think about the Cost of Capitalism Crisis – so much of what we are talking about and experiencing now, including asshole landlords and unaccountable power pervades through the monarchy, Harry & Meghan not excluded. And it seems to me, many of those who were criticising the monarchy last summer even up to the September when the Queen died, suddenly have lost their voice and have a deference to power when it comes to H&M. People I know to be staunch activists suddenly forget and become gugu-eyed and starstruck; Harry & Meghan have us in a chokehold.
By all means, both these figures are victims but that also does not mean they are not complicit in other ways. I have found, especially amid Black people who view them as “representation” – H&M are unimpeachable. The liberal left in my experience has been more problematic than the political right, blinkered, unable to see how “good” and “bad” individuals stop us from looking at overarching systems of domination. There are no good royals, but the fish rots from the head down (just many shades of bad and the bar of virtue is the floor). The appeal of Harry & Meghan is they are not William & Kate, Lady Hussey, or the late Queen and Philip. Royal in-fighting only does the work of the institution, framing H&M as good and William, Kate etc etc as bad – but nonetheless united in framing The Crown as legitimate. We need not give H&M more airtime, instead our time may be better used to look at things like The Crown, House of Lords, the Privy Council, Honours etc etc and challenge the legitimacy of the cage.
“My Favourite Things”: Dan
My favourite TV show - A combination of F.R.I.E.N.D.S (accepting that it’s okay to be in my 30s and still have no idea what I’m doing…) and Family Guy (pushing the boundaries of “socially acceptable” conversations to expose everyday stressful situations as simply funny historical ‘moments’ in a comparably very short existence on our planet). My favourite place to go - Aside from my Armenian hometown, Yerevan, I’m torn between munching on Ntakos on the sandy beaches of Western Crete with an iced latte, and taking a slow walk through New York’s Central Park in a February snowstorm. My favourite city - See above 🙂 My favourite thing to do in my free time - Procrastinating: whether through gaming, playing the piano, cooking, or any other unearned leisure activity in the dark playground. My favourite athlete/sports personality - None, their egos get under my skin. My favourite actor - *actress: Melissa McCarthy, actor: Steve Carrell. In combination, they are both geniuses of comedy. My favourite author - Erica Spindler. She is a hidden gem, but singlehandedly the best contemporary crime and mystery novelist. My favourite drink - Bubbletea: White peach with tapioca & lychee jelly. My favourite food - Anything authentically Italian will satisfy 25% of my genes. My favourite place to eat - Pickle & Rye in Richmond: a family-run restaurant with the best American-style buffalo chicken burgers you will find in the UK! I like people who - are upfront and honest (sometimes skipping the small talk is best). I don’t like it when people - treat service staff like second-class humans. It costs nothing to be polite. Let’s exercise some empathy for people who are paid pennies for the amount of work they do for us (and that can go for all sectors). My favourite book - Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World by James Ball. It's been eye-opening throughout my PhD. My favourite book character - Difficult one. Fictional characters don’t resonate with me as much as real people…though Horace Slughorn from the Harry Potter series did leave a positive lasting impression! My favourite film - This is very tough as I have many favourites. May have to settle with the Back to the Future trilogy…for now… My favourite poem - Not so much a “poem”, but Martin Niemöller’s First They Came… is infinitely adaptable to all situations of social injustice, and serves as my moral compass to empathise and speak out at times when others might not be willing or able to do so. My favourite artist/band - Impossible to answer as my taste is eclectic. It can be as wide a range as between Ella Fitzgerald, The Human League and Muse. My favourite song - Another impossible one to answer! My favourite art - Leonid Afremov’s work has a special place in my heart. My favourite person from history - Komitas: a remarkable Armenian composer with a tragic life. He spent the last years of his life in various psychiatric facilities trying to cope with having witnessed the worst imaginable human atrocities during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 in (at the time) Ottoman Turkey.
Avoiding challenge: A strategy for organisational change
Have you ever wondered as a manager or worker what the best way is to avoid having your ideas challenged? Tired of trying to make organisational changes and having those changes called into question. Fed up with trying to instigate something only for someone else to be less than keen. Had enough of trying to do things that will promote your ambitions only to be thwarted by others that just have to add their two pennorth in? Annoyed at extra work being created for you because of a lack of acceptance of your ideas? Are you fed up with the ‘nay sayers’? The answer is simple… don’t communicate anything, just make the changes, and wait for yet another calamity.
The above of course is somewhat tongue in cheek and I am reminded of working with some consultants several years ago (you know the ones; steal your watch to tell you the time). I jest, as they had some sage advice on change management. Two things that come to mind: If you think you have communicated enough about change, you haven’t; communicate more. And find the person or group that needs convincing and work with them, it’s the ‘nay sayers’ that need to be convinced, not the ‘yay sayers’. They are far more valuable to your organisation than those that say ‘yes’.
What we were talking about was major organisational change, but even small changes can have a major impact on a workforce. In our own organisation a recent staff survey suggested that ‘Over 50% of respondents considered that consultation about change at work is poor’. That of course relates to previous iterations of change and a new management team would hope to address the issues. However, in doing so there is a need for organisational change.
I’ve had recent experience of being told that something was happening because someone, in agreement with someone else, thought it was a good idea. It promotes their department, showing them in a good light; they took the idea to a meeting and lo and behold, it is agreed. No consultation with those that need to implement the idea, which may be good or bad, who knows. The point being that it is not just change brought about by managers without consultation that causes annoyance, anxiety and stress, it is those daily working practices of people in the organisation that fear challenge of their ideas. Changes are often made with the best of intentions. Sometimes those intentions are to alleviate burgeoning workloads within a department, sometimes to promote the organisation or individuals or to lighten the burden on students, for example. Often, there is consultation, but it is consultation with the wrong people, consultation with the ‘yay sayers’ and those that have little idea about the impact of the change (for the best will in the world, managers can’t know every detail of the work carried out by their staff). Such consultation avoids scrutiny but provides a thin veneer of respectability. Time and again we see staff queuing up to join consultative groups, but how many of these do so with a view to providing a real critique? Take the idea to a management meeting, get it agreed and there you are, its done. If asked about consultation, then the answer is ‘yes of course we did’. The problem is nobody asks the question ‘who exactly did you consult with’?
It will take a huge shift in organisational culture to get the ‘nay sayers’ to volunteer for consultative exercises. They need convincing that their voice is valued and yet they are a valuable asset. Challenge and scrutiny are healthy and help to mitigate unwanted and unintended consequences.
There is nothing worse than having it done to you when it could so easily have been a case of having it done with you. Next time you think about changing something, don’t assume you know best, by doing so you demonstrate how little you value others.