Reading log McRuer, Tatum, Hjörne & Säljö

Reading Log Catarina Schmidt McRuer, Robert (2006) Hjörne, Eva & Säljö, Roger (2008) Tatum, Beverly Daniel (1997)

Crip Theory. Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (Robert McRuer)

Robert McRuer is an associated professor of English at the George Washington University in USA. His book about crip theory approaches contemporary cultures of disability and queerness McRuer draws a connection between the construction of able-bodiedness and heterosexuality. Crip theory emerges from cultural studies traditions that “question the order of things, considering how and why it is constructed and naturalized; how it is embedded in complex economic, social and cultural relations; and how it might be changed” (p. 2). One can see crip theory as an outline from queer theory, feminist studies and critical white studies. What they have all in common is the way that normality is questioned. The result is that crip theory turns away it focus from the disability and instead questions the “normality” of able-bodiedness. The word “crip”, synonym with the word “cripple”, has in a way been retaken and given a proud meaning in the same way as the word “queer”. One can also see the same strategies in terms like “Deaf Power” and “Black Power”.

McRuer uses the binary abled/disabled to show the hierarchy in this dichotomy and other dichtomies. Crip theory turns its focus on how able-bodiedness is created and reveals, as a result of this, its “normality” and “naturalness”. Able-bodiedness is here seen as the invisible norm. We live in, according to McRuer, a system where there actually is no choice for those of us who does not fit into the norm:

Like compulsory heterosexuality, then compulsory able-bodiedness functions by covering over, with the appearance of choice, a system in which there actually is no choice. (p. 8)

Instead of a functional disability crip theory suggests a stance of critical disability which includes an awareness and a possibility of political positioning and questioning of the majority society. McRuer talks about “compulsory able-bodiedness” and argues that this produces disability in the same way as compulsory heterosexuality produces queerness. The increasing tolerance will instead ensure the normative position since the tolerance itself demands subordination from the divergent. Further McRuer claims that neoliberalism and the condition of postmodernism “need able-boidied, heterosexual subjects who are visible, and spectacularly tolerant of queer/disabled existences” (p. 2). According to McRuer neoliberal capitalism is the dominant economic and cultural system from which the crip theory stems and is embedded in. McRuer cites Judith Butler who, according to him, is “identifying the repetitions required to maintain heterosexual hegemony” (and compulsory able-bodiedness):

The “reality” of heterosexual identities is performatively constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and the ground of all imitations. In other words, heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself – and failing. Precisely because it is bound to fail, and yet endeavors to succeed, the project of hetereosexual identity is propelled into and endless repetition of itself. (“Imitation and Gender Insubordination” 21) (p. 9)

In chapter one McRuer gives a series of examples where crip culture is appearing and coming out but before that he starts out with some able-bodied sexual subjects in the introduction. One of McRuer’s examples of the latter is John Paulk’s book about the conversion to heterosexuality; Not afraid to change: The remarkable story of how one man overcome homosexuality. Another example is Bill Clinton’s sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky in the White House:

In an through the Clinton’s confession to the nation and apology to his wife and daughter, in and through the impeachment and its coverage, “proper” (married, monogamous) heterosexuality was restored and made visible – ironically, not unlike the way in which “natural” heterosexuality was restored in and through the ex-gay campaigns. (p. 14)

McRuer uses all kind of contemporary events to strengthen his theory. It is evidently that he strives for his theory to be firmly rooted in the material world – in the world of popular culture soap operas, films and literature.

Coming out crip is about admitting and accepting the queerness. McRuer refers to Gloria Anzaldúa who writes in The bridge called my back: Writings by radical women of colour:

“we are the queer groups, the people that don’t belong anywhere, not in the dominant world nor completely within our own respective cultures. Combined we cover so many oppressions. But the overwhelming oppression is the collective fact that we do not fit, and because we do not fit we are a threat” (“La prieta” 209) (p. 37)

An example of coming out crip is the Mumbai protest on the Fourth World Social Forum where disabled activists expressed how they had been marginalized. On the activists banners one could read “we do not feel we belong here” p. 48) and at the same time it was a fact that “only three hundred of the expected two thousand disabled participants were able to attend the WSF in Mumbai” (p. 47).

McRuer also uses himself as an example of coming out crip. On a conference in Maastricht 2004 he came out as HIV-positive (though he was actually not), wearing a t-shirt with the text “HIV POSITIVE”. He presented at the same time a paper on South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and “wanted to draw attention to the politics of looking into queer and disabled bodies” (p. 53).

So what is crip theory more specifically? McRuer answers himself that crip theory is a theoretical intervention and perhaps a love letter. In the end of the first chapter he points out that “a disabled world is possible and desirable” (p. 71). As I understand it crip theory might function as another perspective, as another way of thinking and watching. McRuer puts it this way:

Crip theory might function as a body of thought, or as a thought about bodies, that allows for assertions like the following: if it’s not even conceivable for you to identify as or with Brazilian, gay, immigrant workers with multiple sclerosis, then you’re not yet attending to how bodies and spaces are being materialized in the cultures of upward redistribution we currently inhabit. (p. 76)

In chapter two McRuer describes the case of Sharon Kowalski. After a car accident she was denied to go home since her spouse, Karen Thompson, was not seen as her first (and natural) choice of guardian. By this example McRuen questions marriage and domesticity. His conclusion is a paradox; gay marriage both works against and for disability. As I read and understand McRuer more expansive and democratic spaces are needed. The present guardian of Kowalski, Karen Thompson, links as McRuer writes “her struggle to the struggles of others” and he means that disability activists like her and others continue to shape fluid and critical identities. From this viewpoint straight ideologies of domesticity can be questioned.

Also the composition of writing at university level can be questioned. McRuer refers to Ralph Cintron who describes it as “a discourse of measurement” (p. 147) and labels it as especially in the exclusionary institutional forms “highly routinized” (p. 147) and controlled by an “ordering agent” (p. 147). So even here we are, according to McRuer, striving for the idealized conception of family life, repeating idealized patterns over and over again and writing straight compositions that secure the hetereosexual and able-bodied identity. Instead of finding new ways of perspectives and critical thoughts, or mirroring our own life’s and experiences, we are reproducing what we all know is the goal. “The institutions in our culture that produce and secure a heterosexual identity also work to secure an able-bodied identity” McRuer claims. McRuer also means that the instructions for composition are streamlined and routinely taught by adjuncts or graduate students with low pay. We are, according to McRuen, not all queer or disabled. Nevertheless there are, he suggests, “moments when we are all queer/disabled” (p. 157). McRuer wants us, with the words of Donna J. Haraway, to strive for “permanently partial identities” (p. 159) and to join “partial views” (p. 159).

With McRuer’s crip theory nothing is fully innocent and everything can be questioned. I sense that the author does not want to put down any theory or framework permanently. The theory itself must all the time be questioned and relived over and over again. As I understand McRuer he wants disability – and democracy – to come.

Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? (Beverly Daniel Tatum)

Beverly Daniel Tatum is President of Spelman College and was before that dean as well as Professor of Psychology at Mount Holyoke College in USA. Throughout her book Tatum refers to racial identity meaning a group of people that is socially defined on the basis of physical criteria. Is there in our time a need for a book about racism? Tatum explains her perception of the need like this:

"There is always someone who hasn’t noticed the stereotypical images of people of color in the media, who hasn’t read the newspaper articles about documented racial bias in lending practices among well-known banks, who isn’t aware of the racial tracking pattern at the local school, who hasn’t seen the reports of rising incidents of racially motivated hate crimes in America – in short someone who hasn’t been paying attention to issues of race. But if you are paying attention, the legacy of racism is not hard to see, and we are all affected by it." (p. 3)

Tatum refers to Wellman’s conception of racism as a “system of advantages based on race” (p. 7) and states that there is a clear distinction between racism and prejudice. Prejudice is with Tatum’s own words “one of the inescapable consequences of living in a racist society” (p. 6). She resembles the assumed inferiority of people of color with smog in the air and claims that this smog creates the conditions for prejudice:

"If we live in an environment in which we are bombarded with stereotypical images in the media, are frequently exposed to the ethnic jokes of friends and family members, and are rarely informed of the accomplishments of oppressed groups, we will develop the negative categorization of those groups that form the basis of prejudice. (p. 6)"

The next step, according to Tatum, is that both people of color and whites develop these categorizations, a process that she calls internalized oppression. None of us are free from prejudices since they are, as Tatum writes, “an integral part of our socialization”. If we are living with smog in the air we have to breathe it. But Tatum does not stop here, she believes that every person can do something about the prejudices surrounding us; “we may not have polluted the air, but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up” (p. 6). I personally believe that prejudices constitutes the development and the system of racism and I think that the parable with smog in the air is very telling since we cannot ever be sure if we have internalized them or not. So, therefore we need to look into the system of race, the different rules and settings and possibilities for people of color and white. Because these things we actually can see, if we look carefully enough. Tatum calls the systematic advantages of being white for “White privilege” (p. 8), a privilege that is strongly connected to power. According to Tatum both white and people of color can be racists, as long as the definition stays with racial prejudice. But, if one “define racism as a system of advantage based on race”, Tatum writes, “the answer is no”. According to this definition people of color cannot be racists since they do not benefit from the system itself. White people, on the other hand, do benefit, intentionally or not, from the system.

Racism as a system of advantage - comments from Annaliina

Tatum differs between passive and active racism. Passive racism can with Tatum’s words be illustrated with “standing still on the walkway” and mean laughing halfheartedly to a racist joke or not challenging an unfair system. Active racism is, means Tatum for many white people a hood-wearing Klan member. The question for Tatum, though, is how white people can move on from either passive or active racism to active antiracism.

In chapter two Tatum explores the complexity of identity; she refers to Charles Cooley and points out that other people are the mirror in which we see ourselves. Apart from this each one of us also have a historical identity, we are all part of a family tree and beyond that a history through the centuries. When referring to Erik Eriksson Tatum states that “the social, cultural, and historical context is the ground in which individual identity is embedded” (p. 19). A conclusion of this is that we all of us have multiple identities which narrate our life stories; “highlighting the intersections of gender, class, religion, sexuality, race, and historical circumstance” (p. 20). Tatum claims that when the areas where a person is member of the dominant and/or advantaged group the categories is usually not mentioned or highlighted. They are instead taken for granted. This means that a person usually does not specifically mention that he or she is white, heterosexual and a Christian Protestant. Tatum refers to Eriksson again who describes this as the inner experience and outer circumstance being in harmony with one another. “The aspect of identity that is the target of other’s attentions and subsequently of our own, often is that which sets us apart as exceptional or “other””, writes Tatum, and I think she stresses an important factor considering identity development here. But, most of us, according to Tatum, belong to both dominant and targeted identities. Tatum refers to Audre Lorde who describes the American norm like “a white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure” (p. 22) and comparing with this norm are many other identities, of course, targeted. Connected with the dominant groups is the conception of power:

"For example, Blacks have historically been characterized as less intelligent than Whites, and women have been viewed as less emotionally stable than men. The dominating group assign roles to the subordinates that reflect the latter’s devalued status, reserving the most highly valued roles int the society for themselves. Subordinates are usually said to be innately incapable of being able to perform the preferred roles. To the extent that the targeted group internalizes the images that the dominant group reflects back to them they may found it difficult to believe in their own ability."(p. 23)

For me this is an interesting issue to reflect upon in the educational system. Refusing school or refusing to learn can be about not belonging, not fitting in and eventually about giving up. “To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect your integrity causes a major loss of self. The only alternative is to not-learn and reject their world.” (Tatum citing Herbert Kohl, p. 26).

In order to go from passive or active racism to active antiracism Tatum means that we, all of us, must develop our own ethnic identity. In my case it is a white identity. One of Tatum’s students reacted on this with the words “I’m not ethnic, I’m just normal” (p. 93). “Each person”, writes Tatum, “must become aware of his or her Whiteness, accept it as personally and socially significant, and learn to feel good about it, not in the sense of a Klan member’s “White pride”, but in the context of a commitment to a just society” (p. 94). The process of developing this just white identity goes, according to Tatum, through several phases – from contact with this reality to autonomy. The level after contact calls Tatum disintegration and it is marked by a growing awareness of racism and the turning point is when I as a white person sees “firsthand how racism can operate” (p. 96). I remember an exchange I took part of between my University in Jönköping, Sweden and the University of Cienfuego on Cuba. My partner teacher, Nereyda Moya, was asked how she felt about Fidel Castro and she answered; “Me, I have won everything. I am poor, black and a woman.” This utterance shows strongly how her different identities in her own sense were not part of the advantaged group.

Tatum means that the pressure to ignore racism is so strong and it is easy to slip back to silence, not acting or thinking. Many white people, Tatum states, sees themselves as individuals rather than group members. People of color, on the other hand, learn early “that they are seen by others as members of a group” (p. 104). The task for us all, according to Tatum, is to identify what we can do in our own sphere of influence interrupting the cycle of racism. Black people, means Tatum, must find new ways of living beyond the role of victim and at the same time white people must find alternatives to the role of being the victimizer. One restore for hope is to find white allies – white civil right workers who fought for antiracism and who do that in our own time right now. I must say that I didn’t know about the names of white civil right workers that Tatums mentions and I look forward to read some of the proposed book titles. Tatum points out that learning about white antiracism history can be a way not to be marginalized and I agree that “allies need allies” (p. 109). The last stage, autonomy, represents “the culmination of the White racial developmental process” (112). A person at this level is open minded, not ready, but continually open to new perspectives and insights. Tatum also argues that affirmative action’s have to be taken in order to change the outcome of different processes. One example of affirmative action could be to favor multicultural experiences since this reflect the society we are living in.

Continuously throughout her text Tatum stresses the emotional feeling that surrounds those issues. We have, she means, to deal with our own fear. People of color learn, Tatum claims, to break the silence in order to survive. The cost of silence is too high; “to remain silent would be to disconnect” from one’s own experience – and identity. But, according to Tatum, the rest of us pay a price too if we remain silent:

"As a society we pay a price for our silence. Unchallenged personal, cultural, and institutional racism results in the loss of human potential, lowered productivity and a rising tide of fear and violence in our society. Individually, racism stifles our own growth and development. It clouds our vision and distorts our perceptions. "(p. 201)

We need, Tatum claims, a community for support and she returns again to her advice of antidote; to focus on one’s own sphere of influence. In Sweden it is not common to speak of racism and races. A more common word is ethnicity. For me Tatum has given new perspectives and also pointed out facts that I know about but not always do something about.

Att platsa i en skola för alla. Elevhälsa och förhandling om normalitet i den svenska skolan (Hjörne & Säljö) / To (be good enough to) belong to a school for everyone. Pupil welfare and negotiations about normalcy in the Swedish School (my own translation)

Eva Hjörne, has written this book together with Roger Säljö. Both of them are working at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and belong to The Linneaus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society.

The political ambition in Sweden is to organize a school for everyone. Through the compulsory primary and elementary school differences between children and teenagers become visible. Differences covering health, social class and background, ethnicity, experiences, interests, maturity and motivation. The work with pupil welfare team is one of the most important functions in order to prevent, tackle and support learning difficulties among pupils. Despite the Swedish pupil welfare system the number of children with difficulties and in need of support have increased. In this book Hjörne & Säljö show how pupil welfare team carry out their work and how different categories and explanations for learning difficulties and school problems are used. The work of the pupil welfare team is of great importance for the individual pupil since measures and decisions are carried out from it . A child’s future success or failure in school is strongly connected to the way the pupil welfare team understands and meets the individual.

School is one of the first institutions in society. As long as there have been schools there have been pupils with difficulties. Children who could not live up to the expectations of school during the nineteenth century were categorized as being lazy, obstinate and neglectful nail biters. Hjörne & Säljö describes how segregation and culling of the poor in the early elementary school in Sweden led to a considering political dissatisfaction and that new demands of a fair school for everyone were risen. During the twentieth century intelligence test played a more and more important role of culling. A lack of ability became an institutionally argument for not receiving education. The authors refer to Forssman & Olow (1961) in order to point out how categories considering IQ were developed:

"Through their results on standardized tests – with the mean value 100 in the population – children on lower part of the scale came to be labeled with the help of categories like “idiot” (IQ under 20), “half idiot”, “quarter idio”, “imbecile” (IQ 20-49), “feebleminded” (IQ 50-69), “stupid”, “inferior”, “non gifted”, “mentally retarded””(p. 33) (my translation)

The authors give a summarize of how Sweden historically has dealt with and tested pupils maturity and ability for entering school. School difficulties, they point out, have always and will always be an eternal theme. No one will ever, they claim, create pedagogical methods that will totally eliminate all difficulties that can appear in education. The important thing is instead, they argue, how the school is dealing with the problems, how it supports pupils and how work models are developed for every new generation of pupils.

The aim with this book, according to its authors, is to enlighten how pupils with difficulties are understood by teachers and those who are responsible for the daily work in school. In the book we therefore meet a long row of professionals like teachers, head masters, school nurses, psychologists, remedial teachers, social workers etc. The ambition, according to the authors, is not to tell how it should be. Instead they want to show how the role of pupil welfare team is function. The conclusions are drawn from this specific empirical study. In the empirical study, which have a micro ethnological approach, the scholars have studied pupil welfare meeting of six schools considering pupils aged 7-12 years during a school year. The practice and the culture of the meeting has been studied - how the professionals talk about, understand and analyze the pupils and their difficulties have been at focus.

Despite the different professional categories it is, through the study of Hjörne & Säljö, obvious that there is a common way of talking about the pupils. Over time, during the process, Hjörne & Säljö find that the team establishes a collective view, a consensus, where they put the problem and the difficulty inside the pupil. The overall view is that the problems discussed are always based on an individual level. Personal abilities are being labeled and I will here give some examples from the study:

  1. Cognitive difficulties, something in the brain, weakly gifted, normally gifted
  2. Not mature, childish, very late with everything, pubertal, on a grade one level
  3. Attention is the big problem, lazy, no motivation, very hard to focus
  4. Asperger’s syndrome, some kind of dyslexia, there is no good diagnose
  5. Lies, frustrated, depressed, well mannered, contrary, very difficult with self-esteem
  6. Is a stubborn, lonely, small, grumpy child, very difficult with friends
  7. Very odd behavior, works hard, steal, acting out, rather dominant and controlling

The authors have then categorized the above labels into these areas:

  1. Intellectual qualifications
  2. Immatureness
  3. Concentration and endurance
  4. Neuropsychological terms
  5. Other personal features
  6. Social relations
  7. Actions and behavior

The learning situation for the individual child is never analyzed, they never discuss how the daily work in the classroom is carried out or how the responsible teachers can meet and adapt towards the child’s particular needs and experiences.. The transcriptions from the meetings are a terrifying experience to read. Altogether the summarizes from the meetings constitute a sad document from the year 2007. History is, unfortunately, reproducing itself again and the reason to the discussed problems are consequently put inside the individual child. The language is meager and values the child by using different categories in an unprofessional way. At only one meeting it is mentioned that the personal chemistry between a pupil and a teacher could be one of the reasons for the default of learning.

In the last chapter Hjörne & Säljö give a long row of suggestions for how to develop and improve the work of the pupil welfare team. For example they discuss the possibility of someone who speaks for the child, a demand which I think is a very logical conclusion, which goes hand in hand with the content of the Children’s Convention. Other conclusions are:

  • The strong tendency to locate the problem inside the child must be prevented.
  • Develop a more detailed and critical view of the pedagogical context – the teacher is not a passive person in this matter.
  • Use the different professional competence’s in a better way.
  • The documentation must be developed and structured in a more professional way.

´ One of the most important advice in my opinion is to move on from the habit of explaining, label and assessing the behavior of an individual child. Instead the authors suggest a sound and clear description of the difficulties. This is maybe the key towards a change for the better. In the conclusion of the book the authors states what they call the epistemic responsibility.

"With epistemic responsibility we mean that the exercise of power of the kind that takes place during the pupil welfare meetings (and in school more generally) must be carried out with a responsibility for how one talk about other people and how their difficulties and ways of acting are being described. A reasonable starting-point is that they ways one discuss also will be able to use in a public context and in this case also in front of the persons and their parents." (p. 159) (my translation)

Eventually a warning finger is held up towards the tendency of an increasing acceptance for neuropsychological categories in education. 10% of the children in Sweden has an ADHD diagnose according to the Swedish Social Welfare Agency (2002). A school for all demands us all. Hjörne & Säljö mean that “development of knowledge on how to organize education and learning is needed so that as many as possible can exist and develop within the frame of “a school for all” “(p. 160). Another important conclusion for me is the matter of inclusion. A school for all must discuss how children can be included, we can never give up that goal.