Guest Essays

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Blackness when Viewed Upside Down

is is a Black lesbian from New York who believes in, writes about, and works for Black queer + trans liberation as well as children's rights advocacy. When he’s not working, Tamir spends his free time studying astrology and watching Marvel movies. Follow him on Twitter .
When the topic of colorism comes up, I’m inclined to explain my neurodiverse experience to people. It’s not a link between the two excluded groups that allistic or lighter skinned people would ever need to make, so it’s often eye-opening for them when I do. Along with the fairer-skinned people of my community rarely applying thought to the way they made myself and my peers feel, most neurotypical folks also don’t consider how their behavior is interpreted by the rest of us. Years of exposure to that kind of dismissal evolved my most maladaptive coping mechanism to something comparable to a Reverse Uno Card. I’m not the weird one here, you are. That said, my laterally processing brain always flagged any “You’re so Black” commentary as off and strange because:
I am not ‘black’. I am not the color of tarmac or pavement. I am, to an eye, a dark brown color, and
In that, I am from a community of variously brown people. And among us, I was a dark brown. But there were darker browns present, alongside lighter browns and some not-so-light browns, and so my brain always found itself in this conundrum of understanding what was meant to be conveyed by this kind of bullying. I understood it was bullying, I just could not understand what I was being bullied for. As I’ve aged, I’ve had discussions with femmes from similar backgrounds who have confirmed for me that they got the joke as it was made. So now, when we as a class of adults, come together to navigate the colorism conversation, I insist on bringing up the ways my neurodiversity influenced my relationship to it.

I try to connect avenues of Blackness and the neurodiverse experience (particularly of Black children) to one another all the time because the Black experience is so intrinsically coded. By this I mean to say that the culture I was raised in is nuanced and ever evolving—so much that we forget how to explain or that for some of us, things may require an explanation.
Another angle of this perspective is the dialect we speak. I fell in love with AAVE [African American Vernacular English] many, many times over, just listening to the adults as they spoke around me, picking out the things they said and deconstructing them to their base meanings. I am from a culture, a people, that have designed so many turns of phrases that mean the same things as one another or are direct antonyms to each other. It’s been one of the most beautifully frustrating phenomenons in my life.
Helen Wallace-Iles, Founder of Autism All-Stars UK and practicing occupational therapist, wrote, “All language has two layers of meaning: what words actually mean (their literal meaning) and what we want them to mean (their figurative meaning) which is where the expression ‘figure of speech’ comes from (when someone says one thing but means something else)...[you’ll find] dyslexic people always ask ‘Why can’t words just be spelled the way they sound?’ while autistic people ask ‘Why can’t people just say what they mean?’”
I’d like to reiterate: I am from a diasporic community made up of several dialectical cultures. My family is a Caribbean-ADOS [American Descendants of Slavery] blend; my cousins span from Guyana to Jamaica and back while my neighbors hailed from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Honduras and Cuba. My closest friends and I simply considered ourselves “from NYC” (and as I’ve aged, I’ve found humor in the diasporic nature of that as well—I am from an Afro-Latinx community in Yonkers which differs extremely from, say, the Haitians in Queens or the Dominicans in the Bronx). I emphasize the distinctions between the people who taught me to speak because it needs to be understood that there is no one way to speak. I spent years grappling with that because of the way my brain processes things.
Colonial supremacists have structured communities like mine in a way where children like me aren’t extended the resources to learn that we’re wired differently until we are an unquestionable disruption to the (allistic) adults’ day. My first three ADHD diagnoses were mandated by my school because of behavioral issues and were presented to me in the phrasing “ADHD impulsivity and ODD”.
ODD is, as it was explained to me, an acronym for ‘Oppositional Defiance Disorder’. When I was 10, a gray-haired lady with blue spectacles who always wore cardigans that basically swallowed her frame whole explained to me that ‘there was a funny wire in my brain that made me want to always do the opposite of what grown ups told me to.’ She associated this with my ‘ADHD impulsivity’—apparently, the funny little wire could work with this part of my brain to make me do the things adults told me not to do faster than I could think about if I wanted to do them.
As an adult, I’d like to assert three distinct points in the way I received this information:
The way we talk to femme children about the parts of themselves we’d like them to change is so insidious. I can wager confidently most boy children were not being told their neurodiversity was some separate parasitic entity successfully dishonoring them from inside of their body. That is a rhetoric we reserve for girls in many ways and it is intentional.
I do not believe an ‘ODD’ diagnosis holds any legitimacy beyond colonial insistence that children should be controlled at all times. The most defiant of children are children experiencing a communication barrier on either their end or ours.
This was coupled with my ADHD. Children are not as naive as any adult would like to think. So without understanding specifically what was wrong with the narrative being set, I could understand its context. ODD was a “bad” thing to have. So my ADHD had to be a “bad” thing to have. Throw in the mumblings about “special ed classrooms” and “medicinal routines” and I came to one definitive conclusion: whatever ADHD impulsivity and ODD were, we were going to put them to the side so my adults wouldn’t behave how they were behaving anymore.

And so we learned to mask.
Or, more sincerely, we did what we could to mask. You see, what had me referred to all these psychiatrists, including Gray Haired Lady, were responses to a combination sensory/stim overwhelm that I had no language for. As an adult, I can tell you my behavior was often a series of meltdowns bleeding into shutdowns blending into another set of meltdowns because I could not communicate “this music is too loud” or “we’ve done too much today—my brain is overwhelmed and I need a break”. I’m also not from a culture that would’ve responded to that coming from me as a child. So in moments of fatigue, I was read as “insubordinate”—my teachers couldn’t get me to take my headphones out of my ears or participate in our fluorescently lit classroom. My family couldn’t pull me out of my room for hours at a time, and to get me out was to almost bring me to tears.
And in moments of overwhelm, I became physically aggressive. My primary and secondary school records are littered, metaphorically speckled, with suspensions for one physical outburst or another. Fist fights, destruction of property, inciting a panic—there are two different expulsions in there somewhere for assaulting a staff member. I reflect on these moments in my childhood with two prominent emotions, the first being amusement. I spend enough time with children these days to know how much chaos I caused that could’ve been avoided if anyone would’ve told me what overstimulation was and how to manage it. But environmentally, while I was “unique” for my intelligence, I was not a standalone troublemaker by far. I learned to fight in these moments because I had peers to fight with. And in that way, the second emotion I conflate with these memories is remorse. I wasn’t presented with my ADHD diagnosis in a way that served me, and I can’t imagine many of us were. I often wonder how many of us just went on to live undiagnosed and unsupported. It’s not an impossible experience to have—it is just so unnecessarily hard when there’s access to alternatives.
This uncommunicated experience many of us were sharing at the time though, I fully believe, also shaped whole aspects of our culture. I wonder how many of the pencil drummers had ADHD. I wonder how many of the teenage boys who couldn’t help but to jump up and smack the door threshold as they walked beneath them had ADHD. I wonder how many of the “Yaga!”, “Open neck!”, “You ain’t want that...” moments were influenced by simple impulsivity. I wonder how many of the high femmes with four inch long nails had skin sensitive sensory needs. I wonder what being tender headed is like through the lived lens of autistic person. I wonder how many of the “Yass”s and “Purr”s repeated throughout a day are tics. I wonder how much of my culture is designed by neurodiverse people, and I doubt I’ll ever truly know. I sustain a belief that many more of us are on the spectrum than we’re aware of.

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