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Autistic while Black: The Holocaust is my history too #HMD

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“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).

Dr Hans Aspergers was a collabarator who sold disabled children out for Nazi execution

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.

Afro-Germans during the Third Reich. (Photo: Propaganda-Pravada).

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.

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