There’s nothing like the smell of insults in the morning. I checked my Twitter feed and found this little gem:
Russell Lehmann (@AutisticPoet) July 17, 2013
I did some investigating about the lyrics which @AutisticPoet had referenced and found that they come from Drake’s song “Jodeci Freestyle”. In the last few days, J. Cole has certainly gotten the wrong kind of attention for these lyrics. There are many, myself included, who are upset at him because he chose to use the word “autistic” as an insult. “Autistic” by itself is merely a descriptive word that describes a person on the autism spectrum, or a person with autistic traits – unfortunately, the way in which J. Cole and others use the word can change its connotation to being negative, demeaning, and potentially dehumanizing.
Some in the autistic community are already taking action about this. Anna Kennedy and the Anti-Bullying Alliance have started a petition asking for an apology from J. Cole and Drake for the offensive lyrics. But I think this particular incident is indicative of a larger issue: the severe need for autism understanding and acceptance in the Black community.
As I have mentioned before, the continuing perception that autism is strictly a “white” condition shortchanges Black autistics. Autism continues to be a “thing” that “happens” to others as a faraway, distant possibility instead of a very tangible reality in which many of us live. In the minds of our some of our brothers and sisters, we simply do not exist – or if we do, we exist in the same conceptual universe as what is connoted by the word “retarded”. It becomes acceptable to insult and dismiss us – or to insult others using the word “autistic”, as if it is a bad and horrible thing to be.
These kinds of insults are not new. I was in high school in the early 1990’s, a time period in which bullying and making fun of those with disabilities, especially those of a developmental nature, were considered acceptable and even “cool” by some of my Black classmates. I was not in special education, but I myself was called “retarded” more times that I can count. And along with other Black Aspies who were made fun of for not being “cool” or “with it” or even “talking white”, I received the same kinds of insults and mockery during my formative years. One would hope that things have changed in the nearly twenty years since I graduated from high school. But judging by J. Cole’s choice of lyrics, the negative perception of Black autistic people as well as autism itself continues today.
This is precisely why more education and awareness about the true nature of autism is needed in the Black community. I’ve already said that Black autistics need to join the public discussion of autism as much as possible, but as my fiancé would put it, it is nearing time for “pink slips”. J. Cole’s remarks prove that there is a critical need for us to be vocal and visible within our own communities.
Some Black people with autistic children have already risen up to the challenge by promoting awareness and better understanding of autism. Some of them have created organizations and community initiatives while others openly speak about their experiences raising their autistic children, both online (such as Confessions of an Asperger Mom) and through personal conversations with others. And while J. Cole’s lyrics are certainly damaging and hurtful, I believe that this is also a golden opportunity for us Black autistics to begin conversations with our brothers and sisters to help promote better understanding of autism. Our voices, messages, and conversations can make a great impact and help them understand that we are neither stereotypes nor a distant reality — we are real, living and breathing people with the same shades of brown skin as our brothers and sisters.
Now is the time, folks. We should not let the J. Coles of the world define who we are.
7/22/13 UPDATE: J. Cole has apologized for the offending lyrics. You can find his apology on his blog post here: J. Cole’s Apology